The Earth Institute at Columbia University, in partnership with the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development (UNDSD), will host the 17th annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference (ISDRC). The conference will take place in Alfred J. Lerner Hall from May 8 to 10, 2011.
Sana Ahmad, an editor of Consilience, the journal of Sustainable Development at Columbia University, sat down in conversation with Professor Peter Schlosser of the Earth Institute to get an insider’s perspective of the conference. Professor Schlosser is the Associate Director and Director of Research of the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and has been closely involved with the ISDRC in the capacity of organizer, planner, and participant.
What is the ISDRC?
This year’s ISDRC is seventeenth in a series of conferences by the International Sustainable Development Research Society (ISDRS). The The society is a coalition of academic researchers, teachers, government, non-governmental organizations and industry. It promotes inter- and transdisciplinary research and education for sustainable development. ISDRS’s primary aim is to promote platforms, such as annual conferences, that support collaboration and discussion on issues pertaining to sustainable development in the global society. Previous conferences have been held in China, the Netherlands, India, and Sweden, among other countries.
The fifteenth and sixteenth ISDRCs focused on examining opportunities for sustainable development in the post-financial crisis period, and on analyzing implementations of innovations and governance for sustainable development. This year’s theme is “Moving Toward a Sustainable Future: Opportunities and Challenges.”
During the three event-packed days of the 17th ISDRC, scientists, researchers, and stakeholders from around the world will come together to discuss the pressures posed on the planet by human development. Whereas participation in previous Earth Institute events has been through invitation, the ISDRC’s audience, to a large extent, will be driven by the membership of the global sustainable development community.
What are the goals of the conference?
Prof. Schlosser indicates that the intent of the conference is to look at existing and developing impacts of human activity on the planet and to evaluate the adequacy of institutions to offset and deal with the negative impacts. Further, the conference will also address mitigation and adaptation options that are necessary in dealing with negative impacts of human activities on climate, water, food security, human and ecosystem health, etc. The conference is one of the primary platforms for scientists to present new findings, to be exposed to research by colleagues, and to network and synthesize ideas for new studies.
There are five major themes, framed by the conference planning committee and published on the conference website, which will drive the focus of the conference.
1) Pressures on Earth’s natural and socioeconomic systems
2) Limits of Earth to support future development
3) Solutions to the problems created by continued development
4) Adequacy of existing local, regional, and global institutions and governing structures
5) Assessment of existing (pilot) programs
Prof. Schlosser points out that while the themes provide guidelines, abstracts are submitted in an open, community driven, process. Ca. seven hundred abstracts were submitted by the Jan 31 deadline, indicating the high level of interest in the conference and emphasizing the importance of the ISDRC as a platform for discussing Sustainable Development.
What was it like to plan the conference?
The ISDRC internal organizing committee, comprising eight people, meets regularly to discuss conference program, logistics, content, communication, outreach, and sponsorship among other issues and also maintains contact with the scientific committee which oversees the scientific program. Further, the planning committee continues to work with the UN in organizing day three of the conference, which will comprise a dialogue between researchers, scientists, and stakeholders, including decision makers, policy makers, private sector participants, and NGOs.
“At the heart of the conference and the main factor in its success will be the participation, and we expect more than 500 participants,” says Prof. Schlosser. Further, several prominent keynote speakers including Prof. Nina Fedoroff, Prof. Klaus Töpfer, Dr. Lester Brown, and Prof. Jeffrey Sachs have been confirmed with more still to come.
Columbia students will also play an active role in the conference as volunteers and participants; there will be approximately 40 participation slots for Columbia students. “We encourage participation from students, mainly graduate students, to present their work,” reveals Prof. Schlosser, further saying, “it is important for us to hear what students are thinking and for them to hear what the community thinks.”
Charting a path forward, shaping the dialogue
One objective of the ISDRC will be to inform the Rio+20 conference in 2012. With the Earth Summit 2012 still in a formative state, two main themes have crystallized: Green Economy in the context of Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development and Institutional Frameworks for Sustainable Development.
Looking at the developments since the previous Earth Summit, the need to revisit and the 1992 agenda becomes evident. Even though the main outcomes of the Earth Summit agenda of 1992 were comprehensive, implementation has been very slow. Further, since the Earth Summit of 1992, new undesirable features have emerged, such as the financial crisis with negative impacts on many economies threatening many aspects of society, including environmental issues.
Many members of the sustainable development community think that the Kyoto and UNFCC processes have not made sufficient progress in terms of setting emission targets and limits. Other issues emerged and Prof. Schlosser expresses that, “water stress is one environmental issue that has become an area of direct concern.” Considering these factors, the global Sustainable Development community felt it was time to revisit the Earth Summit Agenda, thus creating the premise for Earth Summit 2012.
One of the Summit’s goals would be to review the original agenda and clarify which goals have been accomplished and which not. Prof. Schlosser indicates that the general purpose of the summit would be to “try to get new momentum while taking into account, and keeping in mind, that the situation has become even more complex than it already was at Earth Summit 1992.”
Aside from the delineated themes, the details of the Summit 2012 are still emerging as organizers try to get input from all stakeholders and look at results from various scientific and research groups. “We hope that we can feed into the process of informing the summit by summarizing our discussions and deliberations on pathways towards a sustainable future,” says Prof. Schlosser.