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It's not enough to cut emissions — we need economic development that does not destroy nature

It's not enough to cut emissions — we need economic development that does not destroy nature
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Economic development has provided humanity with increased life expectancy, access to education, a decent standard of living and more. However racial, wealth and gender inequality persist (1.3 billion live in poverty, 700 million are hungry and 1 in 3 women experience gender-based violence). A set of sustainable development goals has been defined and are coming to represent a global standard for economic reform.

Development is still largely powered by greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels, which provided nearly 85 percent of global energy consumption in 2019. As the world emerges from the current recession, fossil fuel use and renewable energy capacity are both projected to surge. Primary energy consumption from renewables is growing exponentially, but has been too low to offset the growth in fossil energy consumption.

Global warming has climbed about 1.3 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century. Climate change increases the chance of weather extremes, negatively affects food and water security, creates a vicious cycle of social inequality, and weakens ecosystems, many of which are already stressed by human impacts.

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The 2015 Paris Agreement legally binds nations to increasingly ambitious climate action in order to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees. However, the remaining carbon budget of allowable emissions to stop warming at 1.5 degrees is small (6 to 11 years at current emissions for a 50 percent chance of not exceeding 1.5 degrees), with a 17 percent chance that it has already been exceeded.

Stabilizing the climate at 1.5 degrees requires cutting carbon dioxide emissions by about 50 percent (relative to 2010 levels) by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions around 2050. Cuts this rapid and deep demand transformational change in the energy, transportation and building sectors.

For example, the International Energy Agency  called for terminating all investment in new fossil-fuel supply projects as a key element in the 1.5 degrees pathway. Nonetheless, rejection of this proposal from some sectors was swift, illustrating the complexity of viewpoints among global leaders.

However, while cutting emissions is necessary, it is not sufficient. We need economic development that does not destroy nature.

Nature is our life-support system and our strongest ally in meeting the 1.5 and 2 degrees targets. Averaged over the past decade, about 30 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions are removed from the air by photosynthesis. The remainder are either dissolved in the ocean (causing ocean acidification) or stay in the atmosphere for decades to millennia (causing global warming).

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However, photosynthesis has a thermal maximum beyond which carbon uptake sharply declines. Studies show this limit was already briefly passed in the warmest quarter of the past decade. With continued emissions (and warming), land-based carbon uptake is projected to decline by nearly 50 percent as early as 2040. This effect has not been included in 1.5 or 2 degrees pathways, nor in nationally determined contributions of the UN Paris Agreement.

Efforts to stop climate change are further impeded by deforestation, largely the result of rich-nation demand for goods (lumber, minerals and food) outside their own borders, and mostly in tropical countries.

Humans clear-cut trees to grow more crops and animals for food, fiber, and energy. Additionally, forests are increasingly damaged by drought, pests and wildfire related to climate change. Forest loss exposes soil to oxidation, dehydration and heating, turning soil into a source of carbon dioxide emission that persists for decades. On average, 19 percent of the carbon in Earth's biosphere is stored in plants, and 81 percent in soil.

How close are we to losing the terrestrial biome? The Amazon basin contains about half of the world's tropical rainforests, which are more effective at soaking up and storing carbon than other types of forests. After decades of clear-cutting, wildfire, fragmentation and river damming, the Brazilian portion of the Amazon has flipped and is now a net greenhouse gas emitter.

From 2010 through 2019, Brazil's Amazon basin gave off 18.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, while drawing down only 15.3 billion tons. Tropical rainforests are critical to stopping global warming in line with UN targets. But so are other natural carbon sinks including so-called “blue carbon” (mangroves, salt marshes, sea grass and macroalgae), boreal and deciduous forests, grasslands, peat bogs, lakes, wetlands and others.

However, urban areas have more than doubled since 1992, 75 percent of the terrestrial environment and 66 percent of the marine environment have been severely altered by human actions and economic demand for material contributions from nature increase every year.

Much of this damage to the natural world comes from the need to feed ourselves, and we have developed a global food system that destroys nature. Since 1970, food crop production has increased 300 percent and half of all-agriculture expansion has come at the expense of forests. We are deforesting the planet at a rate of three football fields per minute, largely to raise cattle and the grain to feed them. Forty-three percent of all ice- and desert-free land and two-thirds of all freshwater use is for food production.

Standard industrial farming employs deep plowing that desiccates and oxidizes the soil, turning farm acreage into yet another source of greenhouse gas. Over 80 percent of farmland is used for livestock. Cattle and the grain they eat use one-third of available land surface on this planet, 16 percent of all available freshwater, and one-third of worldwide grain production.

Yet, on average, cattle agriculture produces just 18 percent of food calories and 37 percent of protein. Producing beef generates 100 times more greenhouse gas than plant-based food, and the destruction wrought is global in scale.

Taking steps to protect the natural world not only preserves ecological services, helps fight climate change and halts biodiversity loss, it can end the onslaught of pandemics.

Seventy-five percent of emerging human pathogens are zoonotic, meaning they originate with animals and are passed to humans. Researchers have established that climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat degradation, and an increasing rate of wildlife–human contacts are underlying causes for the intensifying emergence of infectious pathogens. Studies have established that increases in zoonotic and vector-borne diseases from 1990 to 2016 are linked with deforestation, mostly in tropical countries.

The ultimate drivers of biotic destruction are human overpopulation, continued population growth and overconsumption, especially by the rich. These drivers — all of which trace to the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet — are themselves increasing rapidly.

The solutions for preserving nature begin with recognizing that the benefits generated by healthy and productive land are a global good that provide critical services and help with solving climate change.

For instance, regenerative soil management not only enriches and replaces nitrogen, potassium, carbon and phosphorous improving growing conditions, it can make every agriculture field a link in the global chain of carbon draw-down efforts. The U.N.E.P Synthesis Report “Making Peace with Nature” provides a number of recommendations.

  1. Governments should identify and develop the fastest and deepest options for integrating climate change-biodiversity protection-human equality-and economic development in all programs and policies. Agencies must take a leading role by integrating the goals of de-carbonization, regenerative soil management and biodiversity protection into all types of policies including permitting, capital budgets, restoration and replacement of infrastructure, decision-making, and subsidies. Monetize natural capital and the benefits that people get from nature in national accounts and measures of economic performance. Promote sustainable agriculture and fisheries to help feed the world’s growing population using less land and ocean resources. Shift subsidies away from sectors that cause land degradation, and toward sectors that emphasize sustainable resource production.
  2. Financial organizations should align lending and investment practices with biodiversity conservation. Assign value to ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture, practices that promote net-zero emissions and develop attractive financial products for investors that want to fund the protection of nature. Halt financing for fossil fuels and invest in electrification, efficiency and digitization of the energy sector.
  3. Commercial entities should adopt the principles of a circular economy to minimize waste, resource depletion and plastics; commit to certified and traceable supply chains that are sustainable and deforestation-free, including for agricultural commodities. Assess the environmental and social risks of all projects, products and investments, including their impacts on natural capital.
  4. Individuals must commit to buying goods and services that minimize waste of food, water, energy and materials; for instance, by changing habits and improving efficiency at home, at work and when traveling. Exercise voting and other civic rights to foster sustainable social norms and behavior and hold other actors accountable. Eat lower on the food chain with a more plant-based diet.

Humanity requires a habitable, resource-rich planet on which to thrive. Demand for energy and resources has been growing as a result of population growth and increased consumption to the point where scientific evidence suggests we are bumping up against fundamental planetary limits.

It will take cross-cutting, interdisciplinary, transformative change with a keen focus on decarbonizing, biodiversity protection and human equality — in all sectors of the economy — if we hope to see past benefits of economic development continue in the future. We need economic development that does not destroy nature.

Chip Fletcher is associate dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He is the author “Climate Change: What the Science Tells Us,” 2nd Edition, a textbook on climate change published by Wiley.