What does the global Climate Change Agreement mean for sustainable scientists?

Our Executive Director, Jennie Dodson, provides a personal perspective and overview on the COP 21 Climate Change agreement and what it means for us as young leaders of sustainable science.

On Saturday a video popped onto my facebook timeline. Hundreds of people in a conference room were standing, clapping, cheering, hugging and whooping. This isn’t what you normally expect from grey suited diplomats at a United Nations conference. But this wasn’t just any conference, and not just any moment. This was when 190 countries came together, overcame their differences and agreed a global process to tackle climate change.

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All smiles as the agreement is unanimously accepted. Credit:UN Photo/Mark Carten

For me this felt personal. Six years ago at the global climate change meeting in Copenhagen (COP) I was initially jubilant, ambitious and hopeful. Then, as I joined one of the largest peaceful marches for climate change in history, was trapped by riot police and saw the COP discussions break down, I wept. Over the following years it felt like the prospect of a true global agreement on climate change was slipping through our fingers as yearly global meetings came and went with recrimination, breakdowns and increasing nationalization, introspection and the focus on economic woes.

So last Saturday, as an agreement was reached that I had lost hope of seeing, I paused and celebrated. In the current climate the diplomatic effort to converge opinions is momentous. And, more than that, it is a step forward from previous ambitions. It takes on board current scientific evidence that we should limit global warming to 1.5 °C (although weakly), it provides a process to review, update and assess national climate plans and targets and confirms the commitment to funding for developing countries.

But…it is far from enough. The agreement provides a common vision but the path is still uncertain. The national climate plans so far submitted will mean we face a temperature rise of 2.7 °C. This would result in large swaths of the planet being uninhabitable and the poorest and most marginal communities being most affected. And worse than that, the pledges are just that, intentions of action rather than legally binding commitments…with no commitment to phase out fossil fuels, and insufficient financing for developing countries. So, this is only the start of the process. The vision on paper must be turned into reality and we must cut emissions greater and faster than the current commitments.

This is why an organization such as NESSE is vital. In the next 35 years or less we need to turn around the economies of the world. This is the working lifetime of me and you, the generation that makes up NESSE. We have not been trained for this. We have been trained for the world system of cheap energy, fossil fuels, continuous economic growth, rising consumption and resources. Yet we need to find a way to overcome what we have been trained for and develop solutions to global challenges that are sustainable and equitable. We created NESSE because we cannot wait for our universities, academic systems, policies and industrial leadership to change. We must use our internal and collective knowledge, energy and vision to do it ourselves.

So what does this mean for us as young leaders in sustainable science? Here are six areas that I think our community of young sustainable science leaders needs to work on to help make sure the vision in this agreement becomes reality.

  1. Support new career paths in sustainable science and technology. This agreement demonstrates that there will be increasing numbers of careers and funding in sustainable innovation and technology transfer. Sustainable Science careers are the jobs of the future in academic, industry and government and we need to support people to forge these new career paths.
  2. All scientists need to be trained in sustainability. We all need a broader vision and understanding of the economic, social and environmental impacts of the solutions we develop. We can no longer view science as an activity separate from social, environmental and ethical implications and this needs to be integrated into our training.
  3. We have solutions. We need to demonstrate and communicate to the world that we have solutions that can create a positive, prosperous and sustainable future for us all. To make these reality we need to call for the long-term funding and policies to rapidly develop and transfer these solutions into society.
  4. Call for stronger targets. We cannot remain isolated in our labs if we want to see real change. We need to be prepared to work with policy makers, NGOs and industry to call for the policies and actions needed to revolutionize technologies – to phase out fossil fuels, price carbon and integrate assessment of environmental impacts.
  5. We must remain open, flexible and questioning. The development of new technologies in the past has shown that what we think may be sustainable can have unintended consequences. So we must continuously question and debate new ideas, bringing in voices from all perspectives.
  6. We need to inform our communities. We cannot remain quiet, we need to educate our communities about the solutions we are working on and also inform them about how they can use their economic voice to spark a change as well. We and our community will be the ones that ensure this global commitment is held and that a true impact is made. Our voices are powerful when we stand together and use them.

Last Saturday the world turned a corner and committed to a collective process to tackle climate change. Whether we reach a brighter future depends on all of us. For me, the creative and inspirational members of NESSE represent that hope.