The United Nations (UN) could soon have its own chief scientist or panel of science advisers, the Planet Under Pressure conference in London heard last week.
In a video address to the conference, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the UN, said that he is taking forward a recommendation to appoint a chief scientific adviser or scientific board, as suggested to him by a panel of experts on global sustainability.
“Policy-makers often fail to turn to scientists for advice, or discount it too easily owing to electoral or other political considerations,” he said.
The proposal is one idea among many aimed at strengthening the role of science in policy-making discussed at the conference. Scientists expressed concern that science will not feature strongly enough in discussions on global sustainable development at the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in June. The London conference, which ran from 26–29 March, is seen as scientists’ opportunity to put forward their case on how to achieve global sustainable development. Evidence-based policy-making and improved environmental governance were at the top of scientists’ agenda (See Nature’s previous coverage of the Rio+20 Earth Summit and other coverage from the conference).
Elizabeth Thompson, executive coordinator for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, told the conference that international negotiations at the UN headquarters in New York the previous week focused on science issues related to sustainable development. The discussions covered planetary boundaries of Earth system processes, such as climate change, that humanity must stay within to avoid catastrophic environmental change. Nations also debated new measures in addition to gross domestic product to evaluate economic growth and the wealth of nations.
New measures that better reflect the state of the planet and countries’ efforts to develop sustainability are being developed by the UN Environment Programme and the UN University’s International Human Dimension’s Programme (UNU-IHDP). The team will deliver its first report on the “inclusive wealth” of 20 nations including the United States, China and France at the Earth Summit. They will publish two reports a year to assess national progress towards building greener, more sustainable economies.
Another proposal to boost science’s standing in policy-making is to establish a new global science panel to oversee the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Details of the IPBES, including budget and location of the secretariat, will be agreed at a meeting in Panama City from 16–21 April (See Nature‘s coverage of IPBES).
Scientists would sit on the overseeing Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Development, but the panel would not conduct new research. Rather, it will carry out an assessment of assessments and ensure that the science from the separate panels is connected. “We don’t need another big assessment,” says Mark Stafford Smith, a climate scientist and co-chair of the Planet Under Pressure conference (see Smith’s opinion article on sustainable development in Nature).
One suggestion is that the panel could also conduct a review of global sustainable development as called for by Ban Ki-moon’s sustainable-development advisers in January.
The overseeing Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Development would provide the evidence base for the proposed UN sustainable-development council, where heads of state will negotiate issues concerned with the green economy. There is growing international support for establishing a sustainable-development council and global sustainable-development goals that would set voluntary targets for green growth. The goals would be set for both developed and developing nations and are proposed to begin in 2015. Observers expect nations to agree to between five and ten goals ahead of the Rio+20 summit. Expert groups are expected to develop a basket of indicators that countries can choose from to measure their progress towards the goals by 2013.