People's health and wellbeing are critically and intricately dependent on the earth's natural systems. But advances in recent decades in the areas of socio-economic growth and technological transformation have materialised at the cost of the earth's capacity to sustain current and future wellbeing of mankind. During the 50-year period between 1970 and 2020, the global economy and trade have grown by nearly five and ten folds respectively. But side by side, the greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, and chemical production, wastes and pollutions have increased significantly. At the same time, use of resources has tripled and humans have severely affected three-fourths of ice-free land and two-thirds of oceans, putting at risk livelihoods, health, economic growth, food, water, sanitation and settlements. Therefore, the wellbeing of current and future generations depends on a clear and urgent break from the prevailing trends of environmental decline.
In this backdrop, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has recently published a ground-breaking report titled Making Peace with Nature: A Scientific Blueprint to Tackle the Climate, Biodiversity and Pollution Emergencies. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented in the foreword: "Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on earth…Ending our war does not mean surrendering hard-won development gains. Nor does it cancel the rightful aspiration of poorer nations and people to enjoy better living standards. On the contrary, making peace with nature, securing its health and building on the critical and undervalued benefits that it provides are keys to a prosperous and sustainable future for all".
The first part of the report narrates how the current trend of extensive development exceeds and degrades the earth's limited capacity to sustain human wellbeing, and threatens the achievement of sustainable development goals (SDGs). It asserts that human societies are failing to meet most of their commitments to limit environmental damages, because the earth's climate is changing and the web of living beings unravelling as land and oceans degrade, and chemicals and wastes accumulate beyond agreed limits. Many of the targets for conservation, restoration and sustainable use of oceans, coasts, and resources are unlikely to be met as marine and coastal ecosystems are waning with concomitant loss of biodiversity. But damaging and long-lasting environmental changes impede progress towards ending poverty, reducing inequalities, and promoting sustainable growth, decent work and peaceful cum inclusive societies. Besides, earth's capacity to cater to rising human needs for nutritious food, safe water and sanitation will weaken due to sustained environmental decay. Ultimately, the worsening health of earth undermines human endeavour for healthy living and wellbeing of all (SDG-3), as well as efforts for making settlements and cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Therefore, it is quite apparent that environmental degradation is jeopardising SDG achievement by impeding health and wellbeing; weakening food and water security and efforts to make communities sustainable at the production and consumption level; and upending natural resource base through harmful climate change, biodiversity loss and degraded ecosystem.
The second part of the UNEP report examines the transformational changes required for achieving a sustainable world. It evaluates the roles and responsibilities of various actors in order to recommend actions in the interlinked areas of environment, economics, finance, energy, food, water, health and cities. It opines that transformed societies and economies, as well as sustainable future may be secured only through applications of human knowledge, ingenuity, technology and cooperation. It also bemoans that efforts over many decades have not curbed the environmental decline due to prevalent growth model, and dominance of vested cum short-term interests. Therefore, system-wide transformations alone can enable mankind to achieve wellbeing for all within the earth's limited capacity for providing resources and absorbing wastes.
However, transformation for sustainability requires significant modifications in mutually reinforcing behaviour, culture, material flows, management systems and knowledge dissemination. It will also require interventions across sectors, and amendments to incentive structures, decision-making processes, rules and regulations. Besides, opposition from vested quarters and interests will have to be addressed. Given the inter-connected nature of climate change, loss of bio-diversity, land degradation, air and water pollution, the key-point is to address the earth's environmental emergencies collectively for achieving sustainability. The framing and execution of the goals, targets, commitments, and mechanisms under key multilateral agreements on climate change, bio-diversity, land-degradation, oceans and pollution should be aligned and made more synergistic and mutually supportive. The relevant governments should also scale up and expedite actions for meeting the Paris Agreement goals by limiting hazardous changes to climate.
Reductions in emissions require rapid and far-reaching changes in energy, land, industrial production, urban and infrastructure sectors. Adaptation to impacts of climate change entails preparations as well as nature-based responses and solutions. Conservation and restoration of biodiversity should be integral to the uses of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Reforming the fisheries sector, integrated spatial planning, conservation, climate mitigation and curtailed pollution are all critical in restoring marine life. Implementation of international chemical conventions, strengthening of policy-science interface, and further legal cum regulatory reforms can substantially diminish the impact of chemicals and wastes on human health and environment.
A shift towards sustainability would also necessitate transformation of the economic and financial systems. Therefore, economic performance measures should include the value of nature's contribution towards human wellbeing. Besides, food, water and energy systems ought to be transformed for meeting the rising human needs in an equitable, resilient and environment-friendly fashion, as feeding people, ensuring water security, and improving the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of nature have complementary and inter-dependent goals. Sustaining sufficient and quality fresh water would require improved efficiency and pragmatic growth in storage as well as restoration of natural habitats and flow regimes. Finally, all stakeholders have a critical part to play collectively in the holistic transformation of socio-economic and natural systems to promote a sustainable and healthy future for mankind.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]