Denuded earth

05 Aug 2020

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The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.
The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

THE Industrial Revolution enabled mankind to exploit natural resources for its economic benefit with the help of constantly emerging new technologies and techniques. Increased outputs of natural resources through these methods have, in turn, enabled unprecedented growth of economies.

However, this progress has ended up changing the face of the earth — both literally and figuratively. Since the Industrial Revolution, mankind’s ‘material footprint’, the amount of raw materials extracted for consumption, has grown steadily. The indiscriminate extraction of natural resources has wreaked havoc on the natural ecosystems. Processes such as land degradation, marine pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions have caused the environment to become a silent victim of mankind’s greed.

According to the International Resource Panel, an initiative of the UN’s environment programme, the global material footprint has increased by 113 per cent in less than 30 years — from 43 billion metric tons in 1990 to 92bn in 2017. If remained unchecked, the IRP estimates that the global material footprint will reach 190bn by 2060, stripping the earth completely of its resources.

A flagship UN publication, the Global Environmental Outlook-6, has warned that the window for action to the save Earth is closing. According to the report, “Unsustainable production and consumption patterns and trends as well as inequality, combined with population growth-driven increase in resource use, put at risk the healthy planet needed to attain sustainable development. These trends are deteriorating planetary health at unprecedented rates with increasingly serious consequences especially for poorer people and regions.”

Our lifestyles are borrowing from the future with no plans to pay back.

The per capita consumption of natural resources in high-income countries is 60pc higher than that of upper-middle-income countries. Meanwhile, the pace of transition from agrarian to industrialised economies in Asia and the Pacific surpasses other regions.

The adverse impacts of out civilisation’s material footprint are evident in the wastage of the resources we consume. This wastage directly impacts the basic rights of citizens all over the globe. Around the world, one-third of the food produced annually is wasted while 815 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Access to drinking water is a similar example.

In fact, the global pace of extraction of natural resources is higher than the GDP growth rate. It is man’s greed, not need, that will eventually upend the existing development paradigm and threaten his own survival.

At present, we are consuming resources as if we had not one but 1.7 earths. This is unsustainable for both the environment and mankind. World Offshoot Day marks the point in a single year when humanity consumes more natural resources than the earth can regenerate. The damage being meted out by our present consumption patterns can be gauged by the fact that despite the economic shutdown due to Covid-19, this year’s World Offshoot Day falls on Aug 22, more than four whole months short of the new annual cycle.

Our present lifestyles and economic models are borrowing from the future with no plans in place to pay back. We must bring this pattern of abuse to an end ourselves before it is brought to an end for us by nature.

The solution lies in shifting to a system whereby resource requirements for development are met in a sustainable manner. The Covid-19 pandemic has offered a chance to reboot the global economy. As decision-makers mull over options for post-pandemic development plans, old approaches will have to be bypassed for a development paradigm that tackles global challenges in an integrated manner.

Of several pathways to sustainable development, Inclusive Green Economy has gained considerable traction. A number of collaborative initiatives have demonstrated its viability and efficacy. A handy example is PAGE, or the Partnership for Action on Green Economy, that brings together several countries, UN agencies and development partners to promote sustainability at the heart of economic policymaking.

Other approaches include expediting and decoupling economic growth and natural resource use to halt further degradation of the environment. Digital technology and artificial intelligence can also be harnessed to mainstream sustainability practices across all sectors of the economy to improve resource efficiency, promote circularity and reduce waste.

For the world to live by its pledges of prosperity, stability and sustainability, transformative action is an urgent requisite. We cannot afford to leave behind a denuded planet for our children. For a tomorrow that is better than today, a new plan for the planet can no longer wait.

The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020