Bankrupting Nature’s 12 key messages
1. Scientific evidence is overwhelming that human pressure on the planet has reached a point that poses major risks for future welfare and prosperity. Science indicates that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. Accelerating human activity is now the most significant driver of global change, propelling the planet into a new geological era, termed the Anthropocene. There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we are disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology. We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions might trigger tipping points, risking drastic and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems.
2. The sustainability crisis is manifested through social, financial, economic and environmental problems now playing out globally. We are faced with a set of serious challenges, driven by wasteful production and consumption, skewed trading and subsidy systems, and persistent and recurring financial crises. Gaps are widening, between nations and within nations. Unemployment is endemic and rising, particularly among the young. The financial system is increasingly divorced from the real economy. Moreover, it has miserably failed to generate the necessary investments to move society towards sustainability .
3. The concept of “planetary boundaries” provides a science-based framework that can guide us through the transition to sustainability. The aim must be to strengthen the planet’s resilience and its ability to continue providing a “safe space” for human development and wellbeing. A number of critical issues have to be addressed, such as climate change, depletion of stratospheric ozone, biodiversity loss, changes in land and freshwater use and interference with nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, air pollution, chemical pollution and ocean acidification.
4. We urgently need to adopt a more holistic approach to human development. It is no longer possible to deal with one issue at a time. Today´s – mostly vertical – scientific endeavours and approaches might give the impression that there is a significant degree of uncertainty within the scientific community. However, if we put “all our cards on the table” about global environmental risks, the ‘risk panorama’ is overwhelmingly clear. The interplay between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land-based ecosystems is of particular significance and calls for a properly integrated, solutions-oriented science for global sustainability.
5. Climate denial poses a serious challenge. It has several causes, such as vested interests and ideological and cultural barriers. To counteract the advocates of denial, new ways of communicating with the public must be explored – e g by mobilizing the behavioral sciences – to complement pure scientific facts and data.
6. The Earth has had a remarkable capacity to buffer the expansion of human activities – allowing continued economic growth, despite serious ecological decline. The economy of today is built on the premise that material consumption can expand indefinitely. However, science tells us that this is not possible given the combination of high and increasing pollution levels, collapsing ecosystems, a changing climate and resource constraints. De-growth is no solution either, as it would mean the collapse of our social, financial and economic systems. The growth dilemma can only be addressed – and resolved – through an in-depth, value-based discussion in society about the overall objectives of development in the future. A precondition for charting out a new course will be a radically changed economic policy framework.
7. The short-term nature of both politics and markets constitutes the greatest obstacle to addressing today’s serious threats to sustainability. The same goes for the tendency to focus on “one issue at a time”. The financial crisis is not about money alone. To repay and service all the debts will require substantial wealth generation, which can only happen with the help of major inputs of energy and materials. Prices for energy and most commodities are on the increase, which will make the repayments of debts increasingly difficult. The only possible solution to this problem – and, as well, to the challenge of climate change and ecosystem decline – ought to be a significant increase in energy and resource efficiency. This, in turn, can only be achieved by applying a systems perspective – by merging the agendas of economics and finance with the agendas of climate and energy security, ecosystem decline and resource constraints.
8. To change course, priority should be given to the following measures:
stop using GDP growth as the main target of development;
taking nature into account, by assigning a value to ecosystem services and biodiversity;
implementing a tax reform: reducing taxes on labor and raising taxes on resource use;
removing all environmentally harmful subsidies;
using public procurement proactively for sustainability objectives;
reducing the risk of financial crisis by significantly increasing the leverage ratio for banks and financial institutions;
obliging financial institutions to report their risk exposure in terms of carbon investments;
rethinking both the system of quarterly reporting, and the compensation system for financial institution emlpoyees, currently based on short-term performance ;
introducing long-term planning by rethinking the system of discounting of future values;
rethinking business models so that revenue can be earned through performance and high-quality service rather than simply selling “more stuff”.
9. It has been suggested that ‘decoupling’ the link between economic growth and the use of energy and materials will produce ‘green’ growth. The results so far have been poor, however, as the gains are frequently eaten up by expanding economies. A way out of this conundrum would be to focus on effectiveness – i. e. doing the right things – rather than on efficiency alone.
The main thrust ought to be for a circular economy, where products are designed for longer use, reuse, disassembly and refurbishment. Materials should be reused and recycled to the extent possible, thus reducing the demand for mining and new manufacturing. A bonus effect would be the creation of many new jobs within the service organisation needed at local level.
The circular economy ought to be promoted by the adoption of binding targets for resource efficiency, increased taxes on the use of virgin materials and priority given to sustainable innovation and design.
10. We need strategies for planetary stewardship. Solutions and policies must pass through a “nine billion filter”, i.e. they must work for a future population of at least nine billion people. This means efficiency gains in delivering services to the order of a factor of five or more, the building of a low-carbon and resource-efficient infrastructure as well as the systematic pursuit of systems-based and transformative solutions.
11. Give enhanced priority to population. Birth rates continue to be very high in many of the least developed countries, making poverty eradication more difficult. But population numbers have a great bearing on sustainability as well. It is often claimed that world population growth is not a problem from the point of view of sustainability, as poor people use fewer resources and have a smaller carbon footprint. This is a very short-term view. Every human being born should have the right to a decent standard of living. That in turn means sufficient access to natural resources and thus an increasing footprint. Hence, every effort should be made to stabilize the world population, primarily through the provision of education for girls, access to clean energy and family planning services.
12. While efforts to improve global governance have had very limited success so far, the world must continue to work for global agreements. Parallel to that the pursuit of local solutions should be greatly scaled up, led by individual governments, cities and regions, companies and civil society organizations. Development cooperation must be closely linked to environmental and climate efforts. The replacement of the Millennium Development Goals for Sustainable Development Goals, as suggested at the Rio+20 Conference, would be a move in the right direction.
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