In a few months, experts will gather in Rio de Janeiro for a conference aimed at wresting the world onto a more sustainable path – one that doesn’t lead to runaway climate change, widespread shortages of food, water, energy and other resources, or ever greater social and global inequality.
Expectations are low, as you might expect of an effort that aims, among other things, to rewrite economic fundamentals – such as shifting away from GDP growth as the main measure of progress - and to persuade rich people and those billions who aspire to be rich that curbing their consumption – be it holidays abroad or more meat for dinner – is the right thing to do.
If the world can’t reach agreement on effective measures to curb climate change, the thinking goes, how is it going to achieve even more ambitious and controversial aims?
But at this week’s Planet Under Pressure conference, which looked at how science might help drive transformative changes in everything from development policy to investment, experts from around the world laid out some remarkably clear – if ambitious - ideas on what needs to be done to start the massive shifts needed.
--Frank Biermann, a Dutch political science professor and chair of the Earth System Governance Project, for instance, argued at the London meeting that a first crucial step is backing away from the need for consensus votes at the UN.
The need to win agreement on a new climate treaty from every single country has effectively bogged down the UN climate talks and robbed them of ambition. What the UN needs, Biermann said, is simply majority voting, and perhaps even weighted votes that would give China, for instance, a bigger say in decisions than Monaco.
--Elizabeth Thomson, a former energy and environment minister from Barbados and executive coordinator for the upcoming June Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, suggested that it’s time for the United Nations to move beyond Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) to setting sustainable development goals – aims that take into account not just human development but the price that development is exacting on the planet.
--Anne Glover, a biologist and chief scientific advisor to the European Commission, went further, calling for MDGs that focus not just on the very poor but on the very rich as well, with the aim of closing the growing gap between them.
“At the extreme end of poverty there’s little regulation about what happens and at the extreme level of wealth there’s very little regulation about how that’s accumulated,” she said. “The MDGs are all focused on poverty. There are none focused on wealth. That’s a very odd thing (because) we live in a closed system.”
--Bob Watson, chief scientific advisor to Britain’s Department of Environment and Rural Affairs, made the case for a switch from taxes on income to taxes on the purchase of goods, aimed at curbing excessive consumption, as well as an end to government agriculture, transport and other subsidies that cost a trillion dollars a year and help entrench unsustainable ways of doing things.
He also called for innovation to curb the estimated 40 percent of food production that is lost in the process of getting to consumers or thrown away after it reaches them.
“All of this is do-able,” he insisted. “The current system is dysfunctional but it doesn’t take much to change it.”
--Maria Ivanova, a global governance professor at the University of Massachusetts and director of the Global Environmental Governance Project, said change needs to start in schools. She pointed to a project at the College of William and Mary in the United States where students voluntarily paid a $30 sustainability tax each year that went into research, sustainability projects and sustainable investments.
More important than the university effort itself, she said, was the firsthand experience with practical sustainability projects that students were taking away into their lives and careers.
--Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, called for people living in democracies to work harder to wrest control of politics and politicians away from special interests.
“Many of us live in democracies where we elect the people who make decisions for us. Don’t elect the wrong ones, and push them to stick to their promises,” urged Marton-Lefevre, who said she was born behind the Iron Curtain and knows from experience that “things can change.”
--And Pamela Collins, a US-born doctoral student in paleobiogeography, called for a new World War II-style “global patriotism” around resource conservation, including efforts to make reductions in consumption empowering rather than depressing.
“Many people think the problems are just too big. Why should I change my behavior if it has no effect?” she asked.
What is needed instead, she said, is “a new kind of communication that suggests consumption is not the best thing and individual actions can have an effect.
“We need to empower people,” she said. “They don’t want to hear that you’re driving your car too much. But (saying) it’s cool to take your bike and not drive your car has a very big impact on listeners.”
“If there’s a common message, (it’s that) your effort makes a difference, you can do something, you matter,” she said.