‘To Know Without Knowing?’ Reinforcing the Science-Policy Interface in Global Environmental Governance
Stockholm +50 should be action-oriented to strengthen the interface between science and international environmental law and policy in order to effectively protect the natural environment. It should foster a new reflection on investment facilitation for sustainable development building upon current discussions. It must replace science where it belongs in the system of global environmental governance: at its center and not at the periphery. Stockholm +50 can be the catalyzer of more and better investment in (green) science. At the same time, facilitating investment in science would promote the development and strengthening of sustainable business approaches.
1. The seed of science.
It will soon be 50 years since the first seed of international environmental law was planted in Stockholm in the form of the Stockholm Declaration. Half a century might seem not too long looking at the timescale of mankind, but these last 50 years, and particularly the beginning of the 21st century, have been characterized by an impressive pace of changes at all different planes. When international environmental law was born in 1972, natural sciences were in the fledgling stages. The main idea was to describe the planet and better understand some extreme phenomena, such as droughts in Africa. At a time, there was still a conviction of Man’s superiority in the world of nature. These past 50 years have been marked by tremendous anthropogenic pressure on the environment, multiple catastrophes, population growth, but also by enormous scientific and technological progress, and the subsequent environmental awareness. Today, the seed planted in the 70s has grown into a mature tree, which increasingly attracts the gaze of not only policymakers, lawyers, or scientists, but also the rest of the population. Recent years have been a transition with regards to attitude and awareness with regards to environmental protection. Youth climate strikes around the world, increasing demand for eco products, or Corporate Social Responsibility programs in almost every company show that caring for the planet is placed very high on the social agenda, both in developed and developing countries. 2022 is the perfect time for the environment to become a priority also on political agendas.
50 years ago, many areas of natural sciences were at a very early stage of development. Scientists had their presumptions regarding the anthropogenic impact on the environment, however they were limited in their research possibilities due to less advanced technology, as well as in the scope of sharing their concerns, due to the slower spread of information. Present technological and scientific progress allows us to understand complex physical processes, precisely monitor changes in the environment, efficiently communicate the research results and raise awareness among the public, as well as to quickly and easily access the desired information. Owing to science, it is clear now that current climate change is anthropogenically induced, and that numerous human activities are gradually leading to environmental degradation. On the other hand, technological progress allowed to not only understand and describe the nature, but also to take advantage of it (for example, by using wind or sun to produce energy). It was perhaps the reason why the Stockholm Declaration embodied in its Principle 18 a sort of anthropocentric approach to science: “Science and technology, as part of their contribution to economic and social development, must be applied to the identification, avoidance and control of environmental risks and the solution of environmental problems and for the common good of mankind”.
In the 70s, the environmental sciences were just emerging, however today’s world enriched in the experience and possibilities of the last half century, should use this acquired knowledge to establish effective environmental protection mechanisms. Surprisingly enough, this was a call that has been made since the Stockholm Declaration in the following terms: “A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes” (Paragraph 6 of the Preamble of the Stockholm Declaration). Stockholm+50 could serve as a momentum to strengthening the interface between science and international environmental policy and law.
2. The (next) path of science in global environmental governance…
The relationship between science and environmental policy, although it seems evident, in fact is still rather undefined, vague, or even illusory. Scientists in their research often miss concrete suggestions or specific solutions that could be comprehensible to policy-makers. On the other hand, policy-makers very often act without adequate knowledge in the field of environmental sciences. For many years, policymakers have attempted to introduce appropriate mechanisms of environmental protection, while not understanding its complex processes. Today, science is developed enough to understand, describe, and even anticipate environmental impacts, but very often scientists are pushed to the background or minimized in the fora where environmental diplomacy is being undertaken. This would be in line with the commitment taken by the international community during the Rio +20 Conference:
“We recognize the important contribution of the scientific and technological community to sustainable development. We are committed to working with and fostering collaboration among the academic, scientific and technological community, in particular in developing countries, to close the technological gap between developing and developed countries and strengthen the science-policy interface, as well as to foster international research collaboration on sustainable development” (Paragraph 48 of the Rio +20 Declaration, The Future We Want).
Such a spirit has also been highlighted in the Draft Global Pact for the Environment which stresses “the fundamental importance of science for sustainable development” (Preamble). The Global Pact anticipated what has been advocated by the UNEP in its 2021 report on “Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies”. The report underlines that “advanced science-policy processes are key to generating actions needed to address more complex problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss”. It mentions also the importance of citizen-science initiatives.
To strengthen the interface between science and international environmental law and policy in order to effectively protect the natural environment, Stockholm +50 should be action-oriented. In particular, Stockholm +50 could serve as a bridge to enhance evidence-based decision-making at all levels and contribute to strengthening ongoing capacity-building for data collection and analysis in developing countries.[ii] Furthermore, and most importantly, Stockholm +50 should foster a new reflection on investment facilitation for sustainable development building upon the current discussions and negotiations on facilitation of foreign direct investment (FDI) for sustainable development in various fora such as UNCTAD, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the African Union through its future Protocol on Sustainable Investment. The recent Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the European Union and China paves the way for such a reflection. Indeed, this instrument calls for “dialogue and cooperation on investment-related environmental issues” and “stress the need to enhance the mutual supportiveness between investment and environmental policies” (Article 3 of Section IV of CAI “Investment and Sustainable Development”). It is time for global environmental governance to serve as a platform to promote and facilitate investment in science, innovation and technology for sustainable development. Stockholm +50 can be the catalyzer of more and better investment in (green) science which is a sine qua non for an improved interface between science and international environmental policy and law. At the same time, facilitating investment in science would promote the development and strengthening of sustainable business approaches.
3. “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”…[iii]
The 1972 Stockholm Declaration was focused on the ‘human environment’, treating men with some superiority to nature. It is true that humans are superior to other species in some respects, especially when it comes to knowledge or technology. However, today is the time to understand that the Earth does not need humans, but humans indeed need the Earth. For this reason, it is necessary to stop seeing the environment as an enemy and start perceiving it as an ally. Treating the planet with respect is not only a moral duty towards the future generations, but simply the only solution that will make human life healthier and better.
The development and wise application of science and technology in global environmental governance must be considered to be the hope for protection and preservation of the planet. During the First United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in 2014, the international community “recogniz(ed) that there are gaps in our knowledge of the state of the environment resulting from a lack of current data and information generation and dissemination”.[iv] Stockholm +50 must thus replace science where it belongs in the system of global environmental governance: at its center and not at its periphery.
[i] Title inspired from the album of Mulatu Astatske & Black Jesus Experience, To Know Without Knowing, Agogo Records, 2020.
[ii] See paragraph 85 l) of the Rio +20 Declaration.
[iii] Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations, Grove Pr, 1990.
[iv] Resolution 1/4 of the UNEA.