Thursday, April 11, 2019

Global Environmental Outlook 6: a critique of its opening sentence

The 6th Global Environmental Outlook has been released. This is the most important written product of the United Nations Environment Programme, appearing approximately at 5 year intervals.

The opening sentence of the executive summary of the first chapter reads:

"Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2050, without 
further compromising the ecological limits of our planet and its benefitsis one of the most serious challenges and responsibilities humanity has ever faced.” 

The part I have highlighted in pink is powerful.

However, the part in red is at best confusing and at worst logically false, and either way it conveys (no doubt unintentionally) complacency.

What do the authors mean by "compromising"?  One definition I found was "expediently accepting standards that are lower than is desirable"; e.g. we were not prepared to compromise on safety."

A possible alternative to "compromising" (in this sentence) is "approaching", or "transgressing". But the idea that human activities will not further (or additionally) approach - or come closer to - the ecological limits is sadly misconceived. Ongoing damage to natural capital is inevitable, given that population is rising and the poor have a lot of catching up to do in terms of per capita resource consumption. Even if we do not collectively breach limits, we will certainly come closer to them.

Alternatively, but more far-fetched, is the idea that the authors intend to convey that humans might alter the limits. Technically, if humans had far greater knowledge and technological capacity, they might be able to do this, such as changing the planetary boundaries - but most people rightly would think that is hubris, especially by 2050.

After working on this blog (for well over an hour!) I think the authors probably intended "compromising" to mean "approaching" or "transgressing". 

Another weakness of this opening sentence is that it does not mention the word "social". There are also social limits, such as were reached, only yesterday, when  the Sudanese President was overthrown, in part because of increasing civil unrest due to reduced prosperity in part due to falling oil revenues - even though, officially, per person income in Sudan is suppose to be increasing.

So, the sentence would be clearer if written as:  "Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2100, without pushing demands on ecological and social capacity beyond irreversible thresholds, thus triggering immense harm to human health and well-being on a planetary scale, is an immensely difficult challenge.” (Key changes italicised).

Note that I changed 2050 to 2100. It will be difficult to avoid these thresholds, on a global scale, by 2050, but perhaps not "immensely" so. It is possible that the buffers that separate us from those limits are wider than we currently appreciate, even though an increasing number of cases of "regional overload" are occurring, such as those described in the Global Report on Food Crises 2019. By 2050 we will definitely come closer to these limits, but we may nor critically exceed them - if we are lucky and work hard. But the challenge to avoid such limits by 2100, even if we greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will be much harder, as climate change is but one aspect of the many challenges that civilization faces.

No comments:

Post a Comment