As strange as it may seem, but I exchanged briefly my view on the Rockies with a view on the Alps, having had the unique opportunity to attend a meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, which took place in Alpbach (Austria) from 30 August to 1st September. The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group is a global sustainability think-tank organized jointly by the European Forum Alpbach and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).
The main purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to implement and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – to be adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 September – while seeking also linkages with the Climate Agreement which will hopefully be adopted at the COP21 Conference in Paris at the end of the year. The meeting participants included a large number of movers and shakers of the international sustainability agenda as well as other influential decision-makers, such as Amina Mohammed (Special Adviser to Ban Ki-moon for the Sustainable Development Goals), Jeffrey Sachs (Director of the Earth Institute of Columbia University), Tarja Halonen (former President of Finland), Gordon McBean (President of the International Council for Science ICSU), former EU Commissioners Janez Potočnik and Stefan Füle, and the Environment Minister of Luxembourg (country currently holding the EU Presidency) Carole Dieschbourg.
The first day of the meeting consisted of a plenary brainstorming, taking place under a beautiful blue sky and in an unusually hot environment: the Rossmoss Alm near Alpbach. During the debate participants voiced that it has been a great achievement to convince all UN Member States to agree on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Despite being a compromise and some criticizing their number, they are very ambitious and far from being a “lowest common denominator”. Also they are more than just “Millennium Development Goals 2.0” as they truly integrate the environment and development agendas. Their implementation will be a challenge for both the Global North and South alike – not only for governments, but also for individual citizens as the goals will require also a change in lifestyles. The day concluded with a dinner which was attended by the President of Austria Heinz Fischer.
On day 2 the group split into 8 working groups, the topics being chosen by the participants and being as diverse as communication, arts, and geopolitics. I offered to chair a working group on science & technology with the aim of discussing how the interfaces between science and policy, science and society, and science and industry can be improved. I was delighted to see that the famous economist Jeffrey Sachs as well as Guy Cecil, campaign manager of Hillary Clinton, chose to be on my group. We developed quite a number of ideas, for instance the need for a better structured societal dialogue around new technologies in order to identify societal / ethical barriers at an early stage, the need for priority funding of R&D that can help us to achieve the SDGs (e.g. novel plant breeding technologies, energy storage), the need to develop business cases / business plans to implement the SDGs and break them down to projects that pay off within electoral cycles, and the need to create incentives for scientists to provide advice to decision-makers (e.g. through better reflection of science advice in scientific evaluations). Also other working groups yielded interesting results. For instance, the group working on transition mechanisms reminded us not to forget engaging with the losers of transition as they can slow down transition considerably (which holds also true for subsidies into “old” technologies).
The last day started with a fabulous dance performance of Austrian dancer Gloria Benedikt and Syrian dancer Hussein Khaddour who performed a piece called “InDignity”, reminding participants of the refugee crisis that is hitting Europe (and which Alpbach President Franz Fischler rightly described as a solidarity crisis). On a side line, Gloria Benedikt is employed by IIASA as “Associate for Science and Arts” – there are certainly not many research institutes that specifically employ artists. An example to follow!
Afterwards Lord Martin Rees (former President of the Royal Society) and Nebojsa Nakicenovic (Deputy CEO of IIASA and suggested by Austria and Montenegro as candidate for the next IPCC Chair) discussed the issue of existential risks. Lord Rees warned about unintended consequences of otherwise benign technologies, mentioning biohacking as an example, and reminded the audience that “the global village has also global idiots”.
This was followed by a debate featuring inter alia Amina Mohammed, Jeffrey Sachs and Tarja Halonen who summarized again that an achievement of the SDGs by 2030 is perfectly feasible, considering that the investments needed are only a tiny fraction of the wealth of the World’s billionaires.
The event concluded with a synthesis presentation of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group results by IIASA Director-General Pavel Kabat and the President of the European Forum Alpbach Franz Fischler, which can be downloaded here.