Real-World Solutions to Sustainability

From research to impact: Ten examples of how IISD is making a difference

The International Institute for Sustainable Development takes the impact of its work seriously. With a foundation in empirical research, we translate that knowledge into practical, on-the-ground assistance to communities, cities and countries seeking to improve well-being for present and future generations.

Our 120 staff members and associates have worked in over 70 countries, bringing multi-disciplinary backgrounds in finance, economics, biology, engineering, statistics, law and communications. Working alongside policy-makers, businesses and civil society organizations, we tackle the drivers of unsustainable development.

Here are ten examples of what that looks like in practice.

1. Climate Change Worsens Humanitarian Crisis

IISD has been at the forefront of international research on the links between climate change and conflict for over a decade, working on the ground with practitioners in the Middle East and Africa to understand how a changing climate can contribute to political and economic instability.

In recent years our attention has shifted away from examining these links toward understanding what can be done about them.

This has meant working with peace-building practitioners—front line staff at humanitarian organizations, for example—on integrating climate risks into their work.

“For many, climate change is too far removed from the present context to be of immediate concern; people say, ‘It’ll be a problem 20, 30 years down the road, but I’ve got bigger problems today’,” said Alec Crawford, who leads on environment, conflict and peace-building at IISD.

However, the fact is that fragile states are the most exposed to climate change impacts, even though they are the least equipped to deal with them.

Today IISD is working with climate scientists to address this lack of information about the local climate, helping practitioners find the information they need, understand what it means, and know how it can be used to improve the resilience of their work.

We are also developing guidelines on how peace-building practitioners can achieve both climate resilience and conflict sensitivity in their work; for example, ensuring that peace-building programs take into account the near- and long-term climate risks as a contributing factor in driving conflict.

In the midst of a humanitarian crisis or conflict situation, the need to address climate change in fragile states may not seem urgent. However a failure to do so could undermine long-term efforts to move from crisis to sustainable development.

Learn more about climate, conflict and peace building.

2. From Kerosene to Solar Power in India

The case against fossil fuel subsidies is clear. By distorting energy markets, they give an advantage to fossil energy over cleaner, more efficient alternatives.

In many countries, they are also notoriously unfair—benefiting wealthy households with cars and air conditioners, while a smaller fraction of subsidy spending trickles down to poorer households.

In short, fossil fuel subsidies are often not the best policy to ensure that households have access to reliable energy. And they can serve as barrier to the adoption of cleaner alternatives.

Take kerosene in India as an example. The fuel is used by millions of households in rural India to meet basic lighting needs, but it provides poor quality light and is harmful to health. For these reasons, a switch to solar power would better serve households. Yet subsidies for kerosene make solar-based solutions less attractive.

“Off-grid solar technologies, such as solar lanterns and solar home systems can effectively replace kerosene use for lighting in rural areas that are poorly served by the electricity grid and are likely to be so for some time,” said Vibhuti Garg, a power sector expert in IISD’s Energy Program. “Solar can provide safer and better quality lighting, and is also friendly to the environment.”

IISD is supporting India in the transition from kerosene to solar power. We want to understand how to dismantle the barriers to large-scale replacement of kerosene with solar, and how best to use existing institutions and policies to promote flourishing markets for small solar applications.

We are also assessing village-level business models that channel kerosene subsidy savings into ‘solarization’ projects in the poorest districts in India. These business models are currently being rolled out in partnership with Indian Members of Parliament in Odisha, with the hope that they can be replicated and scaled across India in the future.

Our experience in India and elsewhere shows that subsidies are a powerful tool to improve access to clean energy. But that often requires the reform of badly designed subsidy policies.

Learn more about fossil fuel subsidies.

3. Investment Disputes Opened to Scrutiny

Global markets have changed a lot since the 1950s, but the rules governing foreign investment have been stubbornly stuck in the past.

A prime example is the network of treaties established in the Cold War period to protect investors from wealthy countries who feared the expansion of communism and the unknowns of decolonization. Despite the changes in circumstances, these treaties flourished through the 1990s and continue to proliferate today. But investment treaties signed in 2016 still often bear a close resemblance to their now archaic predecessors from the Cold War.

One of the key details in modernizing investment treaties has been to overcome the secrecy of their dispute settlement process.

In 2007, IISD, working with the Center for International Environmental Law, took on the issue of transparency in one of the leading sets of arbitration rules under the United Nations: the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. At the time, the rules contained no actual provisions on transparency, but this issue was not on the agenda for the revision of the otherwise dated 1976 version of the rules.

IISD provided technical background and specific options for how the arbitration process could be opened up to greater public scrutiny. This led to the adoption of a new set of transparency rules in the summer of 2013, and later to the expansion of the rules beyond UNCITRAL through a multilateral treaty, adopted in Mauritius in 2014.

Today, UNCITRAL Rules are the most transparent and progressive rules in investment treaty dispute settlement. Without IISD, this shift would not have occurred.

By establishing global precedents on transparency and leading the call to make transparency become the norm of the future, IISD has set the stage for the accountability in international economic governance that is essential for advancing sustainable development goals.

Learn more about investment for sustainable development.

4. International Investment for Rural Livelihoods

Every night 800 million people go to bed hungry, 70 per cent of whom live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

These communities are in desperate need of investment for seeds and fertilizer to grow crops; for roads and vehicles to transport produce to market; and for storage facilities to preserve food.

At same time, foreign investment in agriculture to developing economies has doubled over the past five years. This is good news. But to guarantee the benefits reach the poor requires sound laws and policies.

“Our objective is scaling up investment in ways that benefit small-scale farmers, improve food security and ensure the sustainable use of water and other natural resources,” said Carin Smaller, an IISD associate on investment and agriculture.

IISD focuses on the legal frameworks that govern investment in agriculture; in other words, the hard rules that determine the rights and responsibilities of foreign investors, host governments and local communities.

In 2015, we helped six countries draft new laws and policies on agricultural investment and developed model contracts for large-scale investments in farmland: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Lao PDR, Tanzania and Vietnam. This year, we added the Democratic Republic of Congo to our list and are currently working with the legislative arm of the East African Community to develop a regional model contract for farmland investment. The contract will be adopted by the assembly later this year.

IISD leads similar work on mining—another sector that is a major contributor to the economies of many developing countries. Here, too, well designed contracts, domestic regulations and treaties provide the legal foundation necessary for sustainable investment practices.

Learn more about agriculture, water and investment.

5. Strengthening Accountability in International Governance

For nearly 25 years the IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) has tracked the United Nations environment and development negotiations—over 30 UN processes in all. The ultimate goal of our work is to enhance transparency as a way to improve accountability and policy coherence.

In doing so, ENB contributes to Sustainable Development Goal number 16, which calls for developing “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels,” ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels,” and broadening and strengthening “the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance.”

Each year we survey our readers to assess the impact of our reports. In our 2015 survey, one of our respondents told us this anecdote.

“At the last COPs of the Stockholm, Rotterdam and Basel Conventions, ENB coverage was crucial to discover that one governmental delegate did not vote according to his country’s policy. He was acting on his own behalf and favored the industry position. It created much attention in his home country. Without ENB this would not have been discovered.”

In other words, ENB enabled this delegate’s constituency to hold him accountable, and for them to hold the government accountable.

This is one example of a larger trend that ENB contributes to: by ensuring that what is negotiated within UN conference rooms has a wider audience—policy-makers, journalists, campaigners and business people—we help make the process more accountable and participatory.

Learn more about Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

6. What Would it Cost to End Hunger?

Approximately one person out of every seven in the world suffers from chronic undernourishment.

Together with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), we are estimating the cost of ending hunger. We also want to know where the money should come from. There is a role for donors, such as developed country governments and foundations, and also investment that needs to come from the governments where hungry people live, as well as the private sector.

Towards that end, we have developed a model that calculates a subset of interventions to tackle hunger.

Our estimates are complete for seven African countries: Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. They are home to 52 million hungry people. If nothing happens, that number will grow to 67 million people over the next 15 years.

We estimate that donors will need to provide an extra USD 400 million per year from now to 2030 to end hunger in these seven countries.

Over the course of 2016, IISD and IFPRI will broaden and deepen the analysis. We will also uncover more precisely where donors, host governments and the private sector are best placed to invest. And we seek to provide the best available estimate on the cost of ending hunger worldwide.

In doing so, we are providing critically important information to donors and developing countries on how to meet a fundamental sustainable development goal: ending hunger.

Learn more about the cost of ending hunger.

7. Managing Our Freshwater Resources, Collaboratively

When it comes to managing our natural resources, too often we think in silos.

One government department works on agriculture, another focuses on freshwater management, another on forestry. Similarly, freshwater management aligns with political jurisdictions, so that each nation, province or state looks after the water that happens to flow within its determined boundaries.

But ecosystems are complex and interconnected. The Lake Winnipeg basin, for example, extends across four Canadian provinces and four American states. And the economic sectors that affect the health of the lake include agriculture, industry, forestry and waste disposal.

As such, the health of Lake Winnipeg requires a holistic approach, one that brings together different governments and sectors.

“IISD sees the need for a transboundary approach to caring for Lake Winnipeg,” said Dimple Roy, Director of IISD’s Water Program. “In practice, this means convening, for the first time, all the jurisdictions into which the basin extends to collaborate and to implement a far more effective plan then we have at present to save the lake.”

IISD has also called for Canadian federal leadership in the management of our vital freshwater and natural resources. And our work is paying dividends, with the Government of Canada looking at opportunities for better collaboration among government departments concerned with complex ecosystem issues such as those facing Lake Winnipeg.

Bringing together governments and sectors is one of the core principles of sustainable development, and consideration of all aspects of an ecosystem, including the communities they support, is necessary for real change.

It is this integrated approach that will ultimately prove most instrumental in the fight to save Lake Winnipeg and basins around the world.

Learn more about freshwater research.

8. A Financial System that Supports Sustainable Development

In less than three years, China has moved from a standing start on green finance to a position of leadership, domestically and internationally.

To take one example, China did not issue green bonds until late 2015. In that year, formal guidelines for green bonds were issued (based on work by IISD) and China has become—in the first half of 2016 alone—the largest issuer of green bonds. Issuance is expected to exceed USD 100 billion by the end of the year.

In tandem with financial sector reforms at home, China is playing an increasingly large role in driving the agenda internationally. In October 2015, for example, the Chinese government announced that green finance would be a priority topic in its presidency of the G20 in 2016, and established a study group on the subject. Immediately prior to the G20 summit in September 2016, China issued comprehensive guidelines for the establishment of a green financial system, the most comprehensive and ambitious set of green finance reforms ever undertaken by any country in the world.

Given the speed of developments in China, high quality research alone is not enough. Timing is key to influencing the agenda. A presentation of IISD’s work at the Eco-Forum Global conference in July 2014, for instance, led to the establishment, by the People’s Bank of China, of a Green Finance Task Force aimed at identifying a series of reforms for immediate implementation. The task force's report was launched at the high-prestige China Development Forum in March 2015, with the simultaneous establishment of the Green Finance Committee to oversee its implementation.

China has committed itself to a rapid transition to“eco-civilization” and understands that this will only be possible if the financial system is fully aligned with the goal. And the speed at which China is moving to green it's financial sector at home promises to have an impact globally.

Learn more about green finance.

9. Planning for the Impacts of Climate of Change

Longer droughts, fiercer tropical storms and more frequent wildfires are some consequences of climate change. However, in most countries the responsibility for managing these impacts falls on just one or two government ministries.

As climate change intensifies around the world—with developing countries being particularly vulnerable—adaptation planning needs to cut across many ministries and sectors, including agriculture, finance, transportation and health.

IISD is helping tackle this challenge by hosting the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) Global Network, with funding from the United States and Germany.

The Paris Agreement calls for all countries to develop and implement a NAP, and every country’s NAP will be unique to its particular challenges. But although NAPs need to be tailored to a country’s specific context, many lessons on effective planning are emerging as countries engage in adaptation planning processes.

The NAP Global Network creates an opportunity for sustained peer-learning on national adaptation planning. Last year, the network brought together a group of adaptation practitioners from nine countries to learn from one another about key topics in Brazil and Jamaica.

Albania, which is one of the network’s nine participating countries, launched their NAP in June 2016. Laureta Dibra, a NAP Global Network participant from Albania’s Ministry of the Environment, says that lessons learned from NAP Global Network peers helped shape their plan.

“Listening to the experiences of Grenada, one of the most important lessons from our point of view was about mainstreaming adaptation into sectoral plans, as well as integrating the adaptation into the water sector and coastal zone management,” said Dibra.

NAP Global Network peers from Grenada and Philippines—both countries that have dealt with catastrophic extreme weather events in recent memory—attended Albania’s NAP launch to continue sharing their experiences and to draw on Albania’s lessons.

Next year, NAP Global Network will reconvene this same group of adaptation practitioners, as well as a second group from a new set of countries, to continue this sustained peer-learning about how to improve plans and put adaptation into action across the multiple economic sectors threatened by climate change.

Learn more about climate change adaptation.

10. A Broad View of Canada's Wealth

Traditionally, wealth has been defined to include only produced and financial assets. In recent years, however, our understanding has broadened considerably. A comprehensive view of wealth includes natural, human and social capital in addition to produced and financial capital.

With that in mind, a key question for all countries is whether the size of their comprehensive wealth portfolio is growing over time. If it is, then national development is likely sustainable and well-being should be stable or increasing. If it isn’t, development is on an unsustainable path and well-being will certainly decline at some point. This is why measures of comprehensive wealth are increasingly understood to be crucial to assessing societal progress.

Currently, Statistics Canada includes only produced capital like buildings and machinery and some natural capital in its official wealth measure. But Canadians also need to view the bigger picture, valuing all of the country’s assets. Our research is doing just that, providing a view of trends with respect to natural, human and social capital, in addition to produced and financial capital.

We believe that Canada has an opportunity to demonstrate international leadership on comprehensive wealth. Canada has a relatively well-developed program of wealth measurement: good estimates of produced capital already exist. Some components of natural capital are regularly measured and experimental figures have been produced for human capital. Measuring social capital remains a challenge, as elsewhere, but initial efforts are being made.

With the highest per capita natural wealth in the world, Canada also has a special responsibility for environmental stewardship. The country is home to 8 per cent of the world’s forests, 3.2 per cent of the world’s arable land and 25 per cent of the world’s wetlands.

Used sustainably, these resources will provide benefits for future generations, including the income needed to invest elsewhere in the comprehensive wealth portfolio—urban infrastructure and education, for example.

Learn more about comprehensive wealth in Canada.

International Institute for Sustainable Development