The SEI Science Forum, now in its fifth year, drew about 240 people, including Swedish policy-makers and business leaders, for a lively discussion about sustainable development.
At the fifth annual SEI Science Forum on Thursday, questions of sustainability got personal.

“Please meet my uncle’s family,” Evelin Piirsalu, a senior expert in SEI’s Tallinn Centre, told the audience. “They’re not super rich, but they get by quite well in Estonian terms.”

Piirsalu’s niece recently became a vegetarian to reduce her ecological footprint. “The problem was that the school canteen doesn’t really have vegetarian food.”

Her parents went to talk to school officials, who said their chef didn’t know how to make vegetarian dishes. Indeed, Estonians’ diets are heavy in meat – and even more troubling, food waste is a growing problem.

Piirsalu was part of a session on interlinkages in the 2030 Agenda at the Science Forum, which focused on challenges and opportunities in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Along with SEI researchers, the programme included top Swedish policy-makers and business leaders.

“It is important to see that all of these goals are really necessary pieces of the puzzle in order to get to the sustainable future that we really want,” said Per Bolund, Sweden’s minister for financial markets and consumer affairs, in his keynote address.

The 2030 Agenda includes the social and environmental sides of sustainability, Bolund said. “Now we really see that these two are integrated, and we can’t solve one without the other.”

Although all the SDGs are important, making consumption more sustainable should be a key focus for developed countries such as Sweden, Bolund said. “Self-storage is one of the fastest growing industries in Sweden. That really shows that we have a problem. We have too much stuff.”

Indeed, as SEI Project Manager Katarina Axelsson noted, while Sweden’s territorial emissions have decreased in recent years, consumption-based emissions keep rising.

“Around 65% of the total Swedish emissions now occur in foreign countries,” she said, and that is true of most developed countries. “In order to sustain 9 billion people in 2050 with an equal and just distribution of the world’s resources, many countries and income groups will need to reduce their consumption substantially while allowing others to increase theirs.”

Trade-offs between energy, ecosystems and livelihoods

Marisa Escobar, a senior scientist in SEI’s U.S. Center, focused on competing development priorities in her native Colombia, contrasting the needs of a fisherman in the Mompos Depression with those of her Aunt Rubiela, who lives upstream in the same Magdalena River basin.

Marisa Escobar, a senior scientist in the U.S. Center.Rubiela is benefitting from a tourist boom in her town by renting out rooms to visitors, Escobar explained – and for this she needs a reliable water and energy supply. Yet that energy in particular comes from hydropower, 70% off which is produced in that watershed. There are plans to further expand hydropower, but that could harm ecosystems as well as fishing-based livelihoods downstream.

SEI and partners developed a model of the Magdalena basin that they hope will enable planners and policy-makers to better balance the need for additional hydropower with the need for healthy ecosystems as well as flood safety in the Mompos Depression.

Other presentations focused on policy coherence across levels of governance. Derik Broekhoff, a senior scientist in the U.S. Center, highlighted the importance of making cities more sustainable. Yet cities cannot do it alone – they need strong national leadership.

“For example, it’s great if you have some cities moving ahead with aggressive building energy efficiency standards,” he said. “But if you really want to see transformative effects, it’s arguably better to have those standards enacted at national levels and have cities serve the implementation and enforcement role for those standards.”

Anne Nyambane, a research associate in SEI’s Africa Centre, offered another example very close to home: Nairobi, where she lives, is very prone to flooding – the latest event, last month, killed at least 45 people, injured at least 100 and left many homeless. Yet national and local authorities are not working together effectively to address the risk.

“We have very nice policies that could actually help us when we have such extreme weather events,” she said, “but they’re not being enforced at the local level.”

Michael Lazarus, director of the U.S. Center and co-leader of SEI’s Initiative on Fossil Fuels and Climate Change, focused on the need to align climate and energy policies. World leaders recognize the need to reduce fossil fuel use to meet climate goals, he noted, but they have neglected the supply side. Upstream oil and gas production investments alone are expected to average US$750 billion per year until 2040, and this creates a significant risk of “carbon lock-in”. SEI is co-hosting a major conference on these issues in September in Oxford.

Aaron Atteridge, co-leader of SEI’s Climate Finance Initiative.Aaron Atteridge, co-leader of SEI’s Climate Finance Initiative, offered several examples of incoherence in finance flows for climate and development. Despite all the attention given to “green” finance, entrenched structures keep “brown” finance going strong. For all the talk about private-sector investment in climate action and development in poor countries, the vast majority of foreign direct investment goes to upper-middle-income countries, while low-income countries get very little. And too much of the finance that does flow is narrowly project-focused, which is not conducive to large-scale, transformative change.

Albert Salamanca, a research fellow in SEI Asia, noted that the misalignment of financial flows has serious real-life implications for vulnerable countries. For example, his native Philippines, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, isn’t getting the adaptation investments it needs.

In the policy-business dialogues that bookended the SEI presentations, a prominent theme was the need for Sweden to be a global leader in fostering sustainable development. As much as is already being done, speakers agreed, there is potential to do much more, and it requires collaboration.

“We’re lagging when we need to show leadership,” said Mattias Goldmann, CEO of the green and liberal think tank Fores. “We need to be the global help desk for sustainability.”

See a Storify with highlights from the Science Forum »