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A framework for the future

Centre helps identify five 'grand challenges' to enable future sustainability.

Centre researchers have previously helped identify and quantify a set of nine planetary boundaries that humanity must stay within in order to avoid catastrophic environmental change.

Now, the international scientific community has identified five grand challenges that, if addressed in the next decade, will deliver knowledge to enable sustainable development, poverty eradication, and environmental protection in the face of global change.
The five grand challenges
The five grand challenges for earth system science, is spearheaded by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in cooperation with the International Social Science Council (ISSC).

The visioning process began in February 2009 and is guided by a Task Team currently chaired by centre director Johan Rockström. It is a three-step consultation process, engaging the scientific community to explore options and propose implementation steps for a holistic strategy on Earth system research that will encourage scientific innovation and address policy needs.

The consultation highlighted the need for research that integrates our understanding of the functioning of the Earth system—and its critical thresholds—with global environmental change and socio-economic development.
The five grand challenges are:
1. Forecasting - Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.

2. Observing - Develop, enhance and integrate the observation systems needed to manage global and regional environmental change.

3. Confining - Determine how to anticipate, recognise, avoid and manage disruptive global environmental change.

4. Responding - Determine what institutional, economic and behavioural changes can enable effective steps toward global sustainability.

5. Innovating - Encourage innovation (coupled with sound mechanisms for evaluation) in developing technological, policy and social responses to achieve global sustainability.

A list of the highest priorities
“The challenges are a consensus list of the highest priorities for Earth system research and provide an overarching research framework. If we, the scientific community, successfully address these in the next decade, we will remove critical barriers impeding progress toward sustainable development", says Dr. Walt Reid, who chaired the Task Team overseeing the first step of the visioning process.

He argues that in order to undertake these challenges it will require new research capacity and a balanced mix of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research.

Crucial engagement from research programmes
“The existing global environmental change programmes—Diversitas, International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, International Human Dimensions Programme and the World Climate Research Programme—along with the Earth System Science Partnership have played an important role in our understanding of the Earth system", Johan Rockström says. He currently chairs the visioning Task Team.

He considers the continued involvement of these global research networks to be “essential" to the questions posed by the grand challenges.

The next step
Now that the research framework has been identified the next step has begun: determining the organizational structure required to implement this framework.

“A lot of integrated research is already happening but it does not constitute the concerted coordinated global effort that is needed to effectively respond to the grand challenges. ICSU, together with the ISSC and the Belmont Forum of funders, are consulting with the existing programmes and related initiatives to determine what new structure(s) will be required", says Professor Deliang Chen, ICSU Executive Director.

He argues that the new structure(s) will need to deliver the science to answer the grand challenges more rapidly and more effectively than is likely to happen with current arrangements.

Related info

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Content facts...
The full details of the Grand Challenges have been published in a report, which is available on the visioning website:

A 'Policy forum' article entitled "Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges" has been published in Science (Reid et al. Vol. 325, 12 Nov 2010, p. 245).

About Johan Rockström:

Johan Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist on global sustainability issues, where he, e.g., led the recent development of the new Planetary Boundaries framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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