International Satoyama IntiativeUNITED NATIONS UNIVERSITY UNU-IAS

International Symposium “Biodiversity and Sustainability: Linking People and Nature”

International Symposium “Biodiversity and Sustainability: Linking People and Nature”


The international symposium “Biodiversity and Sustainability: Linking People and Nature” was held on 12 March 2017 in U Thant International Conference Hall at the United Nations University in Tokyo. The event was organized by the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), together with the University of Tokyo Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (IR3S).

The symposium brought together leading experts to discuss the integration of social and ecological systems, including the valuation of ecosystem services, with a view to building societies in harmony with nature, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and promoting sustainability science. Participants explored the linkages between biodiversity conservation and sustainability, with the goal of benefits including health and sanitation, climate change mitigation, disaster risk reduction, and secure livelihoods. As the symposium programme stated:

Across the world, human well-being depends on the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity. The Earth’s biodiversity, however, is being lost at an unprecedented rate due to rapid economic and population growth. If this continues, humanity may soon be unable to secure a sufficient level of ecosystem services, creating vulnerabilities that could pose significant obstacles to sustainable development.

The conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems thus plays a key role in advancing sustainability, and will contribute directly and indirectly to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was adopted by the United Nations in September 2015, and achieving its 17 SDGs. At the same time, since nature also presents people with threats such as natural disasters, it is important to build highly resilient societies. To that end [the symposium explored] how science and policy can address such complex challenges to ensure a sustainable future for all.

The symposium was hosted by Kazuhiko Takemoto (Director, UNU-IAS). He started off the event by inviting opening remarks from David M. Malone (UNU Rector and UN Under-Secretary-General), who explained that part of the reason for holding the symposium was to commemorate the career of Prof. Kazuhiko Takeuchi (Director and Professor, IR3S, The University of Tokyo and Senior Visiting Professor, UNU-IAS). Prof. Takeuchi had recently retired after years of service as Senior Vice-Rector of UNU among many other roles, and Rector Malone briefly discussed how Prof. Takeuchi had raised the academic level of UNU and become a widely respected presence in the UN system overall in addition to the many academic contributions he had made in a number of fields. The Rector also stressed the importance of the UNU’s close relationship with the Japanese government and the University of Tokyo, as well as Japan’s role as a leader in the fields of biodiversity and sustainability.

Masashi Haneda (Executive Vice President, The University of Tokyo) gave opening remarks on behalf of IR3S, reflecting on his long relationship with Prof. Takeuchi through the University of Tokyo, and Prof. Takeuchi’s role in making IR3S into a leading institution in bringing together research contributing to the SDG process. He also credited Prof. Takeuchi with making possible the kind of interdisciplinary and international joint research that will be necessary to realize their interlinked objectives.

These opening remarks were followed by two guest speeches, the first one from Takashi Onishi (President, Science Council of Japan), who described his organization’s work in organizing annual conferences resulting in policy proposals for most of the SDGs, and Prof. Takeuchi’s contributions to this process and to improving the links between science and policymaking. He finally noted that the SDGs related to marine issues particularly need more attention, and expressed his hope that this symposium would help to deepen knowledge on these issues.

The second guest speech was by Hiroshi Komiyama (Chief Executive Director, Japan Foundation for the United Nations University), who recounted the development of the concept of sustainability and the field of sustainability science, and Prof. Takeuchi’s role in raising their profiles and creating the academic journal Sustainability Science in Japan. Mr. Komiyama emphasized that Japan’s history, particularly the traditional governance models that led to the satoyama landscape and satoumi seascape in contrast to the modern capitalist economy, makes it a good model for a more sustainable global economy and a natural home for work on sustainability science.

Prof. Takeuchi then gave the first of three keynote speeches, on “Building a Sustainable Society in Harmony with Nature”. He provided an overview of many of the projects he had been involved in, from the Japan Satoyama Satoumi Assessment and its insights on the states of Japan’s satoyama landscapes and satoumi seascapes that led to the establishment of the Satoyama Initiative and its contributions to processes of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to work with Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), enhancing resilience in different types of landscapes, ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and others, with examples from Sri Lanka, Ghana and around the world. In all of these projects, he stressed the need for a new conception of humans’ connection to the natural world, and at the same time the need to be closely involved in policymaking processes. He finally noted that although he is officially retiring the work is not done, as the SDGs have given us all further homework to do.


The second keynote speech, by Gretchen C. Daily (Professor, Stanford University), was titled “Valuing Nature in Decision-Making” and also made a case for the need for a revolution in how people think about nature, inspired largely by Prof. Takeuchi’s ideas. She described her work with the Natural Capital Project, a broad-based effort to achieve better valuation of ecosystems than is provided by traditional methods such as GDP and to find solutions for decision-makers for resilient societies, impact assessments, targeted investments and others. One important insight from this work was the importance of agricultural landscapes in species conservation and scientific assessments of what parts of the tree of life can be conserved through responsible management of these areas in conjunction with more typical models centered on protected areas. She also gave an interesting demonstration of the clear benefits that nature has on human health and well-being. She provided examples of connecting upstream and downstream communities in a watershed, good models of ecosystem assessment from China and others.


The third keynote speech was given by Mai Trọng Nhuận (Former President, Vietnam National University), on “Sustainability Science Development for a Low-Carbon Society in Harmony with Nature and Smart Response to Climate Change: Lessons from Vietnam”. This speech explored challenges and opportunities for sustainability in Vietnam, plus achievements and future prospects for sustainability science and sustainability education in the country including many efforts inspired by Prof. Takeuchi’s work. Examples included ecosystem-based climate change adaptation efforts in Danang, smart design and agriculture in response to increased flood damage and others.

The lectures were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Makoto Yokohari (Professor, Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo).


Tohru Nakashizuka (Program Director and Professor, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature; Professor, Graduate School of Life Sciences, Tohoku University) spoke first, stressing the need for good scientific studies including predictions and scenarios to help guide decision-makers towards creating policy for sustainability and biodiversity conservation. He noted that most measures of ecosystem services that were assessed in the “Japan Biodiversity Outlook 2” assessment from 2014 to 2016 show them either flat or declining, and highlighted work including the new Predicting and Assessing Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services (PANCES) project as a promising example.

Next, Fabrice Renaud (Head of Section, United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security) described the increasing prominence of ecosystems in policy related to climate change and disaster-risk reduction, stressing the need to develop standards and guidelines for policymakers to use. He pointed out, however, the difficulty of developing these kinds of standards and guidelines since local conditions vary and factors such as the influence of wave height, vegetation cover and others are not yet well understood in terms of disaster risk, indicating the need for good scientific studies.

Taikan Oki (Senior Vice-Rector, United Nations University; Professor, Institute of Industrial Science and Special Adviser to the President, The University of Tokyo) then gave an overview of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and SDGs and their development through various streams in international processes over the past decades. He showed how the SDGs and their intended outcomes are interrelated in terms of society, economy and environment, similar to the concept of sustainability itself, pointing to the need for further “sustainability development”.

Fumiko Kasuga (Senior Fellow, National Institute for Environmental Studies and Visiting Professor, IR3S, The University of Tokyo) explained the Future Earth project, an international platform to support work toward a sustainable world, its contributions to the SDGs process, and its activities in Japan. In particular, the Japanese government has developed a set of guiding principles for implementation of the SDGs, and Future Earth is collaborating through the creation of a “Knowledge-Action Network” (KAN) for the SDGs, stressing science, technology and innovation among the most important principles.

Finally, Thomas Elmqvist (Professor, Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University and Visiting Professor, IR3S, The University of Tokyo) provided insights on the concepts of sustainability and resilience, and how work is ongoing to understand and create resilient systems, particularly in urban areas. With the inclusion of SDG 11 specifically on making urban areas inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, he pointed out that resilience and sustainability are often used interchangeably, although in fact in some cases they can have a negative correlation, and therefore need to be studied and understood better for urban planning and policymaking.

Discussion between the panellists and the audience addressed the need for holistic approaches to complex problems like sustainability and biodiversity conservation, spanning disciplines and national boundaries, while also pointing out that scientists face strong pressure to produce reliable data that can be used for policymaking. Panellists also discussed issues related to the valuation of ecosystems, debating the weaknesses of a purely monetary valuation that ignores cultural and social values, while also noting the kind of influence this kind of quantitative valuation can have for policymaking. Cultural ecosystem services were particularly pointed out as being difficult to evaluate in strictly monetary terms and therefore frequently ignored in studies of how people value their resources, although they are sometimes the most important to the people on the ground.

The symposium closed with Prof. Yokohari inviting brief closing remarks from Prof. Takeuchi, who thanked the participants and audience, and finally emphasized the need for people to rethink their values and behavior in relation to nature in order to protect our natural capital and achieve sustainability and real well-being.