On target for disappointment

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The Fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook is in and the judges are unanimous – we need better targets

By David Salt

Guess what? Humanity has missed its targets and is failing life on Earth.

We know this because the latest (and grandest) stocktake of efforts to save biodiversity has just been released and it shows that the world has failed to meet a single target it agreed to back in 2010. The stocktake is known as the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO), and this is the fifth such report.

GBO 5 reports on progress of 20 targets signed up to by signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at Aichi in Japan in 2010. They are known as the Aichi Targets.

Rather than demonstrating that humanity acknowledges the existential importance of our natural capital and that we might be making steps to look after it, this Outlook report has told us we’re doing the opposite – we’re burning up that capital faster than ever before.

One stand out failure, among many, is that governments around the world are still subsidising environmental damage to the tune of $500 billion, rather than dismantling these perverse policies as they committed to do.

The funny thing is, rather than serving as a wakeup call galvanising governments to change their course, the general response has been to debate what will go into the next set of targets being discussed soon in Kunming China. If the current targets simply set us up for failure – even though they were designed to slow and maybe reverse the destruction of humanity’s life support – then maybe we should adopt more measured targets that are achievable. See the humour there?

Countdown to disappointment

The lead up to this epic fail (as documented by GBO 5) goes back some 30 years, in a documentable sense anyway; the broader history of biodiversity decline is really the flip side of the rise of Homo sapiens.

From the 1960s on there was growing concern around the world that rampant economic growth was resulting in unsustainable environmental degradation with the decline of biodiversity being one of its most worrying manifestations. To address this, most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to refine this somewhat vague aspiration by agreeing to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what nations signing up to the CBD hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

Well, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook in 2010 revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

I remember reading the press statements put out at the time of the release of the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 – in what was supposed to be a celebratory International Year of Biodiversity – and feeling both disappointed and disgusted. The issue wasn’t being meaningfully addressed, the losses were accelerating and forecasts were of worse to come.

So, how did the UN and the organisers of the CBD respond to the breathtaking failure of 2010? They came up with a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) for what was needed to be achieved by 2020!

Well now it’s 2020

The fact we’ve failed again comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying even half attention to the news in the past decade. But it does leave you gasping. It also makes you wonder what it would take to convince humanity to start making a difference when it comes to conserving biodiversity.

Last year the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its own global assessment of biodiversity. Amidst headlines shouting that 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction, IPBES said the world needs ‘transformative change’; and by that they meant a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

At the time I expressed significant pessimism that the world would listen or do anything because transformative change never comes easy. It requires considerable sacrifice, and the elites who hold the power and derive the most benefits from the existing status quo do the most to block any change that threatens that balance.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires the rich to forego their privilege.

Which means if you want international consensus on biodiversity you have to be very careful with the targets you choose and the way you word them.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

However, if your targets are consistently not being met, and collapsing ecosystems (the Great Barrier Reef is but one high profile example) and accelerating species loss and histrionic calls to arms are not galvanising widespread action, then what do you do?

What do you do in the face of an existential threat when the world doesn’t seem to want to know? It’s a question I’ve asked myself so many times between 2010 (the failed International Year of Biodiversity) and this latest gloomy report and I think many people resort to nihilism or fundamentalism. Others stay engaged and attempt to make the next step something that works better.

And yet those policy makers, conservationists and diplomats working for a more effective set of targets in 2030 (or whenever) do so in the knowledge there’s little prospect for significant improvement in government policy on the horizon (just consider our own government’s efforts over environmental policy reform).

However, even if we missed the boat on CBD targets, there’s considerable evidence suggesting efforts to conserve biodiversity since the CBD came into force in 1993 have had some impact. As Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at Birdlife International, points out, without those efforts 28-48 bird and mammal species would have gone extinct and the extinction rate in recent decades would have been at least 3-4 times higher. What’s more, he says that protected areas are contributing measurably to conserving species in some of the world’s most diverse and threatened terrestrial ecosystems.

So, the future looks grim but we know there are conservation tools that can make a difference. Our real target should be how we make our political leaders agree to deploy them.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity?

Environmental accounting could be the key to saving nature

By Peter Burnett

It’s 2020, and the world is again discussing targets to save biodiversity. The approach hasn’t been very successful in the past and many are throwing up their hands in despair in the face of a rapidly unfolding biodiversity catastrophe. Could environmental accounting be the missing link in our thinking?

In an earlier blog I described the short history of environmental accounting and highlighted its potential. This was more than just extending the traditional (economic) national accounts to cover the environment, which was the original idea (especially to make GDP a much more accurate measure of economic performance by subtracting losses of ‘natural capital’). Governments could also use environmental accounting to manage the environment.

In another blog I wrote about key meetings to be held this year in Kunming, China, under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP 15, CBD, and preparatory meetings). The aim is to develop a new 10-year international plan to replace the Aichi targets that have operated for the last decade.

Given the significance of 2020 internationally (and our extreme bushfires in Australia putting nature at the top of the agenda domestically) it seemed to me like a good time to come back to what role environmental accounting might play in saving biodiversity.

Aim for net positive outcomes

Conservation scientists have been questioning the value of biodiversity targets and the way they are applied for some time. Most recently, this call was made in Nature Ecology & Evolution by Joseph Bull and colleagues. They argue that policy must shift away from conservation targets that are based just on avoiding biodiversity losses, towards considering net outcomes for biodiversity.

This would involve tracking the cumulative net impact of both development and conservation, while aiming for an overarching objective such as ‘a positive outcome for nature’. It would be bringing things like restoration and offsets into the equation.

In effect, the argument is to take the mitigation hierarchy, the ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ approach most often associated with individual development approvals, and apply it at a global level. Yet Bull et al go even further, arguing that this language of net outcomes raises an even wider aspiration for tackling biodiversity loss, climate change and human development together.

This latter argument is similar to the one made by Malgorzata Blicharska and colleagues, that biodiversity supports sustainable development and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in many ways (‘Biodiversity’s contributions to sustainable development‘).

Also in a similar vein, Charlie Gardner and colleagues have argued that attention to biodiversity loss has been eclipsed by the climate crisis, and that conservationists must capitalise on the opportunities presented by the climate crisis to establish the idea that keeping ecosystems intact is one of the most cost-effective defences against climate impacts (‘conservation must capitalise on climates moment‘).

These recent articles suggest to me that there’s a growing realisation that the coming decade is not just the last chance to halt climate change, but also the last chance to address the ‘sixth great extinction’, before they get away from us completely. Hitching the two together might increase the chances of at least some success.

Biodiversity and sustainability: the accounting connection

If we were to turn ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ into an overarching approach, one of the challenges identified by Bull et al was that the resulting need to measure net outcomes would require a plurality of metrics for measuring losses and gains to biodiversity.

With several colleagues, I responded by pointing out that environmental accounting, standardised globally in the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA), already does this well (our Nature Ecology & Evolution paper is titled ‘Measuring net-positive outcomes for nature using accounting’). All that is needed is for governments to make it happen.

A key but often misunderstood point is that although environmental accounts are often, like conventional accounts, kept in monetary terms, it is just as valid to keep them in physical terms such as population numbers and measures of condition. Environmental accounts could, for example, measure a variety of biodiversity-relevant attributes such as species occurrence, distribution, abundance and age-sex structure of populations.

In contrast to financial accounting, there is no need to consolidate these different accounts into a single ‘bottom line’ unless this would be both feasible and meaningful.

In other words, if you are counting echidnas and platypii, there is no need to aggregate these into a single ‘monotreme account’ unless this is a useful thing to do. While a single bottom line is always ideal (which prompts economists to push hard for it) it is by no means the only solution.

In an ecological context, it could be just as useful to take all the accounts relevant to a particular ecosystem, which might include our echidna and platypus accounts, and ask whether the bottom line of each and every account exceeds a predetermined measure of ecosystem health. If they do, then the collective ‘bottom line’ for the ecosystem is ‘in the black’. If only some do, the ones below the measure point to the management intervention needed.

Why accounts?

Why bother using accounts? Why not just do a census or a stocktake, or ongoing monitoring? The answer lies in the problem being solved. Environmental accounts are not kept by scientists for research, but by a new and specialised form of accountant for management purposes.

Importantly for governance, environmental accounts that comply with the SEEA are consistent and auditable. This facilitates transparency and, where appropriate, comparisons.

Further, because accounts don’t just contain entries but record transactions, they reveal something about when and why something occurred, and who it was connected with. For example, a reduction in a species population due to approved land clearing would reveal not only the quantum but the date and party undertaking the clearing.

In a comprehensive set of accounts this action would be reveal not only the loss of natural capital, but the corresponding loss of ecosystem services.

All of these attributes contribute to good decision-making. Environmental accounting may not have been invented as a management tool, but serendipity has delivered this as a bonus.

The capacity of environmental accounts to be used in environmental management has been demonstrated in some case studies but not in a general and ongoing manner. Ideally it would be nice to scale up slowly but we don’t have the luxury of time.

If we are to manage, by all accounts, to save biodiversity, it might be because environmental accounting was a key part of the decisions taken at Kunming.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay

Will next year be a big one for biodiversity?

The Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework: From Aichi 2010 to Kunming 2020

By Peter Burnett

Next year might be a big year for biodiversity. At least, I would like to think so. In February, almost every nation on the planet is meeting in Kunming, China, to discuss how well they are doing at conserving biodiversity. Which is just as well as earlier this year the UN issued its latest report suggesting we are witnessing an biodiversity catastrophe with a million species threatened with extinction.

The upcoming event in Kunming is a meeting of the nations (parties) which signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). That’s 196 nations, almost everyone except the USA*. The February meeting is in preparation for the 15th Conference of the Parties (or COP 15) to be held in October.

‘COP’ is an arcane diplomatic acronym that is, unfortunately, entering the mainstream as the annual climate COPs held under the Climate Change Convention become increasingly desperate for real progress as time runs out.

COP this for biodiversity

But I digress. For the CBD, the main task of COP 15 is to adopt a new ten-year strategic plan for biodiversity. The current ten year plan, known as the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and which includes a set of ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’, is about to expire. With 2020 looming it’s time for a new plan and targets. These have the working title of the ‘Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework’.

But let’s not be too hasty to move on. What were the Aichi Targets and will Australia meet them?

I’ve had a quick look at key targets and Australia’s progress. These are discussed below. Progress can be hard to gauge though. The usual scarcity of information is made even worse by the fact that Australia’s Sixth CBD National Report is nearly 12 months overdue, which in itself suggests this task is a low priority for the Australian Government.

Each of the 20 Aichi Targets falls under one of five strategic goals:

Goal A: Mainstreaming

Strategic goal A deals with the ‘mainstreaming’ of biodiversity. This term may sound contemporary, but it’s pretty much a rehash of the concept of ‘policy integration’ from the 1987 Brundtland report, which gave birth to the concept of sustainable development and to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the meeting at which the CBD was born also.

Targets for mainstreaming include the insertion of biodiversity into national plans of various kinds. This includes Target 2, which talks of extending national accounting and reporting systems to address biodiversity.

Superficially, Australia’s environment ministers look to be on the ball in regards to this target. They have agreed on a national plan in 2018 to develop environmental-economic accounts. In reality, this is a small drop in the bucket and it comes more than 25 years after Australian government first agreed on the potential of ‘proper resource accounting’, and nearly 50 years after Barry Commoner proposed as the first law of ecology, that ‘everything is connected to everything else’.**

Accounting aside, we haven’t even attempted national baseline monitoring of biodiversity, decades after governments first committed to it, so even if we designed a good set of accounts we’d be short of data with which to populate them.

Goal B: Reducing pressures and promoting sustainable use

Goal B deals with reducing direct pressures and promoting sustainable use. Key targets under this goal include halving the rate of habitat loss; making farming and fishing sustainable; and minimising the pressures on coral reefs, to maintain their integrity and functioning.

In Australia we haven’t even reduced habitat loss, let alone halved it. And while fishing is one area where we score reasonably well, we haven’t done nearly so well with farming and our attempts to reduce pressures on the Great Barrier Reef have made no discernible impact. On the contrary, the authority responsible for the Reef has downgraded its outlook from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’.

Goal C: Safeguarding biodiversity

This goal deals with safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity; traditionally, these three components are used to measure biodiversity. The targets contained in this goal include having 17% of terrestrial areas and 10% of marine areas in ecologically representative and well-connected protected areas (ie, 17% of Australia’s land within a protected area and 10% of our sea).

This goal also includes the highly ambitious aim of improving the conservation status of our threatened species (as well as halting their extinction).

When Australia gets around to submitting its Sixth National Report, we’ll no doubt blow our trumpet about meeting the percentage targets for protected areas, but we won’t have gone close to the ensuring that they are representative and well-connected, at least on land.

And we can’t even measure a turnaround in the conservation status of threatened species, except at the very coarse level of counting new and changed listings. Even at this coarse level, things have declined rather than improved.

Goal D: Enhancing benefits to people

The aim of Goal D is to enhance the benefits to people from biodiversity and ecosystem services, including by restoring and safeguarding ecosystems that provide essential services such as water.

A recent positive example from Australia is the Victorian Government’s decision to phase out logging of native forests. This decision was influenced in part by a 2017 study led by ANU academic Heather Keith and based on a specially-prepared set of environmental-economic accounts.

The study revealed that native forests would provide greater benefits through the ecosystem services of carbon sequestration, water yield, habitat provisioning and recreational amenity if harvesting for timber production ceased and forests were allowed to grow to older ages.

Goal E: Better planning, knowledge

Finally, Goal E is concerned with enhancing implementation through planning, knowledge management and capacity-building. The Aichi targets under this goal include showing respect for traditional knowledge and encouraging the full participation of Indigenous communities in biodiversity conservation and use.

I’m not aware of much progress in Australia in this area, but the emphasis given to Indigenous knowledge and participation in a recent discussion paper on the review of Australia’s national environmental law [link: https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au ]did make me wonder whether the Government might have some appetite for improvement in this area.

A colleague in Indigenous studies commented that with the Government having appointed Australia’s first Indigenous minister for Indigenous Affairs, but not keen on implementing proposals to recognise Indigenous Australians in the nation’s Constitution (see the Uluru ‘Statement from the Heart’, they might be keen to deliver some reforms here to avoid leaving their minister with a thin record of achievement. I think he might be right.

Beyond Aichi: what can we expect from the ‘Yunnan Targets’?

So for Australia at least, the limited evidence suggests a weak record of achievement under the Aichi targets.

Chances are that many other countries will find themselves in a similar position. Yet experience also suggests that countries will also be too embarrassed to simply sideline biodiversity targets as too hard.

The path of least resistance would be to say ‘we’ll do better next time’ and adopt a set of ‘Yunnan Targets’*** for 2030. There is likely to also be some discussion on aligning the Yunnan Targets with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In diplomacy, if you can’t win the war, the next best option is to simply declare victory and charge on …

* The USA isn’t a member because President George Bush (senior) wouldn’t sign and his successor, Bill Clinton, couldn’t get ratification through the US Senate.

** Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (Random House, 1971).

*** Targets are normally named after the region in which they were drawn up. The Aichi Targets were drawn up in the Japanese city of Nagoya, which is in the province of Aichi. The Yunnan Targets will be drawn up in the city of Kunming, which lies in the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Supplementary Environmental Estimates

More questions, a few answers and an unwelcome appearance by Dorothy Dix

By Peter Burnett

Senate Estimates are potentially an important process throwing light and meaning on government expenditure and process. Unfortunately, over the years it’s become a bit of a political circus with all parties doing their best to score political points by squeezing answers from unwilling public servants, who in turn try to avoid being drawn into the politics by giving very flat ‘dull-as-dishwater’ and ‘nothing-to-see-here’ answers.

The main Estimates examination of the Department of the Environment occurred in October (and was the topic of my last blog). But there was a follow up; in early November the Estimates Committee held a supplementary hearing on environmental matters.

This doesn’t happen very often, but one circumstance in which it does occur is when an issue has ‘legs’ (ie, is of topical interest) and Senators are in hot pursuit. This was one such occasion, so it’s worth a look.

‘Nothing to see here’

The Senators were pursuing more information on several controversial and well-reported matters on which they no doubt feel they have the Government well and truly on the back foot:

  • Minister Angus Taylor’s letter to Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, concerning the climate impacts of the Council’s allegedly excessive travel expenditure
  • allegations of inappropriate interference by Minister Angus Taylor in compliance action under national environmental law concerning endangered ecological grassland communities in the Monaro region (the ‘Jam Land’ case);
  • the associated review by Dr Wendy Craik into interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector, said by some to have been initiated to appease angry farmers;
  • a letter from retired fire chiefs to the Prime Minister seeking a meeting to discuss their concerns about the increasing frequency and severity of fires as a result of climate change; and
  • the $443m grant made by the Turnbull Government to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body, and, now, whether the grant was motivated by a desire to avoid the Reef being given a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ listing.

The transcript on what transpired is here if you want to take a look.

None of the responses to questions on these issues revealed anything of great note. Most were to the effect that officers had followed standard bureaucratic processes and either were not privy to, or in the case of the Reef grant, were prevented by Cabinet confidentiality from revealing, anything nefarious that may or may not have been done by the Government.

The most that can be said about the answers is that they show first, that the Government appointed Craik without asking the Environment Department for the usual list of potential appointees; and second that they replaced the Department’s standard flat answer to Clover Moore with a letter of their own. Both of these things tend only to confirm the obvious, that these were purely political decisions rather than standard government decisions on advice.

A new participant at Estimates: Dorothy Dix

One thing that did concern me was the response of officials to a question from Senator McMahon, a government member from the Northern Territory, concerning the recent endorsement by Federal and State environment ministers of Australia’s new national biodiversity strategy, known as ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’. This strategy replaces Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy: 2010 – 2030.

In my earlier blog on the Estimates I reported the questioning that officials received about this strategy being late. This time around at the Supplementary hearing, the question and the answers it elicited resembled a ‘Dorothy Dixer’, the friendly questions that government backbenchers ask of Ministers in Question Time, providing them with an opportunity to make an announcement or other statement favourable to the Government. They also serve the very valuable purpose of using up time that might otherwise be devoted to attacking the Government.

Use of this self-serving practice has attracted increasing criticism to the point that it is under review by a Parliamentary Committee.

We are, however, talking about Estimates, not Question Time. Sometimes government members on Estimates Committees do ask benign questions that have a Dorothy-Dix feel to them. However, it takes both a benign question and a self-congratulatory answer to make a Dixer, and this is the first time I’ve seen an answer from officials that had the feel of a Dixer in Estimates.

A new more ‘flexible’ strategy for saving Nature

In responding to Senator McMahon’s question, officials in effect criticised the previous government’s strategy and complimented the Government for developing a ‘flexible framework’ that would place Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to expected developments, including the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is due to be adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) when it meets in Kunming, China, in February 2020.

This post-2020 framework will replace the ‘Aichi Targets’, which were adopted in 2010 and mature in 2020.

According to the officers, the Strategy for Nature enabled all Australian jurisdictions to be represented on an ‘innovative’ website known as Australia’s Nature Hub which demonstrates ‘how much good work is happening across this country in relation to biodiversity conservation at multiple levels’. The strategy would ‘place us well in the international space’.

And on it went. Rather than simply explaining why the Government had elected to replace the previous government’s strategy before its expiry, and perhaps outlining the content of the new strategy, as public servants would normally do, one official ventured that ‘we thought it was really important to update’ the previous strategy and that ‘we think this will be an important international contribution for how we can frame our global efforts with respect to diversity’. In doing so officials were either revealing their advice to government, something that officials normally refuse to do, or portraying themselves as players, with their own independent views, another no-no.

The use of Estimates by officials to promote government positions and to deploy the promotional language of ‘spin’ is an unwelcome development and, I hope, an unfortunate aberration rather than evidence of a trend.

What’s in the Strategy for Nature?

As for the value of this new Strategy for Nature; well, that’s a big topic and an important one in this time of major and ongoing biodiversity decline. In an up an coming blog I’ll review the Strategy, not only to see if it puts Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to the post-Aichi world, but also to see how it might enhance the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

A (very) short history of sustainability

A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)

Not in my backyard

To save the planet we need ‘transformative change’!!! (But not in my backyard.)

By David Salt

Did you hear the sobering news last week? “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” says the UN-supported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind; IPBES announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating.

Consequently, IPBES says, we need ‘transformative change’; and by that they mean a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Well, having sobered up, my first response to this science-based statement and ‘call to arms’ is to reach for the bottle.

I don’t for a second doubt the evidence or the gravity of the declaration; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. Pretty much exactly the same thing was said in the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released in 2015, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 released in 2010, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, and at the proclamation of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 (and at its renewal in 2002).

The numbers in this 2019 declaration are direr but the underlying message is the same: situation awful and it’s getting worse and the awfulness is accelerating. To address it we need BIG change, transformative change, and we need it immediately.

A line in the sand

I think my pessimism about these declarations really took off in 2010 with the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook. 2010 was supposed to be a line in the sand for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what signatories hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

However, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

‘We need transformative change’ was also the call at the time, but rather than exploring what that meant, a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) was drawn up on what needed to be achieved by 2020.

Business as usual

Well, rather than witnessing a transformative change from this wakeup call in 2010, the world trundled along, business as usual.

The fight over greenhouse emissions seems to have stolen most of the available oxygen in the environmental debate, and rates of biodiversity decline have skyrocketed.

The IPBES report last week suggests we have a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting the Aichi Targets (by next year); but even that shock announcement will quickly be forgotten in the relentless 24/7 media overload that is life in the 21st Century.

I’m not saying that the IPBES announcement last week was ‘wrong’, just that its framing reveals an inherent ‘disconnect’ with reality. The numbers presented (and the underlying trends they reflect) are horrifying, but the call for transformation just seems naïve (particularly so when that same plea is oft repeated).

In this instance, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, observed: “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Taking on the status quo

Too tepid by half Bob. Those ‘interests vested in the status quo’ have been running the show since the beginning of the Great Acceleration back in the 1950s. That status quo is founded on unbounded economic growth and held together by neoliberal ideology. What’s more, the elites in all the developed world are the main beneficiaries of this status quo and are unlikely to seriously engage with the transformation that might change it.

And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s all well and good to say that environmental degradation is unacceptable (unsustainable) but transforming the status quo simply won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘broader public good’ is usually trumped by the ‘sweet self-interest of the successful man’*.

Which is why I included earlier a couple of references to the US not participating in the international agreements on biodiversity conservation. The US Government is very divided when it comes to international conventions that might constrain their business interests. As a general rule they don’t sign them.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires us to change the status quo.

The Australian backyard

Back in Australia the government response to the IPBES announcement was so poor it was comical. We are in election mode at the moment so the shelf life of any important news story is lamentably short. Our political leaders know that so when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the extinction report he claimed his government had already taken action on that, hoping no-one would follow up his statement. But, as it turned out, the PM was referring to a recent bill on the testing of cosmetics on animals, an animal welfare issue that has absolutely nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. All the while our Environment Minister said nothing.

Possibly more germane to this editorial on the difficulty of transforming the status quo, our Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the IPBES report “scared him”. We assume he was ‘scared’ because he knows the scientific consensus tells us that declining biodiversity has breached a planetary boundary with dire consequences for the Earth System and all who depend on it.

But possibly he’s really scared because if we do respond appropriately to the IPBES report then he could suffer a direct electoral backlash. That’s because one of the main drivers of extinction is land clearing and guess which electorate in Australia has the worst record for clearing of threatened species habitat? It’s the electorate of Maranoa where two million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed since 2000 – and it’s represented by David Littleproud, our Minister for Agriculture.

*Borrowed from the song “Girl, Make your own mind up” by Seven World’s Collide.
The verse it comes from reads:
“They’ll try to make you believe in the invisible hand
The sweet self-interest of the successful man
To believe in the chance however remote
The rising tide lifts all the boats”

Image: Stumps on the valley caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture in Madagascar (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com)