Science should link human needs with nature’s possibilities

15 November 2019

The sustainability quest is complex and demanding. Despite plentiful research and great success, there are still many issues on which we continue to lag behind. A new paper by 32 scientists looks at the key gaps in achieving sustainability goals and identifies ways to address them more effectively.

The paper published in Nature Sustainability looks to build on insights collected from major reports by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published since 2012. The researchers compared the frequency of different topics mentioned in the reports with research gaps from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published in 2005.

The scientists didn’t only want to see gaps between required knowledge and actual research; they also wanted to better understand the current links between science and policy. They wanted to see if knowing more allows us to act more effectively and what kind of knowledge can be most helpful in achieving the necessary changes.

The researchers say they see increased need for policy-oriented and solutions-focused scientific research; for example, exploring how national accounting and development can regard nature beyond there mere economic value. Paired with new knowledge on effective institutions and governance, this line of research can support evidence-based policies and decisions.

We already know what needs to change, but we are still facing trouble in figuring out how. Elena Bennett, associate professor at the McGill School of Environment who contributed to the study, emphasizes the need for more coherent and holistic strategies. She argues that we may become more effective if we start paying closer attention to the varieties of indigenous and local knowledge. Once we learn to pair those with up-to-date scientific knowledge, more integrative and inclusive approaches will become possible.

The researchers also point at the need to better understand the links between lifestyles and nature’s conditions, including how the interests of various actors impact the allocation of nature’s benefits to the most vulnerable groups of the population. They particularly emphasize the need to better understand the synergies and trade-offs between various benefits humans derive from nature.

“Global sustainability goals cannot be achieved without improved knowledge on feedbacks between social and ecological systems”, suggests the lead author of the study, Matias Mastrangelo. He sees the need for strategies that are “effective, just, inclusive, and promote good quality of life.”

Overall, the study suggests that now, more than ever, scientists need to look at the bigger picture, beyond discrete initiatives and towards research and policies that address the roots of our sustainability challenges while enhancing both biodiversity and human wellbeing.

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