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Can science, technology and innovation help restore harmony with nature?

Frank Rijsberman, Director of Water and Climate Adaptation Initiatives,

I write from Kyoto, shrine to Japanese history and culture with eight world heritage sites, shrine to science and technology with 37 universities and colleges, and host to the “Davos of the scientific world,” the Science and Technology for Society Forum.

The event unites some 600 leaders of the world’s research establishment each year to debate the future of science and technology in society. The forum, now in its fourth year, is organized by Koji Omi, former Minster of Finance and Science and Technology of Japan. The dual theme of the forum was “returning to harmony with nature” and “innovation”. It examined the linked challenges of climate, energy, and water, together with impacts and contributions of the digital, biotechnology, and nanotechnology revolutions.

The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, kicked off the meeting by stressing the need to make the transition to a sustainable society through science and technology. There was remarkable consensus in the forum that creating a sustainable society is one of the greatest challenges we face. Science and technology helped humanity alter the face of the planet at an unprecedented rate, and human activities are now threatening the geo-bio-chemical systems on which all life on earth is based. Science and technology must now be deployed to help regain balance.

The most amazing side of the meeting is how “mainstream” this message has suddenly become. As a sustainable development professional, I have gone to environmentalist meetings with pretty much the same message for two decades. Then, however, I was preaching to the converted. Suddenly, mainstream leaders from government, business, and academia are now singing the same song. Al Gore’s film awakened an environmental consciousness in the general population, and it seems we have finally passed a tipping point! To me that is great news.

There was debate on how to best balance the allocation of resources for climate change mitigation (i.e. greenhouse gas emission reduction) and for climate change adaptation (i.e. increasing society’s resilience in dealing with a changing climate). Clearly something must be done to help those who have contributed the least to global warming but will bear the brunt of its impact - particularly in Africa. There, farmers throughout the continent will face catastrophic crop losses due to increased droughts, people in the highlands of countries such as Ethiopia will be introduced to malaria and East African coastal countries will face sea level rise that can cost up to 10% of GDP.

I was there to give my perspective on water-related challenges for science and technology, and although only a handful of the participants shared my area of expertise, I was pleasantly surprised to see this meeting put in its final statement that, “Water, whether it is for drinking or for agriculture, is now one of the most pressing global issues we must deal with.”

Japan will chair and host next year’s G8 summit, and Koji Omi fully intends to have the conclusions of this year's Science and Technology in Society Forum influence next year's debate. In a world where small steps count, this meeting was a small step in the right direction.

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