Experts call for deep-rooted changes to sustainable development thinking and suggest a new UN panel on Ecosystem Sustainability
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Science     2008-04-17

Experts call for deep-rooted changes to sustainable development thinking and suggest a new UN panel on Ecosystem Sustainability

Today marks the last day of the international conference on sustainable development, Resilience 2008. Hosted in Stockholm, experts from an array of countries and a cross disciplinary field of research have concluded that climate change and the subsequent effects of it are far more serious than current UN predictions. They call for high-level political changes on both national and international level. A new UN panel on Ecosystem Sustainability is suggested along with a new Swedish “Superministry” on sustainable ecological and economic development, directly reporting to the Swedish Prime Minister.

This week, a number of world-leading researchers are gathering in Stockholm for the first ever cross-disciplinary conference on sustainable development, which will focus on the resilience of society and ecosystems, i.e. their ability to avoid dangerous threshold effects.
“The pace of climate change seems to have been underestimated by researchers to date. This is compounded by the growing risk of critical threshold effects in the world’s glaciers, forests, soils and seas, which can exacerbate the climate effect. Deep-rooted and overall social, economic and ecological changes are needed. We really need to strengthen the resilience of the world’s societies and ecosystems”, says Brian Walker, Director of the international network of scientists Resilience Alliance.
For the first time in the history of mankind, the research community see signs that global environmental changes are seriously threatening the wellbeing of our societies. Climate change, deforestation, soil destruction, declining freshwater resources, loss of biological diversity and depletion of the world’s oceans are acting together in such a way that researchers cannot rule out catastrophic threshold effects, which risk fundamentally altering the living conditions on Earth within a few decades.
“The world is finding itself in a completely new situation. The environmental question has become a development question. Comprehensive changes must occur in politics and administration so that globalisation and growth work together instead of undermining the biosphere”, says Carl Folke, Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
In a year and a half from now, a new global climate agreement will be launched in Copenhagen. This agreement will have to contain binding commitments for the countries of the world which are so ambitious that the planet as a whole can avoid a level of warming that exceeds 2 degrees Celsius. This target has been set, in accordance with UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations, so as to stabilise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 450 ppm. In order to achieve this, the IPCC claims that global emissions of greenhouse gases must be at least halved by 2050. For the industrialised countries this involves a 30 percent decrease by 2020 and 80-90 percent by 2050.
One of the world’s leading climate researchers, Dr James Hansen at NASA, now believes that restricting the concentration of greenhouse gases to 450 ppm is not enough and that we must aim for 350 ppm. This is because new research shows that a doubling of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere risks leading to a 6 degree increase in temperature, not a 3 degree increase as previously thought. A 6 degree increase in temperature would fundamentally affect the conditions for life on Earth and would be no less than a global disaster. Unfortunately other research shows that we are already rapidly approaching a doubling compared with the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.
“If the trends do not begin to point in the right direction, global plans resembling the Marshall Plan after World War II will be needed to prevent the collapse of whole regions and societies. For example, a recent report from the EU Commission warns that millions of climate refugees will migrate from Africa to Europe in the near future if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate. Our opportunity to avoid such a situation – within the framework of democratic decision-making – is now”, says Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
During the past 150 years, ecosystems have absorbed around half the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human society – as a gigantic free service to society. However, research now shows that the ability of the seas to buffer mankind’s climate debt is declining and that forests, soils and wetlands risk collapsing under the pressure of human exploitation and temperature increase and suddenly changing their role from absorbing greenhouse gases to releasing them.
“We consider the situation to be so serious and the time to the end of 2009 so short that stricter directives are needed for the Copenhagen process. It would be disastrous to force through, under extreme time pressure, an agreement that binds the world up to 2020 and that then proves to aim far below the required target. World leaders, under the leadership of the UN, must instead accept the new risk position for uncontrolled climate change and, with this as the basis, establish a new global climate target and an accelerated timetable for achieving this”, says Bo Ekman, Chairman of the Tällberg Foundation.
However, the key to a solution in the climate question is, according to the researchers, not simply a matter of decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases. It is equally a matter of building up the resistance and development potential, the resilience, of the world’s ecosystems so that these continue to provide society with ecosystem services such as production of food and fibres, uptake of carbon dioxide and protection against various natural disasters, which form the basis for our welfare and protection against the climate threat.
“Since the consequences of climate change and a large proportion of the solution depend on our management of global ecosystems, we propose that the Swedish government - within the EU and the UN - now press for establishment of an equivalent to the IPCC in the form of an International Panel for Ecosystem Services (IPES). This IPES would have the task of following up on the UN report on global ecosystems from 2005, which demonstrated an acute need to slow down the depletion of forests, agricultural land, marine resources and biological diversity with the aim of securing continuing social and economic development”, says Anders Wijkman, EU parliamentarian.
The idea is that the IPES would act as a scientific mechanism for delivering information to the governments of the world, in a similar way to the IPCC. Both these panels could be included within the UN environmental programme UNEP and could generate complementary information that ensures that the climate work of the IPCC takes account of threshold effects in nature.
“On the domestic front the Swedish government should set up a new super-ministry with responsibility for sustainable ecological and economic development, directly answerable to the Prime Minister. Signs of such change in the political system already exist with the appointment of a Climate Minister in Denmark and a new Ministry of Climate and Water in Australia”, says Johan Rockström.
The market economy has provided enormous prosperity, particularly in the industrialised countries. However, according to the researchers, it has a serious failing in that the effects of production and consumption on climate and the environment are not captured in the economic model. Now, when these effects pose the most critical problem for continuing development, comprehensive reforms are needed the researchers argue.
“A super-ministry of the type we propose would be a step in the right direction. Finance ministers would thereby have to be subordinate to the framework conditions for economic policy, namely what the atmosphere and ecosystems can bear”, says Anders Wijkman.
That we now understand the problem is half the solution the researchers believe. The other half lies in the knowledge and innovative ability that mankind possesses and has demonstrated over history.
“There is no doubt that we can stake out a sustainable future on Earth, but this will require exceptional efforts on local and global level. Sweden has a particular opportunity to lead the way thanks to its historical role as a leading country in the international environment arena”, says Thomas Rosswall, director of ICSU, the International Council for Science.