Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The Blue Planet warning, and prescription

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Painting by Shraddha Satish Shenoy of St Columba School, Mumbai, India

This February in London, Britain, a group of the world’s leading scientists and experts in sustainable development called for urgent changes to policies and institutions to enable humanity to tackle environmental crises and improve human well-being. They had gathered to finalise a paper launched at the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on 20-22 February.

Now available, the paper emphasises transformational solutions to key environment and development challenges. It highlights the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to protect the local, regional and global environment, stimulate the economy and enhance the livelihoods of the poor. Called ‘Environmental and Development Challenges: The imperative to act’, this group wrote the paper as a prelude to the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June, which marks the 20th anniversary of the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit).

The paper’s authors are all past winners of the Blue Planet Prize, an award presented to individuals or organisations worldwide in recognition of outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems.

“The challenges facing the world today need to be addressed immediately if we are to solve the problem of climate change, loss of biodiversity and poverty,” said Bob Watson, who is the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a Blue Planet Prize winner in 2010 and a co-author of the new paper.

Here are the salient messages from their paper:

There is an urgent need to break the link between production and consumption on the one hand and environmental destruction on the other. This can allow risking material living standards for a period that would allow us to overcome world poverty. Indefinite material growth on a planet with finite and often fragile natural resources will however, eventually be unsustainable. Unsustainable growth is promoted by environmentally-damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture and should be eliminated; external environmental and social costs should be internalized; and the market and non-market values of ecosystem goods and services should be taken into account in decision-making.

Painting by Siddhi Sudhakar Ghadi of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

The immense environmental, social and economic risks we face as a world from our current path will be much harder to manage if we are unable to measure key aspects of the problem. For example, governments should recognise the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic activity and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built, financial, natural, human and social capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions.

Green taxes and the elimination of subsidies should ensure that the natural resources needed to directly protect poor people are available rather than via subsidies that often only benefit the better off.

The present energy system, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, underlies many of the problems we face today: exhaustion of easily accessible physical resources, security of access to fuels, and degradation of health and environmental conditions. Universal access to clean energy services is vital for the poor, and a transition to a low carbon economy will require rapid technological evolution in the efficiency of energy use, environmentally sound low-carbon renewable energy sources and carbon capture and storage. The longer we wait to transition to a low carbon economy the more we are locked into a high carbon energy system with consequent environmental damage to ecological and socio-economic systems, including infrastructure.

Painting by Sanchana Laxman Jadhav of St Agnes High School, Mumbai, India

Emissions of GHG emissions are one of the greatest threats to our future prosperity. World emissions (flows) are currently around 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (COe) per annum and are growing rapidly. As the terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems are unable to absorb all of the world’s annual emissions, concentrations (stocks) of GHG emissions in the atmosphere have increased, to around 445ppm of CO2e today and increasing at a rate of around 2.5 ppm per year.

Thus we have a flow-stock problem. Without strong action to reduce emissions, over the course of this century we would likely add at least 300 ppm COe, taking concentrations to around 750 ppm COe or higher at the end of the century or early in the next. The world’s current commitments to reduce emissions are consistent with at least a 3 C rise (50-50 chance) in temperature: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 3 million years, with serious risks of 5 C rise: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 30 million years. Given there are some uncertainties present in all steps of the scientific chain (flows to stocks to temperatures to climate change and impacts), this is a problem of risk management and public action on a great scale.

There are serious short-comings in the decision making systems at local, national and global levels on which we rely in government, business and society. The rules and institutions for decision making are influenced by vested interests, with each interest having very different access over how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. At the local level public hearings and social audits can bring the voices of marginalized groups into the forefront. At national level, parliamentary and press oversight are key.

Globally, we must find better means to agree and implement measures to achieve collective goals. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

Painting by Pooja Badhe of Udaychal High School, Mumbai, India

The Blue Planet laureates who gathered in London to work on the paper are:

Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and President of Royal Society of London; Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University; Professor Harold Mooney, Stanford University; Dr. Gordon Hisashi Sato, President, Manzanar Project Corporation; Professor José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil and Brazil’s interim Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; Dr Emil Salim, former Environment Minister of the Republic of Indonesia; Dr Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development; Bunker Roy, Founder of Barefoot College; Dr Syukuro Manabe, Senior Scientist, Princeton University; Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Simon Stuart, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Dr Will Turner, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Conservation International; Dr Karl-Henrik Robert, Founder of The Natural Step, Sweden.

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