Worldwide there is increasing awareness of the global challenges that face us all – ranging from preventing conflict, to feeding an expanding population, to helping the poor, to fostering health, and protecting the environment in particular global warming and ecosystem degradation. These challenges are at the heart of sustainable development – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Sustainable development is about alleviating poverty and narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor while ensuring the sustainable functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems. It is apparent that if we are to find new and imaginative solutions to these problems, all the countries and people of the world will need to work together. The basic Global Scenario, to 2050 is somewhat as follows:
- Population will increase, unevenly (6.5 bn to ~ 9 bn)
- Energy use will approximately triple
- Food production must double
- Waste generation will escalate greatly
- With the current technologies and economic priorities:
- Climate change will continue
- More species will be lost, faster than ever
- Nature's buffers will diminish (reefs, forest, mangroves, etc.)
- Land degradation will continue
- Fisheries will continue to decline/disappear
- Oceans will become more acidic (CO2 uptake)
- Soils and waterways will undergo nitrification
- Fresh water availability and quality will decline in many regions
The alarming fact is that these are our life-support systems that provide the basic inputs and stability required for health and survival. Therefore, the 20th century mindset that the world and its resources are infinite is no more tenable in a fast developing and globalizing 21st century world of demonstrably finite carrying capacity. The major challenge before us is how to address the following issues:
- 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day
- 1 billion people do not have access to clean water
- More than 2 billion people have no access to sanitation
- 1.3 billion are breathing air below the standards considered acceptable by the World Health Organisation (WHO)
- 800 million people are food insecure
Yet when we realize that nearly one in four people live on less than $1 per day, while the world's top 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world's people, and that every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger, we become painfully aware of the growing inequality in this world. At the same time we cannot dismiss the many global initiatives to address these problems as insignificant.
Malaysia and the individual countries in the South-East Asian region have made a strong commitment to international efforts to prevent further irreversible environmental change and to promote sustainable development by becoming party to numerous Multi-lateral Agreements such as Agenda 21, the Rio conventions (1992), Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000) and Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (WSSD-JPOI, 2002) - all of which emphasise the need for development to be more sustainable, particularly in developing nations with limited natural resources and skill base. Among these, the MDGs, focus on the central challenges of our time.At its core are the eight Development Goals, which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all to be met by the target date of 2015. They form a set of simple but powerful objectives that every man and woman in the street, from Brasilia to New York to Putrajaya and Penang, can easily support and understand.
But so far, progress toward reaching these goals has been mixed at best. There are many reasons, including slow growth in the world economy, slow progress in reforms among developing countries, and inadequate support from developed countries. What is needed is a strategic partnership between developed and developing countries. Cooperation should be promoted among the scientific and technological communities of different countries and regions to yield a large collective reservoir of knowledge and expertise. If every nation gains full access to this broader world community of science and has the opportunity to develop an independent science capability, its public can engage in a candid dialogue about the benefits and risks of new technologies, such as genetically engineered organisms or nanotechnology, so that informed decisions can be made about their introduction into our lives. In the same vein, issues like global warming and degradation of ecosystem services - the global environmental crisis – which has the potential to threaten our human security and well-being and renders all our other progress meaningless – need to be effectively communicated to the public and policymakers.
Another important set of global issues which cannot be ignored is the impact of the world trading system on sustainable development. From a policy perspective, the pursuit of sustainable development requires a careful balancing between progress in each of its pillars: economic development, social progress and environmental preservation. For example, while bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) seeks to raise standards of living and to ensure full employment and a steadily growing volume of real income with the expansion of world production and trade, the WTO simply cannot ignore the need to promote and preserve the environment. These are complex problems which call for a comprehensive analysis and approach from a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral perspective.
The underpinning of this understanding is scientific knowledge, both in the natural and social sciences. This knowledge needs to be packaged in the appropriate way so that it could be utilized by policymakers at the national, regional and global levels. While the shortfall is being felt worldwide, the urgency is greatest in the developing world where investment in science and technology and research and development is alarmingly low.
One of the major lessons learned since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio (UNCED) is that the transition towards sustainable development is inconceivable without science, engineering and technology. The world recommitted itself to going beyond compliance to commitment for action in Johannesburg during the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The WSSD identified Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity (WEHAB) as five critical sectors in sustainability where concrete results can and must be obtained to improve the lives of all human beings while protecting the global environment. These are also the sectors in which progress is possible with the resources and technologies at our disposal and several targets have already been set and some achieved. In addition to these, there are a number of cross-cutting issues which have strong feedbacks on the above sectors and impact the very pillars of sustainable development. Particular attention needs to be paid to: (i) climate change and disaster risk management, (ii) unsustainable production, consumption and pollution and (iii) escalating population, poverty and equity issues.
There are also implementation challenges associated with ICT, governance, security, trade and the financing context. Some progress has been made in addressing these and related challenges but many obstacles stand in the way. The challenge of turning these large goals into real, practical results still remains. Each of society’s stakeholders; political, business, civil society, media and higher educational institutions has a role to play here. Universities are expected to make investments in their curricula, research and outreach. There is increasing global acknowledgement that building capacity for making decisions that consider the long-term future of economy, ecology and equity is a key task of education. USM, in particular, should be in the forefront to assess the situation and find new and imaginative solutions to these problems. Specifically it should position itself in addressing these problems at the local/national and regional levels.
It is now clear that the development models of the past have so stretched the tolerance margins of nature that they are seen to be depleting scarce resources and degrading the global environment. With the full realisation that environmental problems are closely linked to economic and socio-cultural problems, a great change is required in the stewardship of the earth and the life on it to move away from paradigms that rely exclusively on concepts of continuous economic growth, corporate profit, and consumer avarice. We have to redirect our intellectual enterprise to develop capacity to understand, anticipate and act on the basis of global challenges.
Convinced that building capacity for making decisions that consider the long-term future of economy, ecology, and equity is a key task of education Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) has embraced the vision of becoming a sustainability-led university of world-class standing as part of its APEX initiative. While the APEX award is a fitting recognition for the university’s wide–ranging and remarkable accomplishments of the past, it is also a call to excel in addressing the sustainability challenges of the future.
In order to achieve the broad APEX vision, USM has embarked on a range of missions which through their specific objectives and activities are expected to contribute to the achievement of the overall sustainability vision. One such mission of great significance is the decision to establish a Centre for Global Sustainability Studies (the Centre, CGSS) to mainstream sustainability into the entire fabric and rubric of the university. This Centre is designed to work with all other relevant sections of the University, regional and international sustainability organizations, national and regional governments, private sector, civil society groups and NGOs to promote sustainable development, paying particular attention to the disempowered bottom billion.