We’re in the Anthropocene. Our environmental challenges are now global and we face environmental risks that could actually lead to catastrophic consequences if we cross tipping points. What does all this mean for the global development agenda? Well, it truly puts into question some of our fundamental ideas of our relationship between environment and development.
The first is the belief in the environmental Kuznets Curve, which so much dominates the way we deal with environmental policy and environmental impact reduction strategies. The belief that in the early days of development in the pre-industrial economies environmental impacts are large because of inefficiencies and poor capital availability, and that industrial economies somehow in the early days peak in terms of negative environmental emissions which comes from the empirical or the experiences, particularly from air pollution, from industrial activities, and the richer we get the better we are in improving our environmental conditions.
This is profoundly wrong. All empirical evidence shows that in the hyper-connected and globalized world in Anthropocene what has happened is potentially, or in fact in reality that we’re improving local environmental conditions often but we’re pushing environmental impacts across Earth system components in the entire planetary system. So we might have clean air where we live locally, but we’re ruining the planet system at the larger scale.. In fact it’s so important that also fundamentally reshapes the way we think of sustainable development.
You’ve all seen the three pillars of social, environmental, and economic development which forms the basis of our modern thinking on sustainable development, but that has translated, as we all know, into a strategy of advancing economic growth as one sector and trying to reduce environmental impact as far as we can.
In the Anthropocene this will not be enough. It was okay when we were a small world on a large planet where we could always so to say find free environmental space in the atmosphere, and the biosphere, and the cryosphere. Now we’re in [at] a saturation point. We’re hitting the ceiling where we need to, all citizens of the world, all nations in the world, operate within the same space. And we must be honest. This three pillar approach has after all become what we could call a Mickey Mouse economy, where economy is occurring and developing at the expense of natural capital, the environment, and human capital; cheap labor and subsidized labor forces enabling hyper-consumption across the world.
So let’s simply agree it’s time to scrap this obsolete model of separating social, environmental and economics. We need to transition into a paradigm which looks like this, namely use our economy as a vehicle to serve and meet societal needs, and have societies that operate within the stable confines of a resilient Earth system. Or, as we’ve been talking so much across the science that we’re now advancing, development within a safe operating space of planetary boundaries.
This changes profoundly economy, it changes profoundly governance, and it changes profoundly relations between nations, because suddenly planet goes first. We need to set global environmental goals within which we can have economic growth and development. It also addresses, which is shown in the now famous donut model for economic growth, that if we have a biophysical ceiling defined by planetary boundaries there must be a social floor, a floor of how we distribute the absolute amounts of remaining environmental space in a fair and just way among all citizens on Earth.
So in summary, the change in the paradigm includes number one, once and for all reconnecting world development with Earth resilience. We simply have to recognize that Earth is the basis for our well being and that development occurs in an integrated fashion. We must therefore accept that economic growth and economic development must occur within a safe operating space of absolutely set boundaries for the Earth system.
This means that we’re moving from the current realm of relatives where we normally assume that if we just put the right price on the environment we’ll be so efficient that it will actually take us to sustainable development. The problem is that when we rush towards an economy that will grow three times, the world economy will grow three times over the next 30 years and the world population 9 billion people, even if we become relatively better and more efficient if that all adds up to us transgressing planetary boundaries we’re still going to cross tipping points.
So we’re moving from that reality, relatives, to the reality of absolutes. Now we simply need to respect an absolute amount of carbon remaining to emit. We need to respect an absolute maximum amount of fresh water to use, land to use, phosphorus to use.
This is a profoundly different approach because it puts a cap on the playing field within which we can develop. It might seem very utopian, but you know we’re applying this kind of thinking very often in many, many other areas. In fact the history of how we have developed policies around chemicals is largely applying this kind of absolute planetary boundary thinking. Think of the Montreal Protocol when we in the mid-’80s recognized that emissions of chlorofluorocarbons were destroying our protective ozone layer. We did not take a relative policy of percentage reductions of these, uh, damaging ozone-depleting substances, we forbid them, we put a cap and we operated within a boundary.
And this is often the way we operate in many areas where we forbid toxic substances and we operate within a safe space. Now we need to do that for all components in the Earth system.
But is this then going to be a paradigm that only operates at the global level where we have some kind of steering committee running the planet? Of course not. It is absolutely clear that in the Anthropocene we need to strengthen Earth governance, we need to collaborate all nations in the world to set planetary boundaries, but we also need to recognize that all action occurs from below, individuals, communities, businesses, nations, and that as the famous Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom pointed out that one of the most exciting opportunities we have is to invest in stronger polycentric governance systems where we connect local informal institutions and collective action among engaged citizens with formal institutions across different levels of society to work from local to global, and that this actually works.
We show it for water management, we show it for agriculture management, that in many parts of the world this actually can function. So it’s not a contradiction between the global and the local, it’s actually an integration between the different scales.
But what does all this mean for the economy? And I’ll just give you one example of how this changes our thinking. Often the question is raised well, if you apply a planetary boundary thinking isn’t that actually saying that we’re limiting growth, we’re limiting economic growth? And what we’ve argued as the scientists behind this is: not at all. In fact what the planetary boundary analysis shows is that we need to stay within a safe operating space. But what happens within that operating space is up to us; it’s our choice. The economy should be able to grow within a planetary boundary safe operating space, what we have a bit jokingly called a planetary souffle, meaning that the economy should be able to grow within this space. A souffle also alludes to the fact that this is quite a challenging and innovative pathway because, you know, if we don’t manage this in a sustainable way it may in fact abruptly collapse, which we sometimes see in the financial crisis.
Now can we actually envisage an economy growing within a safe operating space? Absolutely. In fact in our innovations, technology breakthroughs and advancements of business models that are not only resource-efficient but even circular, mean that we can produce value and generate well being within the confines of a safe, resilient Earth system.
And just to give you a few examples of how this could translate, even in conventional economics. Conventional economics had developed macroeconomic analysis of how expensive or beneficial It will be to solve the climate challenge. One of the most famous of these models is called DICE and here is just one example of how this looks like for climate.
This is a graph from 2010 until end of the century, 2100, in terms of what it will cost to the world economy, so it’s GDP on the Y axis, if we continue as business as usual and move towards a very risky 4 degrees C future, or if we reduce emissions to a 2 degrees C, 450 ppm future. And this is the classical graph showing that GDP would only go down with a few percent if we stay with our business as usual, which we scientists criticize very, very fiercely because we say these economic models are not considering the devastating costs to the economy if we cross dangerous temperature levels. But let’s for a moment assume this is correct, that in fact it is such a small difference in terms of cost whether or not we reduce emissions.
Exactly this data can actually be plotted in a different way, and this is shown in this graph where we’ve just taking [taken] the growth of the economy on the X axis, so this is global GDP, but on the Y axis we show the difference in concentration of greenhouse gases, the planetary boundary. And what you see here is of course the blue line which goes up all the way to 800 ppm in the business as usual, the 4 degrees C pathway, and as you see it reaches year 2100 a world economy of 500 trillion US dollars. But look at the 2 degrees C future, which bends at 550 ppm and actually is projected to also reach 500 trillion US dollars slightly later, a few years later. And then you have the 450 ppm which stays at 450 ppm, but actually reaches a very high degree of economic growth as well.
But let’s not put in a boundary here. So we’ve taken not the planetary boundary that we have so strong, robust support for of 350 ppm. We’re taking the climate skeptics’ boundary, we’re taking a boundary that everyone will agree upon, because nobody wants a 6 degrees C future, a totally catastrophic future that will not support human civilizations on Earth. So we’ve taken the 5% risk of reaching 6 degrees C and put that on this graph, and that is shown by the upper horizontal line here which is at 550 ppm. So if we accept moving towards a boundary of 550 ppm, the world moves into the realm of a 5% risk of reaching 6 degrees Celsius, which is a probability that nobody, no reinsurance company, no bank, no government, ever, ever would accept.
Well what is this? Well actually that is a hard boundary. It means that the business as usual trajectory hits the ceiling at already 200 trillion US dollars. The world economy can not go beyond this point, which shows that the only pathway to its prosperous future for humanity is in fact that we bend the emission curve within a safe operating space, because it’s the only trajectory that can allow us to reach 500 trillion US dollars which is required to actually support a world of 9 billion people.
Everything above this level is not acceptable, it’s actually outside of the realm of economics. It’s the realm of ethics, it’s the realm of political leadership, it’s the realm of a new development paradigm where we accept that there are certain ceilings that we can not transgress.
And this ceiling is not even a planetary boundary, this is the ceiling of ultimate unacceptable movement beyond anything that anyone ever would accept. So this is quite an interesting way of illustrating, I think, that we need to reconsider the way we operate in terms of future development. (energia, Segurança alimentar, Urbanismo sustentável, Gestão da Biodiversidade)
Now these transitions are dramatic of course, and can they actually be achieved? Well so many analysts are showing that yes, a global energy transformation inside a safe operating space is possible. We can envisage a low carbon world economy by mid-century, a food security transformation where we feed the world with sustainable food is possible. Yes, we need to increase food production 50% by mid-century, but through sustainable agricultural innovations a lot of evidence indicates we can feed humanity in a safe operating space. An urban sustainability transformation is necessary but also increasingly possible. Two-thirds of the cities we need by mid-century are not even built yet. Let’s build them in a sustainable, resilient way. Biodiversity management is increasingly shown to be both effective, economically beneficial, and builds resilience that’s shown by many, many studies, for example, on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity team.
So it’s not as if a transition to a safe operating space is the dark story of doom and gloom, it seems increasingly to be the desirable, more attractive story of innovation, transformation and human prosperity.
Now it won’t be an incremental journey. Together with colleagues at the Tellus Institute we recently tried to ask ourselves the question well how deep is this transformation into a safe operating space?
And that tentative analysis using a model called PoleStar indicates that it won’t be enough with only taxes and measures in terms of policies and technological breakthroughs, we will need to change lifestyles. It appears that we need to reconnect our own values with the biosphere, we need a much stronger emphasis on well being rather than just consumption, and that it actually is a shift also in our lifestyles. So it is a social, technological, and political journey we are embarking on if we truly want to endorse and kind of take in the latest science of the realities in the Anthropocene.
But to summarize, that recognition which we are the first generation to be knowledgeable about should not be used as a big, black blanket, putting a stop on development, it should rather be used as an encouragement for a new type of development, a new type of economic growth where we can meet the needs of both the poorest in the world and the aspirations ostrom