Wed, Oct 31, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Only ‘transformational change’ can avoid a ‘Hothouse Earth’

By Johan Rockstroem, Jorgen Randers and Per Espen Stoknes

Nearly 50 years ago, the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth warned that if economic growth continued apace without regard for the environment the world could face ecological and economic collapse in the 21st century. Yet that is essentially what has happened.

As new research for the Club of Rome shows — and the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reiterates — the world might well be headed toward disaster.

Many wrongly interpreted the Limits to Growth as an attack on unbridled economic expansion. In fact, the report argued that if the unlimited-growth pathway was chosen, it would require complementary policies (including funding) to preserve the planet’s finite life-support systems.

This argument has been ignored. Instead, the world has continued to pursue unbridled growth, without regard for the environmental consequences. This has enabled us to make enormous strides in reducing poverty, increasing longevity and increasing wealth, but it has come at a high cost to the fabric of society and the resilience of the planet.

As scientists have conclusively shown, in the past decade, we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activity — in particular, economic activity — has been the dominant factor influencing Earth’s climate and environment. In the Anthropocene, our planet’s life-support system is changing faster than ever.

Climate change now represents a clear and present danger. If our planet becomes just 2°C warmer than preindustrial temperatures, we might be placed irreversibly on the path toward “Hothouse Earth” — a scenario in which temperatures are many degrees warmer than today, sea levels are considerably higher and extreme weather events are more common — and more devastating — than ever.

This need not be the case.

For its 50th anniversary, the Club of Rome updated the Limits to Growth report’s “World 3” computer model. Using economic and social data from the past five decades, the so-called Earth 3 simulation provides new projections about the future impact of human activity.

We based our analysis on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed upon by world leaders in 2015.

The 17 SDGs include social objectives such as ending poverty and improving health, as well as critical environmental targets, including halting species extinctions, protecting our oceans and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. To determine whether the world might be able to meet these goals by the 2030 deadline, we considered four scenarios, ranging from business as usual to total economic transformation.

The business-as-usual scenario, our analysis shows, would not bring significant progress toward achieving the SDGs or boosting environmental sustainability by 2030. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scenario characterized by faster economic growth would also pose a serious threat to environmental sustainability.

Even a third scenario, which includes stronger policies to protect the environment, would put the planet’s stability at risk.

In any of these scenarios, human well-being could improve in the short term, but would be severely undermined in the longer term, as we blew past planetary boundaries and tipping points.

There is just one scenario that can deliver improvements to human well-being in an environmentally sustainable way: the path of “transformational change,” brought about by a shift to unconventional policies and measures.

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