8th International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) Welcomed 1700+ Participants from 149 Countries Online

The 8th International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) went virtual for the first time on September 21 and 22, 2020! The event brought together 1,738 participants from 149 different countries to discuss Cross-Cutting Solutions for the Decade of Action. The two day conference hosted 14 different sessions across multiple time zones to accommodate our global audience, with 150 posters and 211 oral presentations given.

Below is a summary of the 10 plenary sessions held, including keynote remarks from H.E. Mia Mottley of Barbados, our Kapuscinski Development Lecture by Ms. Inger Andresen, Executive Director of UNEP, and a discussion between Dr. Tao Zhang of the IMF and Jeffrey Sachs.

Day 1

Plenary 1, University Leadership for the Decade of Action

ICSD kicked off the conference by showcasing innovative approaches that universities in the Asia/Pacific region are implementing to increase their societal value and impact on the SDGs. The session was developed in response to the challenge made by our speaker Mike Crow, President of Arizona State University, at a recent event of the UN Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, that universities need to change the way they operate and be more connected to the community to have real impact. Moderated by John Thwaites, Chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, speakers discussed opportunities for universities to accelerate action on the SDGs.

President Crow set an urgent tone by stating that universities have as much a responsibility for our current predicaments as any other class of institutions. He put a challenging question to speakers and participants alike, asking of higher education, “Are we advancing the social learning capacity of the general population to be able to deal with the complexities that sustainability presents?” Professor Kit Poon from Tsinghua University agreed that his comments were relevant, stating that universities need to have more impact on the community, but that there are also challenges we need to bear in mind. She gave as an example the trend of universities to prioritise international rankings, which requires producing numerous publications emphasizing theoretical research, perhaps to the detriment of more evidence-based research with the potential for real impact.

Dawn Freshwater, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland, mentioned the paradox of living in an environment of ‘toxic speed sickness’ while, on the things that really matter, it seems we drag our feet. She emphasized two keywords that had been mentioned throughout the session, impact and relevance, and that university leaders must empower people to work on these very important issues. John Thwaites closed the session by reminding participants that universities have a large influence on governing bodies who can directly impact those in need.

Plenary 2, Mapping nature and its benefits to jointly address biodiversity loss and climate change

Participants joined SDSN, IIASA, and UNEP-WCMC in the second plenary to learn about their new tool, Nature Map, that supports decision making for integrated strategies covering biodiversity, carbon, water, and other nature services. Moderated by Guido Schmidt-Traub, Executive-Director at SDSN, the panel discussed how this tool can be used to protect biodiversity and curb climate change. Dr. Schmidt-Traub outlined the need for Nature Map, citing the IPBES’ global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services as well as the IPCC 1.5°C report which demonstrate that we are not on track to reach the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. Animal populations have declined, on average, 68% since 1970 worldwide, with specific regions losing a much higher percentage. Nature Map was set up to address two sets of issues: the fragmented and inaccessible spatial data on biodiversity, carbon, and nature services as well as the lack of maps within national biodiversity and climate strategies.

Neil Burgess, the Chief Scientist at UNEP-WCMC, gave an overview of the policy-science interface within Nature Map. Using the three objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Nature Map addresses “diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems.” Following a consultation process with the scientific community, several initial maps that measure different levels of biodiversity were released online. These maps feed into the UN Biodiversity Lab and the Nature Map team continues to work with the Lab to improve the tool. Piero Visconti, a Research Scholar on Ecosystems Services and Management at IIASA, explained how Nature Map will improve spatial information of nature. Using extensive data collections, the maps are able to identify the extent of suitable habitats, improve our current knowledge on the spatial distribution of human impact on forests, and develop more accurate estimates of global clean water provision. Recent data was also synthesized to develop a consistent global biomass carbon map which gives a view of ‘vulnerable carbon,’ or carbon that would be lost if land-use is transitioned from its current state into anthropogenic uses.

Participants then watched a video from Adrian Monjeau, Senior Researcher at CONICET, which demonstrated the application of Nature Map at the national level in Argentina. In this case study, Nature Map was used to locate sites where biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, and the protection of water sources coincide spatially. An international team of researchers from IIASA, SDSN, WCMC, FABLE, and King’s College London met with politicians, such as personnel from the Ministry of the Environment, to establish joint goals for the medium- and long-term, and a consensus on a road map to follow based on science and political feasibility. By running models that combined the water, biodiversity, and carbon maps, they were able to identify the top priority areas of conservation and protection.

Plenary 3, Multilateral Financing of the SDGs: African & Asian Experiences

This session turned to the financial sector, showcasing organizations that provide multilateral financing of the SDGs on the continents of both Africa and Asia. The panel included university professors, practitioners in international development, and representatives of financial institutions, and the session highlighted opportunities to mobilize efforts through cross-cutting strategies and strong partnerships. Phoebe Koundouri, Professor at the School of Economics at Athens University of Economics and Business, moderated the panel and opened by discussing the challenges the 2020 pandemic has placed on the efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030.

Jeffrey Sachs, President of SDSN, discussed a new framework for understanding the SDGs in the form of Six Transformations: Education, Gender, and Inequality; Health, Wellbeing, and Demography; Energy Decarbonization and Sustainable Energy; Sustainable Food, Land, Water, and Oceans; Sustainable Cities and Communities; and the Digital Revolution for Sustainable Development. Each one of these transformations require massive investment, so the question becomes how do we finance these investments? Sachs emphasized the need for governments across the world to increase tax revenue through international tax reforms that hold multinational corporations responsible for local taxes rather than moving their revenues into tax havens. Amadou Thierno Diallo, Director of Global Practices, Economic, and Social Infrastructure at the Islamic Development Bank Group (IsDBG), spoke on the rapid growth in development financing and the importance of IsDBG’s role in filling the financial gap that limits SDG achievement. However, he states that it has not been used to its full ability and strategic awareness is needed amongst development practitioners.

Chief Nathaniel Ebo Nsarko, Executive Director of Millennium Promise, made the case for building an evidence-base for action to implement the SDGs. Dependency on financial institutions such as development banks, donors, and partners, must give way to self financing options where countries can cover financing for the SDGs through their national budgets. He also called for action by governments to integrate the SDGs into their political commitments. Our last speaker, Bernard Woods, of the Results Management and Aid Effectiveness Division (SPRA) of the Strategy, Policy and Review Department (SPD) at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), began by asking, “Where is the money going to come from?” International public finance and private finance holds a very small percentage of the total cash being used to finance in the SDGs, according to data from the UNDP. Woods stated that it is going to come from the countries themselves, by improving tax guidelines as Sachs said, and getting the private sector to invest in development. In light of this, the ADB has implemented a new strategy for the next decade to help finance the SDGs, which includes expanding private sector operations, catalyzing and mobilizing finance for development, and strengthening knowledge services.

Plenary 4, Keynote Address: Dr. Tao Zhang, Deputy Managing Director, IMF

In this session, Dr. Tao Zhang, Deputy Managing Director at the IMF, gave a keynote address that touched on how we can limit the economic fallout from the effects of the 2020 pandemic and the role that multilateral cooperation has to play (see transcript). He made the strong point that the virus does not stop at borders, making it a truly global crisis. Zhang advocated for coordinated international strategies to fight the virus and its economic impacts, as this is more effective than going at it alone, although cooperation has been slow to happen. Following two devastating wars countries recognized the benefits of multilateral cooperation, but we’ve seen that trust in these systems has been declining in recent years.

As with most global crises, developing countries have been hit hard by the pandemic. Falling exports, sharp capital outflows, lower receipts from remittances, and lower earnings from tourism have been some of the impacts. Zhang cited several statistics: developed economies boosted spending by 9% of GDP whereas developing countries on average were only able to boost their spending by 2% since the pandemic has hit. This is simply not enough to cover their immediate needs, and in the longer term is likely making it more difficult to achieve the SDGs by 2030. National governments have a role to play by allocating funds more appropriately, raising taxes efficiently, and using taxes more equally. Other sectors will need to get more involved, but a key point made by Zhang is the benefits of working together and the important work of multilateral institutions. These institutions have, in the past, played a huge role in helping countries restructure their debt in the wake of a crisis and we can expect the same following the current pandemic.

While the pandemic has rocked the globe this year, climate change still remains a priority. Zhang stated that countries have a lot of work to do to make the kind of investments at the scale required to adapt to the changing climate. There is certainly an aspect of multilateral cooperation needed here as well, as developing countries will need guidance and financial assistance. These institutions can also support mitigation to slow or stop climate change.

Following Zhang’s address, Professor Jeffrey Sachs led a discussion with questions from the audience. He dove into the IMF’s Article 4, a mandate that requires yearly consultation with finance ministers from every nation, asking “Is there a way to use the Article 4 consultation to discuss climate change systematically with governments?” Zhang confirmed that at this moment, nations are still trying to get their economies back on track in response to COVID-19, and therefore the IMF halted Article 4 until very recently. Moving forward, climate change will be more integrated into their operations, including their technical assistance and capacity building efforts within their financial assistance services.

Plenary 5, Pathways for Progress in Climate Change Education in the US

This session included practitioners in the field of climate change education, as well as experts on national education policy and good practices. Moderators Radhika Iyengar, Education Sector Director at the Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Christina Kwauk, Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, opened the event with an overview of the landscape of climate change education in the United States.

Isabelle Seckler, a second-year student at Columbia University, encouraged students to advocate for increased climate change materials in all departments, not just environmental and earth sciences, and emphasized that interdisciplinary skills are highly in demand right now. Seckler shared an example of writing a paper looking at the economics of environmental justice for an entry-level economics course. Shakira Provasoli, a K–5 Environmental Science Teacher in New York City Public School 333, highlighted as a key challenge that many teachers are assigned a set curriculum and that their careers are heavily influenced by test scores. Provasoli advocated integrating climate information into existing lesson plans as a way to address this.

Iveta Silova, Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education at Arizona State University, highlighted as a challenge the false assumption that greater science literacy will lead to behavioral change and improved environmental outcomes. Rather, Silova said what is needed is greater attention to the role of culture and values, and more emphasis on the social sciences and humanities to generate new norms of understanding the world, and our relationships to all living and nonliving things in it. Frank Niepold, Climate Education Coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office, said that if we are serious about addressing climate change, we need to look at a comprehensive, structural change across our education system at the same level and scale as we advocate for when thinking about national policy and economic structures.

Karen Cowe, CEO at Ten Strands, highlighted some successful stories from California’s experience, such as a program with the University of California system to coach and support teachers on climate literacy. Cowe agreed that the only way to address climate change education is to integrate climate into existing curricula, and not make it an additional add-on for teachers.

This panel was also used as a case study for an early childhood teacher education class in the School of Education at the City College of New York (CUNY). Please see the below video and summary to learn more.

My name is Amita Gupta and I am a Professor of Education at the City College of New York. With me here on Zoom is my graduate class for the course I am teaching on Social Studies in Early Childhood Education. Most of the students here are in-service teachers working in New York City schools.

Geography is one of the four primary standards of Social Studies and includes sub-standards such as Our Environment, Caring for our Earth, Land and Water, Flora and Fauna, Conservation and Recycling, Location and Mapping, How People control the environment, How environment impacts lifestyles, How people, products and ideas travel between places, and so forth.

One of the assignments for this class was to view the panel discussion on Pathways for Progress in Climate Change Education in the US organized by the International Conference on Sustainable Development. One issue that was raised several times during this panel discussion was that teachers were inadequately prepared on the topic of addressing climate change in the classrooms and there was general agreement on the importance of including Educating for Sustainability into the Teacher Education Curriculum.

Our class agreed that this topic can be infused into all our teacher ed courses and that it is never too early to begin addressing issues of Environmental Awareness and Climate Change in PreK-12 schools even with young children. My students will present their ideas individually on how this can be done in very age appropriate ways and how these learning experiences can be connected to an early childhood curriculum.

Day 2

Plenary 6, The Making of Happy Digital Cities & the Role of Blended Finance

This session was moderated by Cherie Nursalim, Co-Chair of SDSN Southeast Asia and Vice Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, who described the Balinese Tri Hita Karana (Three Ways to Happiness) philosophy., which organizes the SDGs in alignment around harmony of people, ecology, and the spiritual, as the framework for the conversation. The panel was formally opened with remarks from H.E. Suharso Monoarfa, Minister of National Development Planning and Chairman of the National Development Planning Agency for the Republic of Indonesia. The Minister highlighted the many ways that digital technology and innovation can support happier and healthy cities, as well as SDG achievement, and also called for greater financing to realize its full potential.

Elkhonon Goldberg, Director of the Luria Neuroscience Institute and Clinical Professor in the Department of Neurology at New York University of School of Medicine, spoke about the neuroscience of happiness. Goldberg described that a new research center on this topic will open shortly in Bali, Indonesia, and the center will explore research questions such as how feelings of happiness can be connected to “happy biochemicals” such as oxytocin, as well as differences in happiness between cultures. Leslie Maasdorp, Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer at The New Development Bank, looked at the role of development banks in supporting the long-term public good, recovery from the current economic crisis, and supporting global well-being, especially sustainable cities. Maasdorp noted that the pandemic is affecting countries in different ways, and so banks need to respond with tailored interventions for each circumstance, supported by strong social solidarity and a commitment to global multilateralism and inclusion.

Kruskaia Sierra-Escalante, Senior Manager for Blended Finance at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), presented a roadmap for blended finance. Sierra-Escalante noted that it works very well in cities, education, and the energy sector, and is being expanded to other sectors. Blended finance is a good tool to expand investment in the digital space, and can support other desirable outcomes, like gender balance and deepening links between urban and rural areas. Andre Uhl, Co-Founder of The Council on Extended Intelligence, noted that we are at a critical turning point in history, where the expansion of digital technologies are offering more opportunities than ever before. However, at the same time, we are experiencing environmental destruction and rising inequality on a scale never seen before. Uhl’s work is looking to millennia of spiritual experience to inform and transform technology and intelligence to better reflect and support societal and environmental values.

Plenary 7, Launch of the SDSN report: Accelerating Education for the SDGs in Universities

Maria Cortes-Puch, Vice President for Networks at the SDSN, moderated the session, which opened with a keynote by John Thwaites, Chair of both the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and SDSN Australia, New Zealand & Pacific. Thwaites highlighted the urgency of meeting the SDGs in the next decade, especially given the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the important role universities have to play in addressing both COVID-19 response and the SDGs. Thwaites noted that the new report, Accelerating Education for the SDGs in Universities: A guide for universities, colleges, and tertiary and higher education institutions, is an important tool for universities to understand their role and take action. Tahl Kestin, Research Program Manager at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and Manager for SDSN Australia, New Zealand & Pacific, followed Thwaites and described the structure of the report, summarized the chapters, and promoted the 50 case studies that support the report’s findings.

The second half of the session was a panel discussion between Maria Garcia Alvarez, Lecturer at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, Ram Kumar, Co-Founder and Lead Strategist at UniGlow, Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, and Carlos Mataix, Director of itdUPM. Garcia Alvarez highlighted the challenge of training lecturers across higher education to integrate the SDGs into their research and teaching, and how Windesheim is striving to teach more systematic thinking and approaches. Kupe noted that they are trying to mobilize the entire university in support of the SDGs, and they have done so by incorporating the SDGs and SDG indicators into the 5-year strategic plans of the University of Pretoria. The university also launched four new interdisciplinary research centers to address complex challenges. Mataix shared his experience, from the perspective of a center within a university that was able to expand their impact across the institution. Mataix highlighted incremental thinking as a key obstacle to ambitious, innovative, and bold transformation in universities. Kumar shared that in his experience, getting management to buy in and recognize the importance of the SDGs was the key challenge. Kumar also noted that if universities are not training students to be effective problem solvers they are not achieving their key objectives and teaching them the skills to succeed.

Plenary 8, Keynote Address: H.E. Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados & Panel Discussion: Global Leadership for the Energy Transition

Prime Minister Mottley delivered an inspiring keynote speech that touched on several critical issues, including the climate crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, and the economic impacts of the pandemic. Mottley highlighted numerous ways that climate change is affecting Barbados, including increased intensity of hurricanes, more frequent droughts and floods, and plagues of sargassum seaweed, which are affecting tourism, fisheries, and the health of coral reefs around Barbados. Mottley called on the world to hear the voices of small island states, who have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions, but stand to be among the most adversely affected, and come up with ambitious, equitable solutions. The Prime Minister suggested that additional financial mechanisms offered with low or zero interest rates could support adaptation and resilience in small island nations. Mottley also advocated for meaningful solutions to the existing debt challenges of these nations, which have been significantly exacerbated by COVID-19, falling government revenues, and the loss of economic productivity, particularly in the tourism sector. Mottley suggested that very long-term, low-interest loans, similar to those used to rebuild Europe after World War II, could be a key solution to the crisis and give countries the fiscal room to address this challenge. The Prime Minister cited housing stock, water and sanitation infrastructure, and restoration of coral reefs as key areas needing investment to increase resilience to future storms. Mottley closed by calling for strong global leadership and support to multilateralism, saying, “My friends, this is a moment for the world to determine if global leadership is capable, and whether we can rise to the occasion, to summon the political will for that global leadership. Regrettably, what we see is a world that is seeking hard to unravel the gains of multilateralism, unravel the gains of over 70 years of the United Nations, however imperfect.”

Following the keynote address, Neha Mukhi, Senior Specialist on Energy and Climate Change at The World Bank, presented key messages from their recent report, World Bank Outlook 2050, which describes long-term strategies for economic growth and decarbonization. Mukhi noted that the strategies in the report also support job creation, but objectives need to be well-aligned across the short-, medium-, and long-term to realize their full potential. She also noted that these policies help reduce risk and send clear market signals, to more efficiently bring about the energy transition.

Plenary 9, Multilateral action can unlock the full potential of a green COVID-19 recovery

In this session, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, delivered a Kapuscinsky Development Lecture Keynote, titled Multilateral action can unlock the full potential of a green COVID-19 recovery. Koen Doens, Director-General for International Cooperation and Development at the European Commission, introduced the lecture and Andersen, and following her talk, Jeffrey Sachs, President of the SDSN, moderated a discussion.

In his introduction, Doens highlighted the green recovery policies passed by the European Union, which not only aim to rebuild economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to support the transition to a green economy, with growth in renewable energy and green jobs. Doens noted that “The European Green Deal is Europe’s growth strategy; a transformative agenda to combine policies to tackle climate change, to reverse biodiversity loss, and eliminate pollution by moving to a circular economy while leaving no one behind.” He also highlighted plans for greater engagement between Europe and Africa.

Andersen’s lecture (transcript available) focused on three crises that pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic: the climate crisis, the nature or biodiversity crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis, driven by humans’ unsustainable consumption and production. Andersen warned that this a direct threat to humans as well, saying that “nature, which makes human health and prosperity possible, is at breaking point.” The solutions Andersen presented are, on the one hand, stronger multilateralism and greater global cooperation, and on the other, building back better from the pandemic by using economic recovery packages to support the transition to sustainable economies.

On multilateralism, Andersen noted that it is easy to be cynical, as several multilateral agreements have not fully delivered their desired outcomes. However, she pointed to the success of the Montreal Protocol and the significant progress made towards designating protected areas in response to the Aichi Targets as reasons for optimism. She also applauded the Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the United Nations which called for strengthening multilateralism.

On a green recovery, Andersen noted that “spending on renewable energy can generate 2.5 times more jobs than fossil fuels.” She made several recommendations for crafting stimulus packages, including attaching “green strings” to corporate bailouts, investing in nature-based solutions such as sustainable agriculture and green infrastructure, investing in research and development for green technologies, and ending fossil fuel subsidies.

During the discussion, Sachs asked Andersen to comment on how to realize biodiversity targets at the local level. Andersen highlighted four key drivers of biodiversity loss: deforestation, invasive species, infrastructure, and agriculture. The challenge is getting all ministries and government departments to address biodiversity concerns in an integrated manner; for example, a Ministry of Environment cannot be the sole implementer of these targets. Given the interdisciplinary of drivers, Ministries of Infrastructure and Agriculture also need to be at the table, implementing and enforcing programs and solutions, such as addressing the use of pesticides. Anderson also emphasized that biodiversity is not being lost from protected areas, but rather from all other areas, including cities and farm fields, and so we need to look for solutions that support biodiversity conservation in these areas.

Plenary 10, Job Opportunities and the Clean Energy Transition

The final session of the conference focused on job opportunities within the clean energy transition. Speakers came from the United States, Europe, and Korea to give a global perspective and to compare and contrast strategies. Phoebe Koundouri, Professor at the School of Economics at Athens University of Economics and Business, moderated the panel and opened by asking key questions around the clean energy transition: Is it feasible with regards to the job losses that it entails? Does it create new jobs? How many of them? How can we make sure that the people in the workforce have the skills to respond to these jobs?

Bob Pollin, Distinguished University Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, dove into the numbers, presenting his method for calculating how many jobs a clean energy transition would create. In his presentation, he looked at five largely fossil-fuel producing countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States. Pollin’s models show that investing in a clean energy transition would create about two to three times more jobs per dollar of expenditure. There is variation, but clean energy investments are on average job generators when compared to the fossil fuel industry.

Mirko Armiento, a Senior Researcher at the Enel Foundation, presented the results of their study, E-quality: Shaping an Inclusive Energy Transition. The study asks, “How can we assess the effects of decarbonization policies on inequality?” The research focused on six key policies which can achieve a 95% CO2 reduction by 2050 in Europe. The report finds that a well-balanced package of decarbonization policies should brace an inclusive energy transition. Considering their simplicity, effectiveness, and deployability, four key mitigating policy options were selected: redistributing revenues through lump-sum transfers or lowering VAT/taxes on electricity, the implementation of targeted energy efficiency measures with no upfront costs, long-term job retraining programs, and funding of subsidies for new low-carbon technologies via carbon revenues and general taxation to avoid uneven bearing of the costs.

Our final speaker, Yongsung Cho, President of the Korea Energy Economics Institute, shared his insights into the Korean New Deal, which was announced in July 2020. The New Deal has at its foundation a vision to be a first-mover economy, a low-carbon economy, and inclusive society. It includes 10 key projects organized in three categories: digital new deal, digital and green, and green new deal. Korea’s plan is unique in that it focuses on the digital transformation, which will promote digital innovation, improve industrial and technological innovation, and increase investment in human resources for more jobs. The deal also proposed eight projects focused on strengthening the social safety net, which is fundamental to a people-centered and inclusive country.