Planet Earth: Declare an emergency


Last month, a bleak global assessment of the shocking state of life on Earth made headlines worldwide. According to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), about 12% of all known animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. Worse still, humanity is destroying entire habitats and with them the web of life that supports societies and economies. Unsurprisingly, the findings were greeted with despair.

As IPBES scientific contributors and co-authors of the report, we face this news every day. It is impossible not to react emotionally to the scale of destruction people are inflicting on the natural world. Yet the report also goes to great lengths — although this has been less widely reported — to identify ways to reverse this alarming trend. To succeed, however, people need to undertake four major transformations.

First, we must substantially change our legal, economic and technological systems. It is true, as the report emphasises, that protected areas and legislation have prevented the extinction of many species, such as the panda. But people need to make far more fundamental changes.

The IPBES report therefore explores numerous possible economic development paths for the world to 2050, and identifies ways to protect nature while increasing human prosperity. The measures it proposes are not the usual suspects, such as reducing deforestation or curtailing the exploitation of species; instead, they address the causes of these problems.

Here, the report concludes that sustaining Earth’s living systems requires us to redefine what a good quality of life means. Societies need to get away from the idea that a good and meaningful life is possible only through ever-increasing material consumption. This is clearly absurd. Wellbeing has been stagnating in many developed countries, even as consumption continues to increase.

Solutions could instead build on new social and political narratives showing that happiness goes hand in hand with lowering total consumption and cutting waste. Reducing gender and wealth inequalities also improves a society’s wellbeing, as Nordic countries have shown. And, as the IPBES recognises, indigenous and local knowledge can reveal other ways of managing ecosystems sustainably.

Undertaking such shifts will not be easy. The world must urgently adopt a new economic paradigm that goes beyond a singular focus on gross domestic product (GDP). This is beginning to happen. New Zealand, for example, has announced its first “wellbeing budget”, and China is continuing to develop measures of “green GDP”.

Second, the world must transform its food system. The way we produce and consume food is a major cause of ecological destruction. Yet feeding a growing global population a healthy diet without damaging the Earth is not only possible, it will also improve people’s quality of life. The IPBES report highlights several sustainable agricultural practices, such as integrated pest and nutrient management, organic farming, soil and water conservation, and measures to improve animal welfare.

One of the report’s development paths to 2050 is in line with the findings of the EAT-Lancet Commission report on sustainable food systems. That report, released earlier this year, concluded that the world could feed 10-billion people a healthy diet — with less meat and dairy products and more nuts and vegetables — without needing to use more land.

But these actions on their own will not be enough. A third of all food produced never makes it to the plate. We support calls for food waste to be slashed by 50% by 2030 and, encouragingly, countries including France, Germany and Italy have taken steps to prevent supermarkets from discarding unsold food.

Third, we must treat the world’s oceans far better. Industrial fishing now extends to 55% of the world’s ocean area and only 3% is free from human pressure. The ocean is used as a dumping ground for sewage, plastic, excess fertilisers and other toxic pollutants. But research shows that managing the oceans sustainably can increase fish stocks and economic value. And the United Nations aims to reach agreement next year on new international regulations to protect the oceans.

Finally, the world must think carefully about the best ways to tackle climate change. The timber and agriculture industries — in particular the production of soy, palm oil, and beef — are causing rapid deforestation, with devastating consequences for the stability of the Amazon rainforest and many species. Attempts to combat global warming through large-scale planting of bioenergy crops, along with reforestation and afforestation, could greatly harm biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. Well-planned measures, on the other hand, could enhance biodiversity, improve soil quality, capture and store carbon dioxide.

Protecting the living world calls for systemic changes that go beyond narrowly focused policies on biodiversity or climate. Fighting poverty and inequality are essential parts of the solution, too.

But these transformative steps will happen only if we start treating the situation like the crisis it is — as Swedish climate activist and student Greta Thunberg has urged.

In recent weeks, both the British and Irish parliaments have declared climate and nature emergencies, and we urge other countries to do the same. In 2020, a “superyear” for international environmental policy — with major summits on biodiversity, climate and the oceans being held — the UN should mark its 75th anniversary by declaring an emergency for the planet to accelerate action to ensure long-term sustainability. — © Project Syndicate

Ana Paula Aguiar is a research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and a senior researcher at the Brazilian Institute for Space Research. Odirilwe Selomane is a postdoctoral researcher at the SRCand a fellow of the IPBES global assessment. Pernilla Malmer is senior adviser at SwedBio at the SRC

Ana Paula Aguiar
Ana Paula Aguiar
Ana Paula Aguiar is a research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a senior researcher at the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Odirilwe Selomane
Odirilwe Selomane
Ecosystem Services, Sustainable Development, Data and Monitoring
Pernilla Malmer
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