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Start Mathematics for a Sustainable World
28 April 2021

Mathematics for a Sustainable World

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In 2015, the UN approved the 2030 Agenda, indicating the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which include everything from eliminating poverty to combating climate change, education, equality for women, protecting the environment and the design of our cities. This agenda is an opportunity for countries and their societies to embark on a new path towards improving everyone’s lives, without leaving anyone behind. The Covid-19 pandemic has starkly highlighted the need for this initiative.

As a consequence of the pandemic, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, carbon demand will not return to pre-crisis levels
As a consequence of the pandemic, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, carbon demand will not return to pre-crisis levels. Image: Unsplash

Mathematicians had already anticipated this proclamation in 2013, the year of Mathematics of Planet Earth. This international initiative is being run by mathematics research organizations and institutes in the United States and Canada, with the support of UNESCO, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Mathematical Union (IMU). The role that mathematics plays is essential: every phenomena on Earth is subject to mathematics, which is the only language we can use to describe them. Moreover, mankind must factor mathematics into any approach it takes in addressing said challenges. Climate change, protecting biodiversity, tackling pollution, controlling epidemics, ocean sustainability, averting natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis), and manmade disasters (fires) are all subject to equations. In short, the sustainability of planet Earth depends on mathematical science.

The Earth is subject to constant change: its interior mantle, terrestrial crust, atmosphere and the life that it sustains are all subject to dynamic processes. Describing these processes requires mathematical models, most of which are enormously complex. Developing models that come ever closer to recreating real processes allows us to understand the processes better, meaning we can anticipate them, control them, and alleviate their potential effects.

BBVA Openmind hoja biomatematicas morfogenesis-Las biomatemáticas han permitido establecer los patrones mediante los cuales las hojas se distribuyen a lo largo de una planta en función de los ángulos de nacimiento de los tallos, tal y como explica un artículo de la Universidad de Tokio. / Imagen: Unsplash
Biomathematics have made it possible to establish the patterns by which the leaves are distributed throughout a plant based on the birth angles of the stems, as explained in an article by the University of Tokyo. Image: Unsplash

Mathematics not only helps us to understand natural phenomena, it also allows us to sustain the majority of human activity on the planet. Transport networks, the Internet and business transactions are all practical applications of research, graph theory and number theory.

And, finally, we could refer to its key role in education; mathematics are, together with language, the two pillars of any educational system.

As we can see, many knowledge areas concerning the Earth require mathematics for their development. The 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda have a lot to do with the work topics of the Mathematics of Planet Earth program:

  • A planet to discover, focusing on oceans; meteorology and climate; mantle processes, natural resources and solar systems.
  • A planet supporting life, covering issues such as ecology, biodiversity and evolution.
  • A planet organized by humans, looking at political, economic, social and financial systems; organization of transport and communications networks; management of resources; and energy.
  • A planet at risk, covering climate change, sustainable development, epidemics; invasive species and natural disasters.

It´s in these critical years that society is gambling with the planet’s sustainability, and mathematics is at the heart of the issue. The initiative has determined three key challenges that mathematicians should tackle with enthusiasm:

  • Promoting mathematical research in order to identify the major problems facing the planet and their solutions.
  • Encouraging teachers at all levels of education to raise awareness of the key issues.
  • Informing the general public of the essential role that mathematics has to play.

One of the great lessons of the current pandemic is the need for mathematical models, which predict the evolution of the infection. They also help optimize resources through operational research and the key to knowing exactly how effective vaccines are is through the use of statistics. 

Las plataformas de ARNm son tan manejables y versátiles que permiten crear una vacuna en apenas semanas. Crédito: U.S. Secretary of Defense
Mathematical models predict the evolution of the infection and help optimize resources through research operations. Credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense

The 2030 Agenda has to pick up from where the Mathematics of Planet Earth left off.  For starters, by organizing events of all kinds all over the world such as: school courses, congresses, conferences, publications, competitions, and much more. These efforts place value on the need for this discipline and serve as a push to guide mathematical research in those directions.

We believe that the 2030 Agenda hasn´t penetrated the mathematical community enough. It’s essential that this initiative has an impact on their activities, and not only on mathematicians, but on the rest of the scientific community, since the problems raised require a multidisciplinary approach.

Manuel de León

(Institute of Mathematical Sciences-CSIC, Royal Academy of Sciences, Royal Canarian Academy of Sciences, Royal Galician Academy of Sciences)

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