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Building science-based targets for Canadian ecosystems and leveraging digital tools

In March 2019, Future Earth convened a small group of Canadian Earth system and social scientists, alongside representatives from civil society and government to explore the development of a cross-sectoral collaboration to build science-based targets for Canadian ecosystems in a global context and to develop digital tools to monitor our progress towards sustainability.

The meeting brought together 16 scientists, thought leaders and representatives from civil society and government in a 2-day workshop with the three-fold aim to 1) take stock of what is happening in Canada and globally around integrated whole-Earth system approaches to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2) to identify what is needed to build whole-Earth system targets in support of local (Canada) and global achievement of the SDGs, and 3) to conceptualize a data-driven, digital approach to monitoring Earth-system targets. A major challenge of this work is to build the science and tools that support the design and measurement of SDG targets that are “integrated”, meaning that feedbacks among different systems, and cross-scales interactions are considered during target design.

Key Outcomes and Messages

This meeting was a crucial step in gathering a multidisciplinary team and provided an opportunity to exchange ideas, highlight needs, and identify existing gaps to help bring the required pieces of the puzzle together to move this initiative forward. Over the course of the workshop participants identified a number of research and data gaps that currently hamper the development of holistic, integrative and science-based Earth systems targets. Two key points that were highlighted were:

  1. A Canadian biosphere survey is necessary to identify, track, and convey the state of the biosphere with regards to resilience, feedbacks loops, and adaptive/ transformative capacity. This will provide a valuable starting point for the development of a scalable framework and science-based targets.
  2. Globally, current SDG tracking and existing biosphere surveys are siloed by country and do not take an integrated global perspective. As a result, there is significant potential for ‘leakage’ whereby one country’s efforts to achieve sustainability, leads to exported externalities to another country or another goal.

Thus, there was an identified need to reframe the existing processes and measurement approaches in ways that are scalable and that incorporate concepts of leakage and connectivity to situate trade-offs and synergies between SDGs. Multi-scale network approaches that connect the ambitions of cities within states, states within nations, and nations within regions would be important for tracking and ensuring policy coherence. It was also underlined in the workshop, that any such data-driven frameworks cannot ignore the importance of power. We cannot produce ‘naïve’ science which ignores the dynamics and relations of power that exist. Rather, we must produce transformative science to stimulate transformative knowledge to action for global sustainability.

Future Steps

Future Earth will continue to engage with scientists, local communities and policy-makers in Canada to develop a workplan on Science-based Pathways for Sustainability though future workshops, focusing on approaches to track and assess cross-scale interactions for the SDGs.