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Top UCPH scientist: Rio summit not a failure

The Rio +20 Earth Summit was not a total failure, according to professor and leader of UCPH's Sustainability Science Center Katherine Richardson. She talked to the University Post about the future of sustainability and how scientists can compete with lobbyists

Communicating with politicians, collaborating with businesses and interdisciplinary research within the university are just some of the necessary steps in achieving sustainability policies. This is according to Professor Katherine Richardson from the University of Copenhagen.

Richardson is the leader of Sustainability Science Center at the University of Copenhagen, a research group that has created much debate with their investigation into Earth’s limited resources. On coming back from the Rio +20 Earth Summit, Richardson shares with the University Post that things are not as bad as they first seem.

»We like to give achievement grades to individual summits. But instead of this we should see the events as part of a larger process towards sustainable development« she argues.

Small steps forward

And moving forward in this process is crucial according to Katherine Richardson. Her research has among other things shown that the earth today is on the verge of a tipping point – a point at which a system moves into a new and different state. On Earth this change is caused by recent human action.

According to Richardson, the planet as a system has been stable for nearly ten thousand years in which the human species has been active. Today however, our planet is at the worst point in its history despite us knowing most about it. Politically it is important to take precautionary steps, as nobody knows what to expect of the new state.

»Right now our society’s attempt to adopt sustainable practices and policies can be compared to a car stuck in the snow. To get it out you can push or pull – but usually we do both« Katherine explains.

»To pull society out of sustainability issues we need a global sustainability agreement. However, I do not believe that this is possible. Instead, we will push society forward with small steps. One of the steps is the Rio summit«.

The eleventh hour rescue

In this view, the sustainability policies are moving forward. Katherine Richardson reminds us that sustainability policies truly came on the political agenda at the Copenhagen COP 15 summit in 2009. And despite no concrete agreements being made at the Rio +20 Earth Summit this year, hope is not lost.

»I am concerned that things are not going faster, but I am not a pessimist«, Katherine explains. »Humanity is standing before its biggest challenge ever. But perhaps the solution will not move linearly like one wants to expect. Solutions to climate issues might accelerate at the eleventh hour«.

The research of the Sustainability Science Center of UCPH is not one of a kind. And according to Richardson, scientists have become better at using their knowledge proactively to affect the political agenda.

Setting things straight

However, not everything is going smoothly. A few days before the Rio summit, American think tank ‘The Break Through’ made an attempt to discredit the research by among others Katherine Richardson on Earth’s limited resources and the tipping point. This was done according to Richardson at a very »strategic point and in a very well-coordinated and well-financed attempt«.

»Attempts to discredit our research definitely slow the process« Richardson explains. »As scientists we have been taught not to lobby. But we must go back to the drawing board and find a conceptual idea of communicating our research«.

According to Katherine Richardson think tanks, such as ‘The Break Through’, have bigger media and political influence. However, she is getting in the battle by sending together with colleagues a letter to ‘The Economist’ that will hopefully »set things straight«.

Ultimately truth will prevail

»The letter for ‘The Economist’ that my colleagues and I have written is a new way of communicating for me and quite challenging« Richardson explains.

However, Katherine Richardson believes that ultimately, truth will prevail.

»I mean if you look at the world from space, it is clear to see that there simply are no more resources once the current ones are used up. You get a reality check. Many businesses have already noticed the rising resource prices and some have started collaborating with us. Many politicians still need more convincing«.

Collaboration the way forward

According to Richardson, the University of Copenhagen is a good place to work on sustainability policies. In contrast to more technical universities, the University of Copenhagen is also equipped with researchers working on global market research and global governance – which, according to Richardson, are just as important as technology in solving sustainability issues.

»To make changes you need science, business and policy makers«, Katherine argues. »Science sets the goalposts, business provides the locomotive and policy makers representing the people provide the framework within which to work«.

»At the Sustainability Science Center we have just made a promising strategic collaboration with Maersk shipping company«, Katherine shares. »And if I am to have some predictions about the future, I would say interdisciplinary collaborations both inside and outside the university are the way forward«.

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