How can science and traditional knowledge complement each other?

“Indigenous people are on the frontlines of climate change and are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change”, said Jennifer Rubis, Climate Frontlines coordinator at UNESCO.

This session on Day 3 of the Forum explored the theme of how indigenous people can participate more fully in climate change processes and bring their knowledge into science-policy platforms such as the IPCC and IPBES.

First, how do we define traditional knowledge? One key question would be is it knowledge that is important from one generation to another, or is it knowledge that is mobilized for producing new knowledge, dynamic knowledge, knowledge that is not static.

Panellists talked about their efforts to preserve culture and knowledge through inter-cultural universities and special courses. In recent years, there has been a big shift from their former status of being passive, or helpless victims of global environmental change to actors and negotiators in international treaties and conventions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report recognized traditional knowledge as ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change’. Despite this recognition, indigenous knowledge has remained largely outside the scope of IPCC assessments. In order to strengthen consideration of indigenous knowledge in IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report to be released in 2014, the publication calls on Authors of the 5AR and climate policymakers to heed he rapidly growing scientific literature on the contributions of indigenous and traditional knowledge to understanding climate change vulnerability, resilience and adaptation.

“Indigenous people have not been passive. We are negotiating, resisting, adapting, and engaging with policymakers, nationally and internationally”, Rubis said.

Another area where indigenous people are involved is the Convention on Biodiversity. The CBD has set up mechanisms such an indigenous co-chair in the meeting, a voluntary fund to enable indigenous people to attend the meetings.

With the establishment of IPBES, it was acknowledged that this should not just be a science-policy platform but a knowledge platform including different knowledge systems and this was accepted. This is a big advance in the way scientists, policymakers and indigenous people can work together, opening the door for co-production.

Other partnerships which have emerged in the wake of International Polar Year include partnerships between indigenous people of the Artic region to collaborate with NASA and universities.

Download the PDF of the book “Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation”

Transforming the Global Energy System

Currently 20% of the world’s population account for 77% of total world energy consumption, so one of the main conclusions of this session was the urgent need for energy to be more closely linked to development.

Universal access to affordable and clean energy for the poor is the number one objective, as access to energy is critical for poverty alleviation, social development and improvements in human health.

In Africa, for example, a major challenge is the lack of access to energy in many rural areas. The cost of energy is critical here because farmers have to assure their food needs first before they can invest in energy for irrigation. As access to the energy grid in Africa is difficult to obtain and expensive in many rural areas, local projects have focused on the installation of mini grids to serve local populations. Power from these stations can improve irrigation capacity, as well as improve overall quality of lives through access to refrigeration, computers, television and radio. As poor people worldwide often pay the highest prices for energy, smart mini-grid solutions could be a way to improve their livelihoods.

Panelist Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency evoked the “end of the era of cheap energy”, and others noted that the cheapest energy is the energy which is not used.

Speakers stressed that there was no time in regions like Latin America and the Caribbean to wait for innovation, because the issue is very urgent. There is benefit in south-south collaboration in energy, even if technologies have to be imported from the West.

Brazil is a big success story because of the high percentage of renewables in its energy mix – three times that of the world average at 43.5%, and expected to rise further in the future.

A key recommendation is that the energy challenge needs to be considered alongside other sectors such as agriculture, access to water, food supply, transportation and economic and sustainable development in general.

Echoing one of the main themes of the forum – the need for an integrated approach – speakers called for an integrated approach to energy system design for sustainable development. Energy policies must be coordinated across sectors. Transformative change will require a portfolio of policies and investments. Multiple benefits will flow from integrated approaches across energy-using sectors, such as development of new skills and great institutional capacity to improve the investment climate.

Green Economy Q & A

We sat down with Ivan Turok, Professor, Deputy Executive Director, EPD, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa, to discuss the Green Economy, which is central to Rio+20, but often poorly-understood and loosely defined.

What is Green Economy?
It combines the benefits of environmental improvement with economic development; it is not an either or situation. A green economy involves higher incomes, more employment, and better living standards, while simultaneously focusing on improving the quality of the environment and limiting the use of natural resources.

Why does it mean different things to different people?
The concept is very widely used. It can mean everything to anyone, and suits different arguments. At one extreme it is presented as a panacea to all the ills of the world. Clearly, this is not reasonable.

A key point of disagreement is whether the green economy is an end-state, something we’re aiming for, or a process… a way of thinking about things, adapting.

Many people have the view that it’s an end-state, a sustainable economy, but actually nobody knows what this is. In fact, it should be both these things. It is both an end-state and a process. In reality, we have to have an idea of how to get there. We don’t know what the end is.

How are we going to get to the green economy?
The traditional view is that the market can achieve it through the price mechanism. The argument is that we have to use the price mechanism to change business practices. Carbon credits are consistent with this view.

My view is that the price mechanisms should be part of it, but they are not sufficient and it would probably be too slow. Governments have other tools at their disposal, taxes and incentives. Governments can regulate, for example, to achieve a reduction in emissions by saying that we’re not going to allow emissions beyond a certain point.

During the Green Economy session on Day 5, Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, UK, and Director of the ESRC Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment, said:

Our current system has already changed the way people behave. It hasn’t changed the fundamental values underneath. It’s the responsibility of the rich nations to change the rules of the game to make our lives fuller, richer and more human so that we are not just kids in a candy shop with a fervent desire to consume and consume.”
Referring to rich countries, he said: “It’s about opening ourselves up to be fully human for the first time for a quite a while.”

Disasters: Moving to a Risk Reduction Mindset

“Disasters are designed by society.”

That was Professor Kuniyoshi Takeuchi of ICHARM, speaking at the Disaster Risk Reduction session on day four of the Forum.

The UN estimates (conservatively) that in the past two decades, disasters have killed 1.3 million people, affected 4.4 billion and resulted in economic losses of $2 trillion. Surely most of us still vividly remember the incredible disasters in the past two years, from Japan and Haiti to Thailand and Australia.

According to Gordon McBean, Director of Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Canada, roughly 75 percent of the disasters are climate or weather related, 75 percent of the financial costs of disasters are climate or weather related and almost half of all deaths from disasters are related to climate or weather.

“Risk management is a precondition for sustainability,” said Peter Höppe of the Corporate Climate Centre in Germany. “Wealthy economies are not affected in the long-run after disasters, and sometimes even grow faster,” he observed, “but in poorer countries, those dips mean that some may never recover.”

What drives disaster: Man or Nature?

The biggest factor in disaster risk is – nature or humans – is still a hot topic. Members of panel here seem to point the finger squarely back on us.

“We should stop talking about ‘natural’ disasters,” argued Alan Lavell of IRDR. “A good part of disaster risks comes from unsustainable development driven by humans.”

This doesn’t mean natural factors are not in play. Höppe’s research suggests that even after you account for population growth and increased wealth, you still find a significant rise in the number of natural hazards.

“We think this is [due to] global warming,” Höppe added: “The most convincing evidence for this is that there is strong increase only in climate-related events, and not geological ones.”

Yet the assembled experts agree with Walter Ammann of the Global Risk Forum, who argued: “We cannot reduce the number of hazards – nature has its own process. We can only influence development.”

“Disaster risk reduction must therefore be linked into sustainable development planning at all levels,” Lavell argued further, “If we just invest in disaster response, we will never get to sustainability.”

Changing mindsets

So what should we do differently? The panel offered an abundance of ideas.
For one, we must change mindsets. This Forum has repeatedly heard that inter-connected challenges need inter-connected solutions. If disaster risks and human development are intertwined, reducing risk and vulnerability will require addressing all aspects of development.

But, unfortunately, this is not yet the case.

“In most countries, disaster risk management is still separate from development work, urban planning or anything else related to the environment,” observed Ana Maria Cruz. “We need integration on the ground, from governments to communities.”

“It’s clear to me that a systems approach is the way to go,” contended Professor William Makgoba of ICSU in the audience, “We are stuck in a box and we need to get out of it.”

There is a critical need to focus beyond the “CNN disasters”, as Lavell calls them. “Much of the growing losses are actually due to small and medium scale events that are not extreme.” The only explanation is unsustainable development, according to him.

We must also realize that the best answers are not always high-tech.

“We need to learn from traditional knowledge. Many of these communities have been around for a thousand years,” said Dr. Jane Rovins, a co-convener of the session.

Her statement echoed a challenge put forward by Professor John Baglin in the audience: The challenge for science, technology and innovation is to come up with accessible solutions so cost is not a barrier to adoption.

Educating minds

The panelists also placed heavy emphasis on education.

Rovins cited a study by Forensic Investigation of Disasters (FORIN) showing that in Japan, children discuss disasters and what to do in class, and loss of lives was exceptionally low in those age groups. “When you grow up in a risk-reduction mindset, you perpetuate that from generation to generation,” she argued.

Biodiversity: Nature as a Giant Library

Nature’s services to humanity, know also as ecosystem services, have an estimated value of $33 trillion – nearly twice world economic output. Biodiversity underpins and mediates many benefits that people obtain from ecosystems—protecting, restoring and sustainably managing ecosystems is critical to any efforts to promote sustainability and ensure an equitable world.

But ecosystems and biodiversity are under threat. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen a 30 per cent decline in the world’s biodiversity – more than double in the tropics. According to the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, two-thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are in decline.

“Nature is filled with successful solutions to challenges, any one of which can transform medicine and industry. Nature is a giant library, and we ought to treat it like we treat all the other great libraries,” said Thomas Lovejoy, Chair of the Global Environmental Facility Scientific and Technical Assessment Panel, during a panel discussion at the Forum.

Cities: The Front Lines of Sustainability

“Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said recently. This sentiment was at the heart of the session on urban environment and wellbeing, and reiterated by Xuemei Bai, Professor of Urban Environment and Human Ecology at the Australian National University and International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) Scientific Committee Member.

“This is now true more than ever before,” she said.

The evidence is undeniable: since 2009 more than half of humanity has lived in cities, and by 2050 three-fourths are projected to do so. The current pace of urbanization means that we will be adding a city of one million inhabitants every week, from now until 2050. And in the next 40 years, we will need to build as many facilities as we have done in the past 4,000 years just to cope with this expansion, according to Susanne Saltz, Head of the Secretary General’s Office, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

In other words, we are becoming an urban world, and urban wellbeing will increasingly dominate the discussion human wellbeing.

But, at the same time, urban wellbeing is also intimately connected to planetary wellbeing. Although cities cover a mere 3% of the world’s land surface, they are responsible for 78% of the world’s carbon emissions, 60% of global residential water use, and 76% of world industrial use of wood. What happens in cities has major implications for the rest of the world.

“We need a new narrative connecting human health and planetary health,” said Dr Anthony Capon. As the dominant form of human habitation, cities lie at the very intersection of human and planetary wellbeing. Thus how we design and govern our cities may well dictate both.

The good news is that cities are also opportunities. Study after study shows that cities have much higher levels of human development than rural areas. As centers of culture, innovation and knowledge, they also offer huge potential for collective action.

But effective management is not easy. Cities are highly complex systems. Echoing a theme which has come up repeatedly at the Forum, panelists said that managing cities well would require working across all sectors and disciplines to address the system as a whole.

Moreover, no two cities are alike – which means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What we need instead, according to Capon, is adaptive management that evolves and changes to suit the unique circumstances of each urban environment.

Case study: Mongolia

Mongolia faces tough challenges on these issues. The capital, Ulan Bator, has grown rapidly in recent years due to heavy rural migration, and without urban planning the impact has led to chronic air pollution and traffic problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution results in 1,600 deaths every year, and is fuelling premature death, lung and heart problems and chronic bronchitis.

“In the future, cities will have to go from being consumptive systems to being productive systems,” said Suzanne Saltz, Head of the Secretary General’s Office, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.