Global change: Delivering on Earth’s promise

'Life has been around for 3.5-billion years and we have been around for 200 000. As we have become a force of nature, so has the extinction rate accelerated to unprecedented levels. This needs to change."

This is how Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom ended his address when he opened the First National Conference on Global Change last month. The conference was co-hosted by the department of science and technology, the National Research Foundation and the department of environmental affairs.

Global change is one of the five "grand challenges" – each framing a 10-year investment programme in research and development – adopted by the department of ­science and technology. The others are energy, biotechnology, space and human relations. Together, these "grand challenges" are South Africa's most significant investments to drive what Hanekom referred to as the transition to a low-carbon, employment-creating, knowledge-intensive economy.

Attended by 250 delegates from universities and science councils across South Africa, many of the delegates had received National Research Foundation funding in the form of grants for studies on global change. The topics of the postgraduate researchers included themes as wide-ranging as eco-agriculture, monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, waterborne diseases, social learning, peak oil, sustainability-orientated innovations and the dynamic of the green economy.

The global change agenda was announced in 2001 at a meeting by scientists from more than 100 countries when they all co-signed the Amsterdam Declaration. This moment marks what many refer to as the second Copernican revolution – the historic moment when new observation technologies and modes of social organisation made it possible for the planet as a whole to be comprehended as a complex Earth system. From this followed the consensus that the Earth system is under threat from the effects of climate change, biodiversity destruction and resource depletion. The solution is seen as a transition to a sustainable mode of production and consumption.

My keynote address to the first plenary drew on arguments developed in a book I co-wrote, Just Transitions: Explorations of Sustainability in an Unfair World. My main message was that the global economic crisis was not a "black swan" event.

State interventions
It can be understood by referring to five long waves of economic development that have, over the past 250 years, followed distinct patterns: innovations that get supported by financial speculators over investments in new technologies result in bubbles that crash, followed by state interventions to push productive capital to drive the deployment of these new technologies, which become the bases for new modes of production and consumption.

We are now midway through the Information Age: a financial crisis that marks the midpoint of the fifth long wave.

Although titanic struggles work themselves out as the solutions to the global crisis are contested, many argue that a sixth age is just beginning – what could be called the "green-tech revolution", or what Sir Nicholas Stern calls the "next industrial revolution". There are three key dynamics at play.

The first is rising resource prices. Except for short-term spikes during moments of crisis, the long-term trend since 1 900 was a steady decline in real resource prices for the century. If rising resource prices turn out to be more structural in nature because they are market responses to resource depletion, ecologically blind economic policies will fail to deliver.

The second is the extraordinary build-up of cash reserves in the corporate sector, in the middle of a global recession. Corporate profits in the United States and the United Kingdom have not been this high since World War II and there are  similar trends in most Organisation of Economic and Co-operation and Development countries. Even in South Africa, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has moaned about the R500-billion in unspent corporate cash. At the same time, high debt levels render the traditional Keynesian recipe of countercyclical spending unviable and ultra-low interest rates remove monetary policy as an effective strategy.

Devastating future costs
Simultaneously, investment as a percentage of gross domestic product is at a long-term low. There is no evidence that printing money can reverse this. Some economists are starting to suggest that renewable energy and green-tech solutions may offer a way out: they are desperately needed to avoid devastating future costs, respond well to policy commitments and can go to scale quickly.

The third dynamic comes into play when contemplating future transitions to more sustainable economic modes of production and consumption: we must recognise the new spatial co-ordinates of demographic growth, investment and innovation. Since 2007, the majority of the world's global population lived in cities. More significantly, the two ­billion to three billion people who will take the global population up from the current seven billion to 10-billion by 2050 will end up in Asian and African cities. They are now the spaces of population expansion.

At the same time, the urban infrastructure of most cities in Organisation of Economic and Co-operation and Development countries need replacing. Add this to the unmet demand for infrastructure in rapidly expanding cities in the developing world and what emerges is the urgent necessity for real economy investments over the next two decades – investments that can prepare these cities for a more sustainable future.

Three decades from now, we need to be able look back and say that the world invested in sustainable urban infrastructures to help to overcome the global economic crisis of 2007 to 2015.

Professor Mark Swilling is the academic director of the Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch University, and the author, with Eve Annecke, of Just Transitions: Explorations of Sustainability in an Unfair World (UCT Press and UN University Press), a runner-up in the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for books on global governance

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