UNEP at Work                
Setting priorities

Joseph Alcamo
UNEP Chief Scientist

Sunday A. Leonard
Special Assistant to the Chief Scientist

Policymakers, local to international, are confronted with more issues than they can possibly address and are therefore always busy setting priorities. How should they decide which global environmental issues most urgently require their attention? How can they figure out what is most important from the constant flow of new scientific findings about changes in the atmosphere, terrestrial environment, and hydrosphere, and how these changes relate to society? UNEP’s answer is a “Foresight Process”, a systematic approach to identifying and ranking emerging environmental issues.

In this process ‘emerging’ is used to denote issues already recognized as very important by the scientific community, but not receiving adequate attention from the policy community. An issue is judged to be “emerging” if it stems from new scientific knowledge, accelerated rates of impact, heightened level of awareness or new ways available to respond.

The Process involved lively debates among a Foresight Panel of 22 distinguished scientists from around the world, looking at issues from all sides, and challenging their importance and timeliness. It produced a preliminary list, which was further commented on by an additional 428 scientists worldwide.

All this resulted in a list of 21 priority issues (See Table, page 27). Most fall within such sustainability themes as food security, water issues, biodiversity, waste management, and so on, but others cut across these themes. These cross-cutting issues reflect the Panel’s strong belief that it is important to look beyond the silos of individual themes and disciplines.

They include:

Aligning Governance to the Challenges of Global Sustainability.
The current system of international environmental governance, with its maze of interlocking multilateral agreements, is a product of the 20th century and is likely to be unsuitable for handling the 21st century’s sustainability challenges. Some commentators believe that it lacks the necessary representativeness and accountability for the transition to sustainability, and that a much higher level of participation and transparency is needed. Others believe that its effectiveness must be urgently improved by streamlining intergovernmental decision-making. Although, it is not clear what system would work better, new models of governance — ranging from public-private partnerships to alliances of civil society groups — need to be examined.

Transforming Human Capabilities for the 21st Century: Meeting Global Environmental Challenges and Moving Towards a Green Economy. Society has already confronted a host of global environmental challenges and, through persistence and ingenuity, found many solutions. As new ones come up, the question is whether it has the right capabilities to find and implement solutions and support a burgeoning Green Economy. It particularly needs to make a special effort to fill in skills gaps in the green sector and update educational institutions to better cover sustainability work. It needs to train managers to respond to global environmental change better, and retool research to address the sustainability challenge in a more effective and integrated way.

Broken Bridges: Reconnecting Science and Policy.
Society needs strategies and policies underpinned by a strong science and knowledge base if it is to cope with global environmental change. But many believe that linkages between the policy and science communities are inadequate or even deteriorating, and that these “broken bridges” are hindering the development of solutions. Improving communication, accessibility of scientific information, and other underlying causes of these broken links, will provide an atmosphere where scientists can better respond to society’s needs. Policymakers will be better informed, and the public will benefit from evidencebased policies.

Social Tipping Points? Catalyzing Rapid and Transformative Change in Human Behavior for the Environment.
New findings from social science research have shown how damaging human behavior can be steered in a more positive direction, relatively quickly, by public policy. An example is the public’s attitude towards cigarette smoking which has, in many countries, switched from being fashionable to being seen as a dangerous health threat within one generation. Can these insights also be applied to transforming consumption habits that now lead to destructive environmental changes? What public incentives – economic, informative, prohibitive – would work best to achieve this? How can international environmental agencies help governments and other actors trigger sustainable consumption?

Coping with Migration Caused by New Aspects of Environmental Change.
Mass migrations of people have occurred throughout history, but some scholars now believe that it is increasingly influenced by the new factors of climate change and other global environmental changes. Even some policies to limit global environmental change, such as expanding the production of biofuels, may play a role in stimulating migration. Estimates of the number of future “environmental migrants” range up to the hundreds of millions, but these numbers are very uncertain and depend on the definition used. Regardless of the exact numbers, there is a high risk that environmental change will become an increasingly important factor (among others) in driving migration, and society should prepare itself for this eventuality.

These are only five out of 21 compelling issues identified by the UNEP Foresight Process. This list is not meant to be the last word on what issues to work on, but does provide much to think about when considering priorities for policymaking over the coming years.

The full Foresight Process Report can be downloaded at: www.unep.org/publications/ ebooks/ForesightReport/

The authors are indebted to the UNEP Foresight Panel and other participants of the UNEP Foresight Exercise 2011 for elaborating the issues described in this article.

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