LONDON: Earth has only one decade to pull itself back from various environmental ‘tipping points’ — points at which the damage becomes irreversible, scientists have said.
If it fails to do so, it is likely to witness a series of breakdowns in the systems that sustain people, such as oceans and soil, according to a major meeting on safeguarding the planet’s future, the Planet Under Pressure conference (26–29 March).
"Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the wellbeing of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk," said some of the world’s leading documenters of global environmental change in the first ‘State of the Planet’ declaration.
They also admitted that scientists could no longer continue with ‘business as usual’.
"We have been far better at documenting the problem and understanding the processes than engaging with solutions," said Mark Stafford Smith, science director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency.
Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, in Sweden, said it was "absolutely shocking" that scientists had not answered questions such as "how much biodiversity [do] we need in order to sustain landscapes for our economy?".
He told a press conference: "I and many scientists are still profoundly frustrated that we don’t know whether we are heading for a two degree or six degree temperature rise — that’s not satisfactory for any decision makers".
The declaration says that three changes over the last decade make scientists’ warnings qualitatively different from before.
First, a decade of research is leading to the consensus that we inhabit a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans are dominating planetary-scale processes.
Second, science has revealed that many planetary processes are interconnected, as are, increasingly, society and the economy. This interconnectedness can confer stability and accelerate innovation, says the declaration, but it also leaves us vulnerable to abrupt and rapid crises.
Third, social research has demonstrated that our current ways of governing global environmental change are not dealing effectively with problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Many researchers conclude that local, national and regional partnerships are also needed as an insurance policy against failures of governance at a global level.
The declaration supports some of the ideas that are being promoted for inclusion in the Rio+20 agreement, to be finalised at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (20–22 June) in Brazil.
These include: the need to go beyond GDP (gross domestic product) by taking into account the value of natural capital when measuring progress; a framework for developing global sustainability goals; the creation of a UN Sustainable Development Council to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level; and the production of regular global sustainability analyses.
One key outcome of the meeting was agreement on the need to push forward a scheme to redirect global change science, so-called ‘Future Earth’, which will pull together an wide variety of disciplines to answer questions that societies need to tackle.
Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, who attended the final day, praised the Future Earth initiative for being "unprecedented in its creativity".
Liz Thomson, executive coordinator of the Rio+20 summit, told the meeting that many of the messages from the scientific community, which has been lobbying for some time over the Rio+20 agreement, had already made it into the ‘zero draft’ of Rio+20’s outcome document, and that the declaration would "increase the pressure on policymakers to get the message and act on it".
The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said in a recorded address that he was "taking forward" a recommendation from his high-level science panel that he appoint a science advisor.
Co-chair of the meeting, Lidia Brito, director of science policy and capacity building in natural sciences at UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), said: "We have a positive message: strong leadership from all sectors, and harnessing [our] increased connectivity, offer hope that the risk of long-term environmental crises can be minimised".
But some delegates said that while the conference linked natural and social scientists, it was less successful in luring policymakers and business representatives.
Nigel Cameron, president of the US-based Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, told the meeting that he did not see venture capitalists or heads of research and development from industry "around the table … and the reason for that is that the people around the table don’t want them [there]".
And others said that scientists might be overestimating the influence they could have. Carlos Nobre, of Brazil’s ministry of science, technology and innovation, talked of "the stark reality of anti-science political power … no matter how good we become as communicators we have to recognize it is very effective at blocking action".