Scientific advisory board for sustainable development: need to review the functions

The first meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Secretary-General is scheduled on 30 and 31 January 2014 at the invitation of the German Federal Foreign Office. The creation of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to provide advice to the UN Secretary-General and the Executive Heads of UN organizations was officially announced by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2013.

The Scientific Advisory Board will be “carrying out relevant intellectual work including providing advice to the UN Secretary-General on up-to-date scientific issues relevant to sustainable development, including advice on “assessments and digests around concepts as ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘tipping points’ and ‘environmental thresholds’…”, as indicated in Recommendation 51 of the report of the GSP. This will allow the Secretary-General to articulate scientific issues which have attracted widespread attention in contemporary affairs”. The “functions” listed on the web leave out the key phrase in the recommendation “in the context of sustainable development”.

The functions of the Board must reflect the vision of the Panel on whose recommendation it was established. The Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP) developed a new vision for sustainable development, and stressed that the  “long term vision of the Panel is to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and make growth inclusive, and production and consumption more sustainable, while combating climate change and respecting a range of other planetary boundaries”. It goes on to say that “the time is ripe for broader and bolder intergovernmental efforts to strengthen the interface between science and policy and to define, through science, the economic, social and environmental consequences of decisions. Similarly, we need to deepen our understanding of the social and economic challenges faced by poor people and developing countries, while recognizing that thresholds should not be used to define growth ceilings. Improved access to scientific expertise would strengthen the capacity of the United Nations in this area”.

A broader perspective is important, because as the most recent science from the UNEP[1] stresses that “challenges facing society must be addressed through a consideration of both consumption and production. The key causes of our global challenges are linked to unsustainable and disproportionate consumption levels, but in high-consuming countries only a few policy instruments address excessive consumption habits and the structures that encourage them.


According to the Report, the land use saving potential of aligning worldwide meat consumption levels with the dietary recommendations of the Harvard Medical School for Public Health. Meeting the requirements of a healthy diet for all world citizens would require around 135 Mha less cropland than the reference scenario, with about 10 per cent initial CO2 savings. Another good opportunity to lower food consumption is to reduce food wastage. Around one-third of edible food is lost or wasted annually. The key finding of the Report is that countries should monitor and control the level of their global land use for supplying their consumption.

[1] UNEP (2014) Assessing Global Land Use: Balancing Consumption with Sustainable Supply. A Report of the Working Group on Land and Soils of the International Resource Panel. Bringezu S., Schütz H., Pengue W., O´Brien M., Garcia F., Sims R., Howarth R., Kauppi L., Swilling M., and Herrick J.