Linking knowledge
to action

Julia Carabias emphasizes the importance of integrating science and technology into solutions for environmental problems, and describes the work of the GEF’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel

Important advances have been made towards achieving sustainability in the three decades between the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environment and this year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The concept of sustainable development has been endorsed in most countries and has gradually brought the economic, the social and the environmental perspectives of development closer.

  • It is accepted that sustainability entails common but differentiated responsibilities, demanding the best possible effort from countries proportional to their specific economic, institutional and cultural capacities.

  • International environmental agreements have been created.

  • Better understanding, diagnosis and monitoring of environmental processes have developed.

  • Most countries have developed some sort of a programmatic platform and institutional capacity to manage the environment.

  • Conscience and participation are increasing with an incremental involvement of the universities and research centres, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.

However, neither local national efforts nor multilateral principles, commitments and agreements have been enough to curb the trends of deterioration and impoverishment, much less to reverse them. It is even difficult to evaluate what has been achieved because of what a recent workshop in Mexico identified as the lack of ‘reliable baseline data on the state of the Earth’s ecosystem and biodiversity to match the progress of the last decades in documenting the state of human development’.

The lack of specific goals, targets and indicators has limited quicker progress towards sustainability, as has the way in which countries have lagged behind in fully meeting their commitments.

Financial resources have definitely been another major limiting factor. This is why the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is so relevant, as the major source of funding for international environmental agreements – and the only new one since the 1992 Earth Summit.

Significant results
GEF is the designated financial mechanism for the international Conventions on Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Persistent Organic Pollutants, and it supports the work of the global agreements to combat desertification, and to protect international waters and the ozone layer. It has catalysed innovative programmes and has produced significant results in improving the global environment. It has also enabled developing countries to meet their obligations under the Conventions.

GEF is now facing much pressure through having to manage growing demand on constrained resources. It has to attend an increasing number of conventions, add new focal areas, expand the range of activities under older conventions and set strategic programming objectives.

It has recently gone through a deep process of internal analysis to strengthen its role and structure to meet its expanding responsibilities. The Second Overall Performance Study (OPS2), commissioned by the Governing Council, is very valuable in this. In response GEF adopted a new approach to programming according to agreed strategic priorities. This is a major challenge which will require the efforts of all participants – and, very importantly, scientific and technical support – to maximize the impacts and results.

The scientific community is concerned that while science and technology have brought important advances in the understanding of global environmental problems – and provided great opportunities to advise how they could be solved – there are still big gaps in implementing solutions. Few scientific organizations worldwide are clearly linked to decision-making processes. Similarly, few institutions permanently consult and closely collaborate with scientific and technical advice over implementable solutions; the GEF is a very rare exception.

Science and policy
The GEF has recognized the importance of integrating science and technology into the solution of global environmental issues. That is why the Council has the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) as its advisory body. It serves as a bridge between science and policy across social and natural scientific disciplines and provides a way of linking knowledge to action.
STAP provides a way of linking knowledge to action
Among other tasks, STAP provides strategic advice, conducts selective reviews of projects, maintains a Roster of Experts and interacts with the scientific and technical bodies of the conventions. It also advises on the development of scientific and technical criteria in focal areas where the GEF is not operating as a convention’s financial mechanism, and provides scientific and technical advice on priorities for GEF funding. STAP is not designed to produce new science and technology and the GEF is not an institution for building the capacity needed to produce the science to address the sustainability challenges. But STAP is designed to bring scientific and technical knowledge into GEF work and to warn on emerging issues and gaps, through information, options and analysis and a wide dialogue with the global and regional science and technology networks.

International participation
STAP has benefited from the participation of scientists from all over the world, from developed and developing countries alike. They have had wide experience in scientific research, but have also always been linked to national or international fora of decision- making processes, and had a strong understanding of global and social environmental problems.

As my predecessor, Madhav Gadgil, reported earlier this year, STAP has: ‘helped develop the scientific and technical basis for the GEF policy framework of the agro-biodiversity integrated ecosystem management and persistent organic pollutants; the action plan on land degradation; and the policy framework on forest and biodiversity; led the development of GEF’s strategic thinking on adaptations to climate change; alerted the GEF family to the implications of power sector reform for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies’.

In the GEF’s new stage, STAP must help to:

  • identify priorities on the basis of a broad understanding of global environmental issues;

  • identify new issues or innovative solutions that are scientifically supported and socially and economically viable, while regarding the particularities of each situation – at regional, national and local levels – that would enhance the quality of GEF interventions;

  • help develop indicators to measure the impacts of projects in each focal area, and of GEF projects on the global environment.

The conventions have addressed solutions to global environmental problems in a compartmentalized way by targeting specific issues. This is necessary to help solve specific problems. But solutions also need an integrated approach, because nature works in an integrated way. The extremely complex inter-(re)action of nature and society makes this even more necessary.

It is now very important to build such an approach, to define the interaction between global problems as clearly as possible, and to propose actions to address this that are not included in any of the conventions.

STAP can play an important role in helping the GEF in its prioritization process to make the best use of financial resources. It is very important to understand the GEF’s achievements in solving global environmental problems, but it is impossible to do this simply by evaluating the results of each of the many projects it has supported, on an issue-by-issue basis. A new effort now needs to move from case studies and pilot projects towards assembling a body of comparative and critical knowledge so as to build an integrated approach.

The GEF is the best source of information on hundreds of local and pilot projects, with varying experiences, outlooks and methodologies. Analysing this information can provide the empirical data to build an integrated approach and supply the indicators needed to evaluate interactions between society and the biosphere.

STAP should help GEF incorporate science, technology, and local and indigenous knowledge to build both such an approach and the capacities to address the interrelations of biodiversity, land degradation, international waters, climate change and persistent organic pollutants. This will help build synergies across the conventions.

Integral concepts
Important advances have taken place in analysing such integral concepts as adaptation, vulnerability and resilience. These help understand and manage the complex socio-ecological systems that are the heart of the sustainability challenge, and make it easier to propose solutions.

Last March a workshop organized by STAP took an important step to identify key gaps in adaptation. It pinpointed the lack and inadequacy of baseline data for assessing vulnerability and adaptation and the need for understanding adaptive capacity better.

Much must be done in this area in the GEF family and STAP must play a major role in it. GEF programmes and projects must continue to be based on innovative methods and instruments, cutting-edge science and new scientific findings. Both the GEF and STAP should be strengthened to achieve the new challenges

Julia Carabias , Professor of the Faculty of Science of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and Coordinator of its Restoration Ecology Programme, is Chair of STAP.

PHOTOGRAPH: John Chandler/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Unmatched opportunities | Global priority | Partnerships for change | Rising to new challenges | Much achieved, more to do | Message to the Second GEF Assembly | Africa Environment Outlook | Critical energy | Mapping the health of the planet | Regaining ground | Two to tango | Linking knowledge to action | Globalizing benefits | Unpopular POPs | Message to the Second GEF Assembly

Complementary articles in other issues:
Special supplement to coincide with the Global
Environment Facility Assembly
(Fresh Water) 1998
The GEF: Five years after Rio (The Way Ahead) 2000

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
About the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: