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How we must stop destroying nature

Inger Andersen

by Inger Andersen

Filed under Coronavirus / Climate Emergency

At TTU we highlight cutting edge trends to alert leaders on why they must change how they think. We also share examples of great leadership and insights as an inspiration for others.

Here we publish a powerful alert on the urgent challenges we confront to save the planet that we all take for granted. The details and warnings are sobering. But none of us can afford to ignore them. To save nature we must all urgently change the way we conduct our lives.

This is an edited and shortened version of remarks delivered by Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the London School of Economics on 20 January 2021

As we seek to overcome this terrible pandemic, we must do so in the knowledge that it is not something that we can just fix, wash our hands of, and return to normal. Why? Because it is normal that brought us where we are today.

The pandemic has shown that we must rethink our very relationship with nature. It is our destruction of wild species, which is implicated in the emergence of the many diseases that jump from animals to humans, such as COVID-19.

The pandemic is a warning from the planet. Unless we change our ways, much worse lies in store. It’s a warning that we must heed. After years of promise - but not enough action - we must finally hear that warning and get on top of three planetary crises that threaten our collective future.

Existential crises

These are: the climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis. These are three existential crises that threaten all of humanity.

In 2020 when we were consumed by the pandemic, climate change didn’t let up. 2020 was a year where we broke even, with both 2016 as the hottest year on record.

In 2020 we saw Atlantic hurricane season with more storms than ever recorded. We saw plagues of locusts from Yemen to East Africa, devouring our crops. We saw right now 2 billion people living in water stress. We’ve seen wildfires, floods, droughts. They have become so commonplace that many times they don’t even make the news.

And then there is the water, the biodiversity and nature crisis. Even as we talk about climate, we have to look at nature too, where our existence threatens nature severely.

Nature unravels

Nature is declining at an unprecedented speed. Around 1 million species of about 7.8 million that exist on our planet, are facing extinction. Humans have altered about 75% of the terrestrial surface of our planet. And we have altered about 66% of our oceans.

But while nature has intrinsic value, we also need to understand that nature’s loss is more than losing an orchid here, or a butterfly there. As we degrade our ecosystems, we are chipping away at the very foundations that make life possible.

Food, rainfall, temperature regulation, economic growth, pollination, the roofs over our heads, the clothes we wear, just to name but a few of nature’s services to us.

And then waste and pollution. There is that toxic trail of our economic growth. Every year pollution causes millions of premature deaths. Around one third of all rivers in Latin America, Asia and Africa suffer from severe pollution.

We throw away 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year, roughly equal to the weight of all commercial airlines ever made.

The pandemic is obviously worsening the waste problem. Millions of disposable masks and PPE which we need making its way into the garbage stream.

We have known about these problems for some time. But the sad truth is that the world hasn’t acted strongly enough on the science before us.

That applies to the three planetary crisis and to every international agreement from the Sustainable Development Goals to the Paris Agreement to the Biodiversity Convention.

Failed commitments

Promises have been made. But now is the age of promises behind us. Now is the era of action.

As the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his State of the Planet speech in December 2020, making peace with nature is a defining task of the 21st century.

But the question is how to make that happen?

There are four areas where we can act: the economic and business sphere, governance, science and our everyday lives.

1. Economy and business

The starting point for making economic and business decisions that address the three planetary crisis is this. Instead of short term gain that brings long term pain, it is to recognise the true value of nature, and the Earth’s systems that regulate our seasons, our weather, our rainfall, and assures our very existence on this planet.

The Dasgupta review on the economics of biodiversity, makes clear that human health and prosperity cannot happen without nature. Over half of the global gross domestic product depends on nature.

Never mind the services that nature provides free of charge, such as climate regulation, water filtering, protection against natural disasters, and so on.

Economic benefit of biodiversity

Protecting nature and the climate, and limiting pollution and waste, is not only smart economic decision. Quite frankly they are non-negotiable for future economic prosperity.

But somehow, this seems to be a lesson that many have yet to learn. And it’s confounding to me.

It should be glaringly obvious that the old understanding that it’s economy versus environment just doesn’t hold true.

The increase in our wealth has come at the expense of our natural wealth, our natural capital, the planet stock of renewable and non renewable resources. They have declined by 40%.

In the same period, the WEF’s Global Risk Report 2020 ranked biodiversity and ecosystem collapse as one of the top five risks we would face within the next 10 years.

On the other hand, of course, ecosystems and biodiversity can bring huge economic benefits.

Overall the business opportunities from transforming the food, the land in the ocean systems could generate $3.6 trillion of additional revenue, while creating hundreds of millions of jobs.

Nature is an asset

So any way we slice and dice it, nature is an asset, an asset class that we need to think about. And we are eating into it much faster than it can regenerate.

To fix this error, we need to ensure that nature enters economic and financial decision making. We can’t assume that it is a free public good. The best way to assure that is one of the key ways is to move away from GDP as an indicator and use an inclusive wealth measure that measures all forms of capital.

The Global Commission on economy and climate told us that transitioning to low carbon growth could generate some $26 trillion and create over 65 million jobs by 2030. So tackling the three planetary crisis is a smart decision for economists and business.

2. Governance

Yes, the world has made many promises through the Sustainable Development Goals, through the Paris Agreement, through international goals and biodiversity and through goals on chemicals and pollution. But we haven’t done enough to move beyond the good intentions across the board.

Promises alone are not enough. Six years ago, nations arrived at this historic agreement in Paris to limit global warming this century to well below two degrees and to pursue 1.5. Yet now, our UNEP’s emissions gap report of December 2020 tells us that the pledges and actions under the Paris Agreement must get much stronger this year, or we are set towards a rise of over three degrees this century.

The pandemic-linked economic slowdown where we saw a dip in greenhouse gas emissions - yes, that did happen. But it will have a very, very, very negligible next-to-no-impact on global long term temperatures. That is because the CO2 bathtub was already full. So turning off the tap for a couple of seconds does not make it empty now.

Governments must deliver on commitments

To get back on track for a two degree world, we have no choice, but to cut one third of our emissions off by 2030. And if we want to, and we really do, aim for the 1.5 degree world, we have to halve our emissions.

It’s the same for biodiversity. In 2010 we agreed on a series of biodiversity targets that we had said we would reach by 2020. And by 2020 we have reached none of them. None!

So to catch up, governments must now act on three fronts. They must deliver on commitments made. They must strengthen and better focus their commitments. And they must ensure that actions on these three crises are joined up.

Clearly, the post pandemic recovery is a great way to speed up delivery. Every bit of UNEP research that we have produced in recent months shows us that for the pandemic recovery stimulus packages and this massive opportunity, never before have we put so much money - public money - into the economy.

We have calculated the potential to cut by around 25% our emissions by 2030 if we green these stimulus packages.

That would mean clearly ensuring that we do not borrow from the future generation and then leave them both with a broken planet and a mountain of debt.

What we therefore need to do is to put money into decarbonisation, into nature positive agriculture, into sustainable infrastructure, into climate change adaptation measures that protect the vulnerable, etc.

All-of-government dimension

That’s our target to make those recovery packages - stimulus packages – green on all fronts on all three crisis. And governments must make stronger, smarter and more trackable commitments right now.

So we need to be careful about not making just promises.

Like the person who pledges on January 1 to run a marathon by the end of the year, we have to get ready for that race. Net Zero commitments have been made. We celebrate that. But we cannot wait to turn these net zero commitments by 2050 into strong near term policies with time bound commitments that deliver action on the ground.

They must be included in what are called the NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) which are essentially the plans that countries would submit under Paris every five years.

So let’s submit stronger and more determined NDC’s so that we ensure we fold in the stimulus promises they are in. And the same for biodiversity.

We need to ensure that these targets are made. That we shift towards better managed conservation areas, that we deliver nature positive agriculture and fisheries, that we end harmful subsidies, that we move to sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

And the same goes for chemicals. We need chemicals in our economy. But we have to use them safely.

What can governments do?

They need to act in a joined up manner between governments, business, communities and citizens. Think what that means - a cooler climate, that will protect biodiversity, slow desertification, conserve nature, drive down poverty, help provide healthier lives and a healthier nature, store carbon, create buffers to impact on climate change.

Each one reinforces the other. Governments need to understand this and not delegate to the ministries of environment, or one department or the other. They must have an all-of-government dimension to the action plans that they roll out.

3. Science

Science has done its job. Science has spoken. But like with good economics, it now needs to get into policies so we can and must do better. Science has to seek and speak out. It must understand diverse opinions and experiences.

Here we must accept that like with economics, science has not done as good a job as it could have done. Science and the world have been woken up to covert, overt, quiet, blind racism, sexism, white privilege. It is important that science of today understands bias and tackles the realities and the histories of the community that it touches.

We at UNEP work in science and we are very much aware of this. So we work to make science open, make it accessible and make it available to all. We have to digitise scientific knowledge and democratise its availability, so that people can access it, understand it and use it.

Ensuring that science speaks within the four walls of our homes is also critical. Without strong science that travels we cannot influence unsustainable consumption and production patterns which underpin our planetary crisis. People need to understand the impact that they have on the planet.

4. Our everyday lives

The fourth area is the personal responsibility that each one of us carries. Often when I speak to people they say “Yes! But this is so big that my actions don’t matter”.

So let me disabuse you of that notion. The fact is that if we live in the developed world, we are impacting on the planetary health unless we live off grid and we grow our own food. And we live with a rainwater that we’ve harvested. And we don’t travel, which we don’t do, most of us. But two thirds - two thirds - of all greenhouse gas emissions are linked to private households while our growing demands of food and materials are stripping the earth bare.

So right now, we require 1.6 Earths to maintain the current population and living standards. And of course, living standards are rising as they should. Many people need to move beyond the poverty in which they are now living. This means that there is an onus on those of us living wealthier lives, globally speaking.

This is an equity issue. The combined emissions of the richest 1% of the global population account for more than twice of the poorest 50%. Let that sink in for a moment.

Everyone has a responsibility

This global elite have no alternatives but to reduce our footprint, and significantly. Very significantly, So that we can stay within the Paris targets.

And just to be clear, an annual salary of $40,000 puts you in the top 10 of global earners, while around $110,000 puts you in the top 1%. So the top 1%, the global elite is at $110,000. This means that each one of us - whether we are in the top 10 – has a responsibility.

So we’re not talking about the mega wealthy. We’re talking about a responsibility that falls on us all. Each one of us have to look at our own lives.

I’m not here going to list everything that we can do because information is freely available. Let’s be honest: most of us know what we must do, from avoiding single use plastic to avoiding food waste, to being mindful of our travel and dietary choices, etc, etc. and our overall footprint.

We have a systems problem

It can be difficult to make choices that are good for the planet, particularly for those who struggle to make ends meet. But our societies depend heavily on fossil fuels, monoculture crops, wasteful packaging, and so much more.

So it is essential that we change that system. We do that politically, but we do that also by the individual choices. And by voting with our pound bills, or dollar bills or euros.

This will take time. But until then, we have to do what we can within the constraints of our circumstances - no matter how small - to change our lifestyles.

There’s no doubt that we have made progress on environmental issues in the last few decades. And we’ve made more commitments than ever.

We have more solutions available to us than ever. Business and investors are beginning to step up. Renewable energy is widespread and cheaper. Public awareness is at an all-time high. But climate change, nature loss, pollution and waste continue to outpace our efforts.

We can only overtake them if we speed up ourselves. We can and must do it.

COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can change our habits when we have to: bold leadership, tough decisions, and dedicated financing have saved lives. They have brought us to the point where within a year vaccination programmes are rolling out.

That same ingenuity. That same determination. That same commitment. That is what we now must draw on deeply to overcome what are really existential threats to humanity and the planet on which we hold so much sway.

Real, meaningful, and determined action to halt and reverse those three planetary crises is not just the smart option. It is the only option. If we want our economies and our businesses, our societies, and of course, our families to thrive and those that come after us to thrive, we have to take that action and to take it now.

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