As the impacts of humankind shift our world from the stable conditions of the Holocene and into the far less predictable and volatile conditions of the Anthropocene, we have a stark choice.
Do we act in our collective best interests to halt and reverse the damage being caused to our planet’s unique web of life, or do we press on regardless, pursuing narrow national and economic interests in the full knowledge that this will likely lead to disaster?
This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.
Thus far, and despite the plainest warnings, it is the latter path that we are embarked upon. The consequences are seen in the rapidly changing climate, the depletion of resources, from soils to fresh water, ecosystem degradation and the hastening pace of extinction.
If we are to avoid these trends causing major impacts in the human world, now is the moment that we must act.
This is not least because the risks are no longer in a theoretical future: they are in the here and now and arising from the damage that has already been done. This is why the agenda is now not only about the protection of the Earth’s natural systems, but also about their recovery.
The good news is that we do actually possess the capacity to turn things around. Across the world there is an increasing number of examples of how the curve of decline can be bent towards recovery.
The restoration of forests, the rebuilding of soil health, the rapid rise in renewable electricity generation, the expansion of some wildlife populations and the replenishment of critical resources such as fish and fresh water are being achieved in different places via combinations of individual and community leadership, private sector investment, local and national government action and the scaling up of more benign technology.
Despite the potential to do things differently, however, there are still some missing pieces, including the absence of a clear and unequivocal global signal to the effect that things really must change, at a considerably greater scale than is presently the case, and much faster.
Not only do we need a more visible statement of the need for rapid change: it must be spoken from the highest political level.
The political appetite for action should, though, be considerably sharpened by the simple and inescapable fact that all economic growth and development in the end depends on natural systems.
While this basic truth has so far evaded the attention of many leaders, it is a reality that is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. For if we are to meet the needs of the billions of people now living on Earth, never mind their children and grandchildren, then we need to do things differently.
If there were sufficient political will, we could embark on the journey towards change this year.
Should world leaders see fit to rise to the occasion, this September’s United Nations General Assembly could provide the launch pad for an emergency plan to turn things around. The initiative needs to come from there, as our reaction to the unfolding global crisis must be based on a political signal from the highest level.
This is not least because climate change talks, those in the Convention on Biological Diversity, or in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, are often quite technical and focused on their immediate agendas.
Negotiations are often conducted by civil servants or at best junior ministers, and so generally lack the mandate needed to address the bigger challenges at hand. When those challenges include an existential threat to our civilisations, we can see that the political space for action needs to be made considerably bigger.
This is why we need a clear and strong signal from heads of state to open the possibilities for breakthroughs in these more specific political processes.
As well as signalling the fact that we face an urgent situation, and restating the need for a step up in ambition, the heads of state must also set out their intention to integrate ongoing processes to ensure that the recovery of Nature, sustainable development, and efforts to avoid the worst effects of climate change become united in a single programme.
The reasons for this are quite straightforward. One is the extent to which efforts to protect the climate can sometimes undermine Nature protection; for example, some biofuels policies have incentivised more deforestation.
On the other hand, some renewable energy technologies have not gathered scale as quickly as they could, because the policies to promote their proliferation did not take adequate account of Nature; for example, some onshore wind power developments have been stopped as a result of the risk they would pose to wildlife.
On top of this, neither the conservation nor the low-carbon agenda can succeed without complementary action in the other.
For example, we know that it will not be possible to achieve the 1.5-degree warming limit in the Paris Agreement on climate change without action to protect and restore natural systems, including forests and soils.
Similarly, it will not be possible to sustain the natural diversity of the Earth should temperatures exceed that level, for example as a result of damage caused to polar and coral reef ecosystems.
Also, if we are to adapt to the climate change already under way, the enhancement of the natural environment will be one of our best insurance policies, for example through the restoration of wetlands and coastal ecosystems so as to assist in reducing the risks posed by floods and inundation from the sea.
The achievement of both conservation and carbon goals will be possible only if we can embed genuinely sustainable development to ensure that the needs of all the world’s people are met while respecting environmental limits.
Again, we know this can be done, because in some parts of the world environmental progress is being made at the same time as social progress.
Take the Central American republic of Costa Rica, where the electricity supply is now nearly 100 percent renewable and where since the 1980s both forest cover and per capita GDP have doubled at the same time.
Laying the foundations for the climate-friendly recovery of the natural world for the benefit of humankind is within our grasp.
We can do this, not least via a series of global meetings taking place in 2020, including what we can expect to be the historic meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing and climate talks that will, among other things, review the adequacy of action to achieve the Paris agenda.
This will, however, require a clear political mandate from the world’s presidents and prime ministers. Since these leaders represent us, the citizens, one important thing we can all do between now and later this year is to insist they rise to the challenge. There is, after all, now no time to lose.
Tony Juniper is Chair of Natural England. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.