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Entering the Anthropocene

Updated March 26, 2013

The famous Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 had ended on a triumphant note with hopes of actions destined to protect the planet. These included the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. In the past 20 years, however, there has only been an increase in global warming, desertification and the destruction of biodiversity – all having arisen from an obsession with economic growth.

Clearly “sustainable development” was becoming meaningless and hence, a new buzzword called the “green economy” became the theme of last year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 as it was called (to mark 20 years since the Earth Summit). Given the current global economic crisis, expectations were extremely low for the UN Conference that was held in Rio de Janeiro last June. As it turned out the Rio+20 Summit produced very little of note. Kumi Naidoo, the outspoken executive director of Greenpeace called it: "A failure of epic proportions".

Kumi Naidoo was rightly disappointed for carbon emissions are growing faster than ever today and climate scientists are warning us that we are heading for a climate tipping point. This is the point where we will have runaway climate change with disastrous impacts, especially for the more vulnerable countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and low lying island states. The number of endangered species around the world also continues to grow, as do extinctions. In fact, some scientists believe we may already be entering the sixth great extinction event – the last great extinction event occurred 65 millions years ago, when the dinosaurs died off.

Today, the 7 billion people on Earth are changing the planet so rapidly that we're entering a new geological age called the Anthropocene, one in which “humans are the dominant force on the global ecosystem”. Now a group of international scientists are arguing that in the Anthropocene, we must abandon the old thinking on sustainable development, which was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” They say that for the past 26 years, “a single concept has shaped international policy: the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental”. This concept has clearly not delivered on its promise of a more sustainable world.

The scientists are now redefining the problem, “by replacing the three pillars with a clear and simple idea: an economy, within society, within Earth’s life support system. A healthy planet is a prerequisite for healthy, thriving, prosperous lives”. From this, they say, “we need a new definition for sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding the Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends”. Their ideas were recently published in Nature magazine.

One of the outcomes of the Rio+20 Summit was the agreement by UN member states to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the Millennium Development Goals and converge with the post 2015 development agenda. In the wake of recent meetings held at the UN on the definition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the group of international scientists is arguing for a set of six universal SDGs that link poverty eradication to protection of the Earth’s life support. They say that: “ending poverty and safeguarding the Earth’s life support system must be the twin priorities for the Sustainable Development Goals”.

The scientists point out that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set to expire in 2015, have helped focus international efforts on eight poverty-related goals. However, despite successes in some areas, many MDGs have not been met. Economic gains, for example, have come at the expense of environmental protection.

“Climate change and other global environmental threats will increasingly become serious barriers to further human development,” says lead author of the group, Professor David Griggs from Monash University in Australia. “Humans are transforming the Earth’s life support system – the atmosphere, oceans, waterways, forests, ice sheets and biodiversity that allow us to thrive and prosper – in ways likely to undermine development gains”, he added. Co-author Professor Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre said, “Mounting research shows we are now at the point that the stable functioning of Earth systems is a prerequisite for a thriving global society and future development.”

Their new set of goals is: thriving lives and livelihoods, food security, water security, clean energy, healthy and productive ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies. The targets beneath each goal include updates and expanded targets under the MDGs, including ending poverty and hunger, combating HIV/AIDS, and improving maternal and child health. But they also define a set of planetary “must haves”: climate stability, the reduction of biodiversity loss, protection of ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle and oceans, sustainable nitrogen and phosphorus use, clean air and sustainable material use.

Their new research is linked to Future Earth, a new international research programme designed to “develop the knowledge required for societies worldwide to face challenges posed by global environmental change and to identify opportunities for a transition to global sustainability.”