Is it possible for 9 billion people to live on this planet and enjoy a good standard of living? And on such a planet, is it possible for economies to grow, businesses to profit, and communities to prosper without undermining the natural systems that support all life? And without destroying some of the planet’s last great wildernesses?
At WWF, we believe the answer to these questions is simple: yes.
We believe this even though our own Living Planet Report shows so clearly just how humanity’s use of resources is affecting our planet. It does not make for cheerful reading. Since 1970, populations of species have declined by around half. Each year, we consume 50% more resources than the planet can replenish. We are no longer living off the planet’s interest, but eroding its capital. In doing so, we are not only plundering our own essential resource base but also destroying habitats, eroding biodiversity and impacting the crucial services nature provides to us, day after day, for free.
Our current trajectory towards a global population of 9 billion people by 2050 is straining our ability to provide for basic needs–clean water and air, food, energy and shelter. Consider that over the next 40 years, humanity will need to produce more food that it’s done in the last 8,000 years. Where will this food–and the water and energy, required to grow it–come from? Meeting the needs and aspirations of the next generations will be an increasing challenge. And with half of today’s population living on less than US$2.50 per day, this challenge is set against the imperative of many governments to reduce poverty and improve the living standards of their citizens.
Satisfying these imperatives is also likely to put increasing pressure on some of the most biodiverse and valuable wild places on the planet–the last ecological frontiers. Take Africa, for instance. The continent holds around 60% of the world’s unconverted arable land, and low-end estimates suggest it could harbour more than 30% of global mineral wealth. But much of this potential wealth overlaps areas rich in biodiversity and highly productive in ecosystem services. Similarly, more than half of all new oil and gas finds are in Africa, with many in areas of high ecological importance. When looking to satisfy our appetite for resources, and favouring equitable and sustainable development for all, how do we continue to protect these last ecological frontiers and maintain their vitality, productivity and connectivity?
Many of the tools we need to reconceptualise development in the 21st century are already at our disposal–they may need sharpening or to be better applied, but we have them. So, what needs to be done?
First, in their pursuit of sustainable long-term prosperity, governments and regional bodies must get better at integrated planning and transparent decision-making. To make sound decisions, they must be supported in evaluating the range of potential development options on offer. This also requires greater appreciation by decision-makers of the inherent non-financial values of ecologically important places. For example, WWF and the Natural Capital Project worked with Belize’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute to develop alternative development scenarios for the country’s marine and coastal environments.
Second, policy and legal frameworks must empower and encourage civil society to be fully involved with decisions that affect their local environments. As we have seen in recent campaigns to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from oil exploitation, international civil society also has a role to play in amplifying the voices of local activists, facilitating access to information and championing their concerns to international stakeholders.
Finally, investors and financial institutions have a role to play as responsible stewards of capital. Investors, and the companies they entrust with their funds, define the frameworks in which development decisions are made. It is therefore crucial that investments are responsible, and that investors use their influence to hold companies accountable for respecting international treaties and commitments such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and UNESCO World Heritage Convention.
WWF believes the world can create a future in which 9 billion people can thrive. This can be done without endangering natural systems and their vital services and while protecting our world’s most precious places and species. But to do so, we must work together to defend our last ecological frontiers. The OECD and member countries have a crucial role to play in this task. In this they have an ally in WWF.
© OECD Yearbook 2015