By DAVID JOLLY, March 29, 2012
An era has dawned in which humanity’s impact on the earth could prove to be as great as ice ages or meteoric collisions, scientists, government officials and business leaders warned this week at a big environmental conference in London. The world’s approach to tackling environmental problems therefore must change rapidly if disaster is to be avoided, they said.
“We really are urging the world to grasp this moment to make history,” said Lidia Brito, the director of science policy and capacity building at Unesco and a co-chairman of the conference, titled Planet Under Pressure.
In a formal declaration issued on Thursday at the end of the conference, she and Mark Stafford Smith, the other co-chairman, wrote that “without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources,” creating “the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.”
The very interconnectedness of economic and political systems across the globe place pressures on the environment, they noted.
“But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet,” they wrote. “The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization.”
The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio+20 is focused first on creating a green economy while eradicating poverty, and secondly on building a framework for sustainable development. That sounds rather ambitious, considering the failure of other recent United Nations forums, including the 2009 climate summit meeting in Copenhagen.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Brito, a professor of forest science, acknowledged that the challenge of mobilizing action was steep, but suggested that drawing 3,000 people to London to talk about Rio+20 was already an achievement.
As for the framework issue, she said that many people who took part believe that a new United Nations Sustainable Development Council with its own secretariat is needed to help reform the intergovernmental system for addressing issues like climate change.
Another message emanating from the discussions is that the current measure of national well-being, gross domestic product, needs to be replaced with a measure that fully captures the impact of human economic activity.
Conference officials cited Brazil and India as examples. From 1990 to 2008, Brazil’s G.D.P. per capita rose 34 percent and India’s, 120 percent. But the picture changes when another measure known as the inclusive wealth indicator is used. It deducts declines in “natural capital,” things like forests and minerals. By this measure, Brazil’s wealth rose by just 3 percent and India’s by 9 percent.
Anne Larigauderie, the head of Diversitas, an organization that promotes research on biodiversity, said another goal promoted by stakeholders was “to restructure science at the international level.” To that end, her organization is collaborating with other groups on a project called Future Earth that aims to integrate science more fully into society.
As a first step, Future Earth will bring together practitioners in the fields of biogeochemistry, physical climate, the social sciences and humanities, and biodiversity. “You can no longer talk about scientific issues in isolation,” Ms. Larigauderie said. “Food, water, climate – they are all related.”
“You need the climate people to talk to the anthropologists and psychologists, for example,” she said. “It’s really complex, but if we don’t do it, we aren’t going to be able to translate the knowledge we have into action.”