The earth is a planet under pressure from human activities, it needs better science and application of the best science to heal it, but that will not be enough, according to Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society. “The challenges are momentous but they are global and long term, therefore they are frustrated far too often by the parochial and the short term interests of politicians. That must be changed,” he said at the opening of the Planet Under Pressure conference, a four-day event that started in London on Monday and has brought together around 3,000 scientists and a few policymakers from over 100 countries. It is one of the largest gatherings of scientists – both physical and social – to discuss the state of the planet.

The idea is to have “science for policy and policy for science to meet Millennium Development Goals and for sustainable development,” as Lidia Brito of UNESCO and conference co-chair pointed out. Three years in the making, the conference has been co-organised by the International Geosphere Biosphere ProgrammeDiversitasInternational Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental ChangeWorld Climate Research ProgrammeEarth System Science Partnership and the International Council for Science.The scientists gathered for the conference plan to have their recommendations influence the outcome of Rio+20, the global conference on sustainable development scheduled to take place in Rio de Janiero this June, 20 years after the Earth Summit was held there. The international scientific community has produced nine “policy briefs to summarise scientific findings relevant to the Rio+20 agenda: the green economy and sustainable development,” as Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel laureate and chief scientific adviser to the conference, put it. The final four briefs for the series, released at the conference on Monday, focus on energy security, green economy, health and wellbeing.

Underlining the importance of how scientific knowledge should influence policymaking, Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that science had shown “our current food system is simply not sustainable. We know the scale of what’s being done and what needs to be done. In these uncertain terms, it’s all the more important that we deliver on our green goals.” Criticising those who said that the environment could wait while the world was in an economic recession, she added, “It is not an either or choice. The leading economies of tomorrow must be both green and growing. We’ll argue for GDP plus at Rio+20 and food, energy and water security.” She was referring to the plea of scientists and environmental economists to include the value of natural resources in national budgets. No country does that today, but Spelman said she wanted to “see businesses across the board putting sustainability on their balance sheets.”

The conference was brought alive by representatives from schools and colleges across Britain, who pointed out to the assembled delegates that their lives depended upon the health of the planet, and put some tough questions for the scientists to discuss. For example, one of them referred to the UN study that said by 2025 more than 66% of the world’s population would not have enough water to drink. What did the delegates plan to do about it, she asked.
Diana Liverman of the University of Arizona, who has been tracking global trends, reminded the scientists and policymakers that world population growth was falling, would reach replacement levels by 2025, and would fall after reaching the nine billion mark in 2040. At the same time, she said, global poverty was down but inequality was up. This needed a shift in the way policymakers thought, she said, emphasising why they had to take natural resources into consideration – over 30% of land has been converted to human use by 2000.

Another leading researcher in the area, Will Steffen of the Australian National University, argued that the world had already moved beyond the Holocene epoch of stability to anthropocene, and there were key tipping points that were irreversible – for example, the melting of the polar ice sheets, the deforestation in the Amazon basin, the melting of permafrost, the transformation in the Indian monsoon transformation, the change in the heat reflected back into the atmosphere as the ice melted in the Tibetan plateau, or changes in the El Nino Southern Oscillation of ocean currents that affected rainfall over much of the globe.

The problems in the physical world inevitable affected life, Sandra Diaz of the Cordoba National University in Argentina pointed out. She quoted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to say that 31.6% of the earth’s species that we know of are under threat. And we know of very little – only about four percent of the estimated species on earth have been “evaluated”, as she put it. She wanted biodiversity tipping points to be added to the geophysical ones listed by Steffen, for example, the virtual death (called hypoxia) of a coastal marine ecosystem due to accumulation of fertiliser runoff, garbage and industrial effluents.

Following the physical scientists, leading sociologist Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics and Social Sciences reminded his audience, “For all the talk of green economy, there’s not a single green economy in the world. We are living in a runaway world; we have created risks that we cannot control.”
Recounting the repeated disappointments at global climate negotiations, Giddens called for a new paradigm where “much action (to control greenhouse gas emissions) will be held below the level of the nation state, by state and city governments, by an activist global civil society and by the kind of youth groups we saw today.” He did not rule out the role of countries altogether, but predicted they would reach regional rather than global agreements, “and I hope large developing countries will play a far more leading role in this, especially China and Brazil.”

Overall, Giddens said, the world needed a “new politics, which I call utopian realism, because we can’t go on this way. We need a different model of development. India and China cannot continue in the same model as the advanced world, it’s too destructive of the planet. So we need to look at system change.”

Of the four policy briefs released on the opening day of the London conference, global energy systems obviously play a key role in the transformation to sustainability. “For a sustainable future, by 2050, between 60 and 80% of the world’s primary energy supply must come from low-carbon energy sources, either non-combustible renewables, nuclear power, hydropower, possibly bio-energy, and fossil fuels and bio-energy with carbon capture and storage. Currently, however, more than 80% of the energy comes from unabated fossil fuels,” says Detlef van Vuuren of Utrecht University a lead author of the brief.

A successful green economy will require more than technological innovation, it will need a societal transformation process. Societies need to draw up a new global social contract, says Anantha Duraiappah, Executive Director of the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and a lead author of that brief. “We need to establish a common set of rules for the global economic system based on sustainability and wellbeing. We need new economic measures of progress beyond GDP. We must move from GDP per capita to inclusive wealth, which measures the productive base of a country while keeping track of natural, social, human and produced capital.”

Duraiappah, who is also a lead author of the policy brief on human wellbeing, says the concept “goes beyond simple material prosperity and cannot be measured by income. It includes notions of security, spiritual health, personal freedom, and the surety to feel well – both physically and emotionally.” To improve worldwide human wellbeing, reducing absolute poverty is essential, but not sufficient. Reducing inequality is a crucial step towards wellbeing, the authors say.

“Human health is an important but under-recognised goal of sustainable development. We will bear the burden of ill health from global environmental changes well before we reach any obvious biophysical ‘tipping point’ in our earth Systems,” says Sari Korvats of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a lead author of the policy brief on that subject. “We already have enough evidence to show that we can choose environmental policies, strategies and technologies that benefit health and benefit the environment – locally and globally.”

Image courtesy of Noticelj

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