Global synthesis of environmental knowledge vs. national action for sustainability: challenges and opportunities

Globally, we are seeing more and more interdisciplinary efforts to collaborate across different global environmental assessments and to synthesize messages on action that has potential for wide-ranging sustainability benefits. But what does that mean for the national science-policy-society interface?

Photo by Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash

On 23rd September 2021, Finnish Environmental Institute, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and Forum for Environmental Information, with support from the Ministry of Environment of Finland, organized a webinar and a workshop to discuss the role of global synthesis of environmental knowledge in sustainability transformation. Globally, we are seeing more and more interdisciplinary efforts to collaborate across different global environmental assessments and to synthesize messages on action that has potential for wide-ranging sustainability benefits. But what does that mean for the national science-policy-society interface?

The event gathered knowledge producers and users from Finland and international experts together to ponder what global and national attempts to break out from silos of environmental knowledge production could learn from each other and how to harness related best practices. The event started with a public webinar and Q& A -session to frame the current state of efforts to synthesize global environmental assessments and to collaborate between major assessment bodies.

Promoting synergies between global environmental assessments: focus for impact

The first speaker, UNEP’s Chief Scientist Andrea Hinwood, highlighted the evolution of global environmental assessments in response to sustainability challenges. She also informed the audience about UNEP’s efforts in supporting interdisciplinary collaboration, including dialogue between major global assessment bodies.

Since the first earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972, approximately 160 different global environmental assessments (GEAs) have been produced. These assessments have pinpointed the urgency of climate change and biodiversity crises, and they are an elemental knowledge base for decision making. However, as data and reports have started to pile up, the question of how GEAs should evolve, has emerged.

The key question is whether traditional thematic assessments which are focused on single topic at a time, such as climate change or biodiversity, can offer solutions which support tackling of the intertwined, multidimensional global environmental crises. Are new reports just restating the problem and not responding to real policy needs to achieve sustainability transformation?

In her talk, Andrea Hinwood suggested that if we want to have a stronger impact on the ground and to improve environmental outcomes, the next step of global assessments should be more focused on solutions and presentation of policy options. She highlighted the need for accessible tools based on multiscalar knowledge which can offer tangible solutions for the society.

“I think we need to be really clear on what question we are asking and what we are answering and how we're doing that. And that we're focused and providing accessible open and transparent processes and outputs, which includes digital transformation. That we look at science and engagement across the silos, and we integrate a broader range of stakeholders, including the business and industry.”

Andrea Hinwood

In response to these developments, UNEP has been coordinating a process called the Ad Hoc Global Assessment Dialogue since 2018, with the main objective of finding synergies and opportunities for coordination across major global environmental assessments. It also serves to mainstream different environmental issues and solutions across the assessments and to share scenarios and deliberate different policy options, assessing their impact on various aspects of the environment. As a deliberative forum, it is an opportunity to enhance the science-policy interface and to progress the solutions.

The role of knowledge synthesis for the shift to sustainability

The second key note speaker, Ivar Baste of the Norwegian Environment Agency, is the lead author of the Making Peace with Nature report. As UNEP’s first synthesis report, the Making Peace with Nature report has sought to integrate the messages of major GEAs to outline how the interconnected global crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution can be jointly tackled.

The strong central message of the report is that we must shift from transforming nature to transforming humankind’s relationship with nature. It also urges us to act quickly, since the more we delay action, the more it will take from future generations to solve the problem, as Ivar Baste noted in his talk. To facilitate this shift, the report calls for the humankind to start fundamental changes in the technological, economic, and social organization of the society, including transformations in world views, norms, values and governance. In particular, major shifts in investment and regulation are key to overcoming inertia and transforming the economic and financial systems towards sustainability.

While the picture that the report paints of the state of our environment is rather gloomy, it also stresses that we can still act, and we have good opportunities to change the course of the future.

“Society needs to use its unprecedented knowledge capacities for identifying and embarking upon the transformational pathways to the sustainable future. Equally important is that the knowledge must be understood, owned and acted upon by the many decision-making entities that make up today's polycentric world. And it needs to be understood also by those who have to follow all the rules and regulations.”

Ivar Baste

No platform or report can influence policy unless decision makers have an understanding and ownership of the underlying problems and solutions. This understanding should also be shared by the society on the whole; the citizens, companies and industry that are influenced by policy, to make rules and regulation more palatable.

The speakers agreed that one of the keys to this challenge is knowledge co-creation which brings together different sectors from the society and allows them to develop mutual understandings of problems and solutions. Knowledge co-creation would also help tackling political “cherry picking” i.e., using only those parts of the scientific knowledge which support certain political agendas.

From global knowledge to national action

Ivar Baste finished his talk by provoking the audience to think about how the messages and processes from global assessments could be applied and customized to the national level, to power the shift to sustainability. This served as an introduction to the second part of the event, a workshop for invited participants from UNEP, the Finnish Expert panels on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, representing key interlocutors of global assessment knowledge for the national context, as well as representatives from different Finnish ministries that apply the knowledge for various purposes.

The workshop focused on two main topics: the added value of global environmental knowledge syntheses for national sustainability action, and the best practices to facilitate collaboration between different expert bodies to break out of thematic silos.

The added value of synthesis reports

Cross-thematic knowledge syntheses were considered essential for deepening understanding of the systemic and multi-scalar nature of various interconnected environmental challenges and communicating them to a range of societal actors from politicians to ordinary citizens. They facilitate understanding why simple solutions are rarely available while pinpointing what needs to change to achieve sustainability transformations

As processes, synthesis assessments may provide a unique space for bringing actors together to deliberate intertwined global environmental challenges and actions needed to tackle them. These processes support capacity building, allowing the participants to network and to acquire new knowledge and skills. Knowledge synthesis may also encourage scientists to utilize more interdisciplinary research approaches.

The global assesments and their clear messages can also function to legitimize national action. For Finnish knowledge users, assessment reports provide ‘a universally known tool’ to communicate urgency and to justify intended actions in society. As they are compiled of the results of vast bodies of research, they are perceived as highly credible. Their established ‘brands’ and wide accessibility facilitate the uptake of the knowledge in different instances, including the media.

Assessment reports have an important role in informing the public and bringing people together on environmental issues. Organized citizens may influence decision-making by e.g. pressuring (and electing) political decision makers in local governments to act toward common goals. Therefore, the public can give impetus to the implementation of the synthesis reports’ key messages nationally and foster the changes in local and regional surroundings.

It was felt that while the synthesis reports repeat the messages from different sources and constituencies, they are important in refining and updating the story on how the humanity can live sustainably within the finite capacities of the Earth.

Overly broad messages can hinder national application

Despite these various advantages, the participants also recognized difficulties related to the application of global knowledge synthesis in national contexts. When the syntheses are compiled of the key messages of thematic reports, they easily end up being overly broad and universal, requiring extensive contextualization of the knowledge and the key messages which then become subject to the intrinsically political national processes.

Another risk is related to the audience: the assessment process may create and reinforce an elite space for the ‘already converted’ experts. At the same time, problem-focused and general messages may result in frustration among the public instead of instigating action in the society.

Perhaps one of the most challenging issues related to making use of the cross-thematic knowledge syntheses is the siloed structure of the current governance systems. While knowledge production is slowly breaking out of thematic and disciplinary siloes, the corresponding governance and decision-making structures at both international as well as national levels remain highly sectoral. The sectors may use and interpret the available knowledge in very different ways, and the added value of systemic, holistic perspectives and solutions is lost.

Bridging the scales and sectors

Different ideas to overcome the identified challenges were explored. For instance, the Finnish Expert Panel for Sustainable Development has produced a solution-orientated, concise interpretation of the key messages of the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 in the Finnish context (“Six paths towards sustainability”). However, it was noted that countries are in widely different positions in terms of the resources to produce such national versions of global environmental assessments. Alternatively, global assessments could offer models and tools as basis for national scenarios to be created with national data, when and where relevant data are available.

Both global and national experts recognized the importance of analyzing and actively promoting cross-sectoral practices and processes. This is the main solution to advance holistic approaches and to demolish siloes, and to ultimately transform the systems towards sustainability.

Best practices for cross-thematic collaboration

The experiences of collaboration by the Finnish expert panels were contrasted with those of the Ad Hoc Global Assessment Dialogue facilitated by UNEP. By the time being, the collaboration between national expert panels has been characterized by the identification of joint themes and interlinkages of panels’ thematic approaches. The expert panels have sought to influence national decision-making by producing joint statements to support relevant policy processes. Joining forces to produce outputs, such as policy briefs, was perceived as a potential solution to overcome resource-related challenges. Furthermore, the experts saw that joint media releases can increase the coverage of topics and attention to the interlinkages between topics and systems, thus enabling a wider uptake of the messages beyond the panels’ traditional stakeholders, and supporting the development of systemic understanding among the public.

Producing global knowledge syntheses is somewhat less resource-intensive than producing traditional thematic assessments and may fill in existing knowledge gaps. These syntheses could function as a starting point for expert panels seeking to jointly advise national decision making. When translating messages from global syntheses for the national settings, the mandate of the Finnish scientific expert panels allows for being more policy prescriptive (and independent) than their global counterparts. Thus, the panels could formulate applicable, targeted messages and potential solution-oriented pathways for the national decision making.

Final take-away

Considering the novelty of synthesis reports that integrate various environmental emergencies and solutions, the experts taking part in the workshop also reflected on more familiar efforts to “domesticate” global reports that focus on a single environmental theme, such as biodiversity or climate change. As a result, the question on the added value of cross-thematic synthesis was repeatedly raised. The consensus was clear: we need both thematic assessments that effectively communicate the perspectives of each environmental challenge, as well as syntheses that guide us towards solutions with potential for multiple sustainability benefits.

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