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Five transformations for a greener future

Since 1974, the world has come together each year to mark two of the most significant days for environmental action – World Environment Day on June 5 and World Oceans Day on June 8. This year’s themes, Biodiversity and Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean, respectively, call for urgent action to protect our environment and all its inhabitants, particularly amid the current pandemic.

COVID-19 has reinforced our awareness of the interdependence of humans and our environments. Within the science community, there is also an increasing consensus on the need to transform sustainability science to bring us closer to achieving global sustainability.

In celebration of this year’s World Environment Day and World Oceans Day, we take a look at five transformations for a greener future by researchers who will be presenting their work at SRI2021 in Brisbane, Australia from 12-15 June next year.

Improving air quality

The air we breathe is killing us.  According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide each year. With millions of deaths attributed to fine aerosols, also known as PM2.5, innovations are needed to monitor air quality to protect our health and the environment.

Professor Candice Lung, a research fellow at the Research Center for Environmental Changes, and Director of International Affairs in the Center for Sustainability Science of Academia Sinica, Taipei, is investigating how we can reduce air pollution in Asia through the application of novel, low-cost sensors and emerging technology to study air quality and its associated health risks. The sensors will be used to identify high-PM2.5 zones and high exposure populations in areas with few governmental monitoring stations. This innovative technology developed through global collaboration, coupled with tools including an online monitoring network, will help guide proactive decision-makers on addressing air quality challenges in Asia.

With global air pollution currently at a low, due to reduced industrial activity and ground transport in light of COVID-19 restrictions, we have the opportunity to glimpse the future Professor Lung envisions. Analysts point out that governments and businesses have a unique opportunity to dramatically reorient towards less-polluting industries in the economic rebuild.

Rethinking urban transport

While ride-sharing has increased in popularity in recent years, a broader shift in mindset among motorists is needed to amplify its benefits, including less traffic, lower emissions, and reclaimed urban land. According to Dr. Barbara Ribeiro, Senior Sustainability and Resilience Advisor from Auckland Council in New Zealand, relying solely on technological advancements such as autonomous electric vehicles to solve our urban transportation issues is unlikely to be successful, and we simultaneously need to invest in a systemic behavior change away from car-dependency and ownership to more sustainable sharing practices. If coupled with transport sharing practices “…autonomous electric vehicles could enable us to reclaim between 15-20 percent of urbanized, valuable land – imagine how much green infrastructure we could build, adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change along the way,” says Dr. Ribeiro.

So how do we change behavior that has been established for well over half a century? Dr. Ribeiro’s session at SRI2021 will explore the science of behavior change and marketing to design strategies to “unlock a mobility mindset shift from product ownership to service usage.” Watch her introductory video on circular economies.

Conserving biodiversity

Biodiversity supports the provision of food, clean air, water, energy, and raw materials, serves our health, and drives our economy, says Professor Markus Fischer, from the  Institute of Plant Sciences at the University of Bern. However, biodiversity is under threat and the impact of its loss reaches much further than just nature – it negatively affects our societies and business, where we often take for granted its material and non-material contribution.

As the key theme for this year’s World Environment Day, and the subject of Professor Fischer’s session at SRI2021, biodiversity is in the global spotlight.

Professor Fischer’s session will address challenges by identifying the factors that enable and impede “the co-design of science-based pathways that integrate the conservation of biodiversity in the face of land-use decisions, human development, and climate change, as a mean and an end towards transformative change and sustainable development.”

Culture change towards transformation

According to both Dr. Mark Stafford Smith and Dr. Barbara Ribeiro, behavioral change is at the heart of developing global sustainability. Innovations for sustainability without societal change will not have the impact we need to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Dr. Stafford Smith and his colleagues argue for “transforming sustainability science into a transdisciplinary enterprise that can generate positive social and environmental change globally.” The arts, often neglected in the promotion of STEM for sustainability, play a crucial role in addressing the “complex problems of culture, institutions, and human behavior.”

Sustainability-science-as-usual is not enough, we must evolve the way in which we innovate, work, fund and discuss sustainability. Dr. Stafford Smith’s session at SRI2021 will “look at the pathways through which the arts can promote pro-environmental behavior.” It will also address the challenge of arts funding for projects with environmental outcomes, the “limitations of the arts, by themselves, in leading to cultural change for sustainability” and the importance of integrating arts with both science and policy-making.

The work of Dr. Stafford Smith, from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and his colleagues from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Oslo, and Corvinus University of Budapest was recently featured in our blog ‘The evolving nature of sustainability science,’ that discussed the role of the arts in transdisciplinary co-design and co-production of sustainability research.

Respectful custodianship of our oceans and coasts

Our coastlines are not clearly defined, according to Professor Anja Scheffers, from Southern Cross University. They inhabit what she calls a ‘liminal space’, one that is at the same time “geographically bounded, yet metaphorically transcendent, physically shifting, and culturally porous.” As global organizations are aiming to achieve resilient and sustainable coasts through reduced human impacts, there is a need for a roadmap and tools to help these organizations to co-design sustainable coastal futures.

Our oceans and coastlines are complex ‘lifeworlds’ says Prof. Scheffes. It is through this “relational, ancient and ultimately environmentally urgent bond” that we must view the sustainability capabilities of different disciplines and knowledge systems to develop sustainable governance of our coastlines.

World Ocean Day’s theme, Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean, includes our coastlines, and when it comes to coastline governance and custodianship, we must consider its existence in two worlds: the land and the ocean. In this session, convened by Future Earth Coasts, explore the future of living along coastlines with a changing ocean, what it may look like, and how we can do so sustainably.