A New Research Agenda for a Sustainable Environment

November 10, 1999
Miranda Daniloff

Human needs over the next two generations can be met while sustaining the earth if the political will exists to turn new knowledge gained through science and technology into action, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies.

The report co-chaired by Kennedy School Professor William Clark, who is affiliated with the Belfer Center, sets forth a new research agenda for sustainability science and calls for a linkage of scientific research and private actions to public policies. The report emphasizes that human needs can be met without depleting the environment.

In the near future, most population growth will be concentrated in the developing countries such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where efforts to reduce poverty without harming the environment must go hand in hand, the report says.

The report documents large-scale social and environmental change and explores tools for "what if" analyses of possible future developments and their implications for sustainability.

The report outlines the greatest threats to sustainability and several priorities for action by the year 2050.

There are five key areas:

* Population: A ten percent reduction in the population needs to be achieved by 2050.
* Urban systems: Four billion people are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. Cities need to find ways to provide water, sanitation and clean air while preserving the environment.
* Agricultural production: Double or triple the agriculture production in Africa in food production will be needed along with better distribution and access.
* Energy and materials: Continue to lower household energy use, build low-polluting and energy-efficient automobiles, and reduce industrial consumption and waste through reuse and recycling.
* Living resources: Restore and maintain ecosystems that have been exploited by human use. Greater understanding is needed on how ecosystems can be managed on a local or regional scale.

The report breaks new ground by proposing an international mobilization of science and technology to ensure a transition to sustainability. Such an effort would require enhanced cooperation of the scientific and political communities around the world.

The United States, as a leader in scientific and technological innovation as well as a major consumer of global resources, needs to play a central role in such an endeavor.

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