Ignazio Musu is emeritus professor of economics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where he also served as dean of the Department of Economics and as a member of the Academic Senate. He also served as dean of Venice International University (VIU), where he now chairs the Thematic Environmental Center for Sustainable Development. He is a member of the Council of the Bank of Italy and a fellow of Accademia dei Lincei. His research fields are economic growth, environmental economics and, more recently, the Chinese economy.
How did the REC–VIU partnership come about?
I was introduced to the REC in 2003. At that time I was serving as dean of Venice International University, an international network promoting the exchange of students, faculty members and researchers from other universities all around the world. The overall aim of the network was to foster interaction between teaching and research and to facilitate dialogue between various cultures.
One of our exchange topics focused on sustainable development and environmental management, and this was the main reason why the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea (IMELS) asked us to cooperate with the REC on an advanced training project to help civil servants from Central and Eastern European countries, most of which were not yet members of the European Union. The primary goal of the training project was to improve participants’ awareness of the complex problematics of sustainable development in the context of playing a more active role in the future of European environmental policy.
What are some of the key strategic elements needed for sustainable development?
Cooperation with the REC was extremely important in helping participants to understand how to respond to the challenges of sustainable development. One crucial component for building a long-term strategy for sustainable development — which, unfortunately, is not recognised widely enough — is human capital.
It is now very clear that building sustainable development requires appropriate public policies and the involvement of the main actors operating on the market. It is also clear that social norms, public opinion and civil society play essential supporting roles.
But no step forward can be made without human capital that is oriented toward and competent in addressing environmental challenges. It also requires the technological opportunities to deal with them, as well as the appropriate institutional framework for implementation.
How does all of this come into play in an international context?
Interaction between countries brings together different histories and cultural attitudes concerning the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection, and it is absolutely necessary that these different perspectives are shared. And it is precisely this type of interaction the 10 years of cooperation between the REC and VIU has made possible.
This cooperation progressed through different areas of involvement than was the case with Central and Eastern European countries that would later join the European Union. It also involved countries from Central Asia, the Balkans, the Black Sea region, and the Middle East and North Africa.
Our experience confirms the necessity to educate and train civil servants about sustainable development — students and scholars as well — even if they’re not directly engaged in environmental activities. Experience also confirms that the environmental challenge involves all the world’s nations and societies, and that sustainable development is a concept that applies to every sector of economic and human activity.
How does the issue of climate change fit into the overall picture?
The issue of climate change offers the strongest confirmation of these claims. To deal successfully with climate change means building a low-carbon economy and society, which essentially means overturning the economic growth model that has prevailed since the dawn of the industrial era. This requires a new “green” technological revolution, which must free an economic and social system locked into an infrastructure based on energy from burning fossil fuels. Clearly, a change of such magnitude cannot come about solely through efficient environmental regulation. Each and every sector of the economy has to move in a low-carbon direction — not just industry, but the agricultural and service sectors as well. Lifestyle models and consumption habits must also change.
On the other hand, local systems demonstrate the need for an integrated ecological-social approach to sustainable development. As a matter of fact, ecological systems are not separated by economic and social systems. On the contrary. They should be considered as integrated, ecological-social systems.
The resilience of ecological-social systems depends on a combination of institutions, economic and social mechanisms, and public policies. Economic decisions in particular are required to respond to challenges to ecological resilience. The ways that economic mechanisms and public policy react to such challenges plays a decisive role in re-establishing ecological resilience.
As a matter of fact, the resilience of an ecological-social system comes very near to the idea of sustainability. We can say that sustainability is a fundamental feature of the resilience of ecological-social systems. A strategy of sustainability considered in its three dimensions — ecological, economic and social — is almost always required to respond to the challenges of maintaining system resilience.
Venice and its delicate ecosystem represent a unique, constantly evolving, living laboratory.
What lessons can be learned from this kind of adaptation capacity?
Venice and its lagoon represent a typical example of challenges to both sustainability and resilience. The lagoon is a reference context for Venice as a city, and is also a reference term for any analysis of the environmental sustainability of its local development. In other words, the lagoon cannot be considered independently of the urban reality of Venice. Without this dynamic, developed over centuries, the lagoon would not be the kind of ecosystem that it is today. As has happened with many lagoons, were it not for human interaction, natural sedimentation would have caused the Venice lagoon to disappear. Not only has the existence of Venice saved the lagoon, but it has transformed the lagoon into a wetland that is unique in the world, precisely because it contains not only a natural heritage but also the cultural heritage of a living city.
It is a specific objective of Venice’s sustainable development strategy to safeguard this fragile equilibrium between the city’s population, its urban structures and the natural environment. There has been and always will be an unstable and delicate equilibrium, subject to both dangers and opportunities.
The case of Venice and its lagoon proved an extremely useful example of drawing from complex problems to build resilient and sustainable social-ecological systems during training programme sessions that have taken place in Venice.
How do you see cooperation moving forward?
The idea of creating the Sustainable Development Academy emerged as a result of recent cooperation between the REC and VIU. The plan was to organise training and education activities involving participants from different countries with the objective of preparing people to build a sustainable society.
My hope is that the REC will be able to develop this initiative with the involvement of civil servants, students, researchers and stakeholders. The peaceful environs of the beautiful island in the Venice lagoon will be always available in supporting this effort, and I hope that what has been built through our cooperation in the past years will not be lost.