The key messages contained Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) Summary For Policymakers are not surprising. The trends have been well known for a long time, perhaps only the current scale of the crisis might be news. But if earlier reports like the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5C or UN’s World Population Prospects The 2017 Revision haven’t galvanised the necessary level of response then there is no reason to believe the IPBES report will do so.
On the basis of the evidence a bleak future for coming generations is inescapable. Too gloomy? Let’s look at the facts.
IPBES observes ‘[T]he biosphere, upon which humanity as a whole depends, is being altered to an unparalleled degree across all spatial scales’. The main drivers have been ‘changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species’, which are ‘in turn underpinned by societal values and behaviours that include production and consumption patterns, human population dynamics and trends, trade, [and] technological innovations’.
The IPCC judges that the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere have produced a 1.0oC rise above per-industrial levels and ‘will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts’. These alone are expected to account for a further 0.5oC of warming over the next two or three decades. The IPPC warns that the difference between warming to 1.5oC and exceeding it is dire.
In the window in which urgent action needs to be taken to address biodiversity loss and global warming above 1.5oC the UN projects that by 2030 there will be an extra billion people and by 2050 over 2 billion more. This projected growth will be primarily in developing countries in Africa and Asia.
It is clear that by mid-century there will be many more people to feed and employ. The pressures on the environment and the climate will grow as more consumers demand affordable and readily available goods and services. More energy will be needed to light homes, power transport, and drive industrial production.
The cynic would be left with the impression that even if the world suddenly agreed that urgent action was needed and all concurred on a course of action, the challenges would be insurmountable. To reverse biodiversity and ecosystem loss, mitigate global warming, and prepare to feed the future population requires a transformation of almost incomprehensible scale and scope.
If such a transformation is to be achieved first the enormous imbalance in wealth across the globe must be addressed. Individual citizens will need to have the wherewithal to pay for some initiatives and governments will need the immense revenue required to invest in sustainable projects. Both require a radical redistribution of wealth.
It is not only within the rich western nations where inequality in wealth is large and growing. The disparity in also great between nations across the world. The developing nations are unlikely to provide the basic services and infrastructure to all their citizens in order to bring them to a tolerable standard of living. To create sustainable, low or zero emissions economies by 2050 will be well beyond their resources. Just keeping up with the population growth indicated by the UN will be testing in Africa and Asia.
Even in the advanced nations the practical issues around replacing legacy infrastructure are daunting. On top of that building a sufficiently large labour force and reskilling workers to plan, build and then operate the sustainable services and infrastructure is only one challenge.
A separate challenge is the pollution and emissions generated by the current industrial capacity as it produces the clean future. This would be a root and branch activity. Mining practices would need to change and construction companies would need to dramatically reduce the use of cement, after first finding a substitute. This is without re-engineering agriculture practices, forestry, and food distribution systems. Avoiding addition global warming seems impossible.
The most insurmountable obstacle would be human nature. The transformations required to even moderate the deleterious effects on biodiversity and climate from current practices will be highly disruptive. Even putting aside irresistible lure of exploiting the uncertainty and angst of populations for political purposes, and disregarding the difficulty in raising public understanding of the complex issues involved, there will be large sections of the population who will either be losers or frustrated. Who will feel they are bearing a disproportionate share of the costs of ensuring a future they will not enjoy while seeing their own standard of living compromised.
This science has been around for decades. It has been public for decades. Political parties around the world have been aware of the science for decades. Nothing approaching the necessary level of commitment to transformation has emerged among the political leadership anywhere. Token gestures, cosmetic policies, and empty and insincere rhetoric has been the norm where outright denial is absent. It’s too hard. Too overwhelming. Too indigestible politically.
The world will not get its act together in the time-frames indicated by IPBES and IPCC. This has been evident for a long while. So the collapse of biodiversity and the march of global warming will proceed.
The urgent priority now is for adaptation and risk management. Governments can invest in the less expensive short term options like: hardening infrastructure and economies against droughts, storms, floods and fires; protecting populations against epidemics and migrating pests through restructuring public health and other social services; bolstering dramatically emergency services and broadening their scope to include environmental disasters; and through planning to change demographic and habitation patterns to suit future conditions.
The authors of IPBES, IPCC, and UN reports are not oracles, they are scientists. They need to be heeded.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.