The following post initially appeared on UNEP’s Climate Action site.

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” The great baseball player and amateur philosopher Yogi Berra sadly died last year. But his famous dictum about the future is more alive than ever. Our future is definitely not what it used to be. And it cannot be.

Think about the sheer expansion of the human economic footprint. The world’s real GDP grew more than 20-fold in the 20th century, and with a relatively modest annual growth rate of 3 percent will grow another 20-fold this century. A 4 percent growth rate would yield a 50-fold increase this century, implying a real economy at the end of this century 1,000 times the size of that in 1900. No wonder we are entering a new geological age: from the Holocene to the Anthropocene!

This amazing growth has enabled the greatest reduction in global poverty in history – and it will be essential to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to continue that trend. But the sheer magnitude of this economic tsunami threatens our future in multiple ways, many of which are not fully understood.

So the central question we must face is: can the global economy continue to grow while radically shrinking our ecological footprint? The past five years have brought remarkable new insights in this area. Important research, such as that of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, has shown that in almost all spheres of economic and social life, there are realistic paths that lead to greater prosperity and a better quality of life, while sharply curbing environmental damage. The bad news is that – due to political, financial and psychological inertia, and physical ‘lock-in’ – these transformations are not happening at a scale that is remotely close to what is needed.

Four revolutions

If we are to exit the current century in better shape than when we entered it, we will need radical transformations of at least four major economic and social systems.

Dead and dying ponderosa and sugar pine on the Hume Lake Ranger District, Sequoia National Forest, California. Credits: USDA Forest Service
Dead and dying ponderosa and sugar pine on the Hume Lake Ranger District, Sequoia National Forest, California. Credits: USDA Forest Service

Building tomorrow’s cities.

For the past century cities have been designed for cars more than for people. Sprawl is costing the USA more than US$1 trillion per year, and tens of billions of lost hours in congestion. Many cities lose 10 per cent of their income from congestion and another 10 per cent through pollution. But compact, connected and coordinated cities are more efficient, more socially inclusive and can reduce carbon emissions by 90 per cent. The shift from today’s cities to those required tomorrow does not need to cost more.

The coming 15 years will see more new infrastructure built than all the infrastructure that exists in the world today. Sustainable design would save US$3 trillion in urban infrastructure investment worldwide. But that would require something more scarce than money: political and social leadership; the will to fundamentally think about where people will live, work and play; how they will travel; and what kinds of buildings will constitute a city. There’s still time to get it right. But not for long.

Rethinking food and agriculture.

With the world population rising to 9.7 billion by 2050, food consumption will need to rise by 60-70 per cent, implying production would grow at an annual rate roughly comparable to that of the past 40 years. But this comes at a time when greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture will need to fall by more than half, without expanding into forest land, if commitments under the SDGs, climate change and biodiversity conventions are to be honoured. Producing the required increased volume of food from existing agricultural land would require annual yield increases almost 50 per cent higher than over the past four decades –  even as water supplies will become much less predictable.

Threading this needle will be difficult indeed. No silver bullet exists. A combination of measures is required, though this will need more leadership than is currently being shown. An essential element would be to deliver on Sustainable Development Goal 12.3: halve food loss and waste by 2030. If worldwide food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest GHG emitter, wasting cropland the size of China and costing US$940 billion per year.

Decarbonising energy systems.

Of all the necessary economic revolutions, the energy transition is the easiest to envisage. Seventy per cent of the energy infrastructure needed to keep up with the expected growth in energy use by 2030 is yet to be built, and the challenge is conceptually simple: minimise use of fossil fuels in new plants and invest heavily in energy efficiency (which has among the highest economic and financial returns of any investment). Wind energy is already competitive with fossil fuels over almost half the Earth’s surface, and a new generation of solar deals is emerging with high sunshine environments (Mexico, UAE, Saudi Arabia, etc.) at around 3 cents per kilowatt hour – at which price fossil fuels can no longer compete. Technical gains in system integration and storage also suggest that earlier concerns that baseload power requires fossil fuel energy have been greatly overstated.

Despite this encouragement, we are very far from success. For a number of important countries with urgent needs to increase their power production – China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam – cost calculations are not yet clearly in favour of renewables (although they have ambitious renewable programmes), and they all have large programmes of new coal-based generation. So too, investment in energy efficiency, while hugely attractive economically, is nowhere close to the tipping point required. Achieving this pace of change requires a new strategy to complement the ongoing decline in the price of renewables. It would require high-level political and financial engagement to shift incentives in those countries where the shift to low carbon is most difficult. 

From take-make-waste to a circular economy.

Over the past century, global demand for natural resources has grown tremendously. Looking ahead, materials harvested, extracted and consumed worldwide are expected to increase to 100 billion tonnes per year by 2030 – a 40 per cent increase from today. If we keep linear approaches to the production, design, use and disposal of materials, our global solid waste generation rates alone will exceed 11 million tonnes per day, more than three times today’s rates, by 2100. A radical shift towards more circular production and consumption systems is clearly an idea whose time has come.

We need to loop our production, consumption and waste management processes; design waste out of the economy and make use of waste outputs from one system as inputs for others; and keep a given resource and its value circulating in the economy as long as possible. Good practice is emerging in many countries and industries. Europe is showing some encouraging trends, with national and EU policy being shaped, as well as business coalitions. Accelerating circularity across global supply chains can yield an estimated US$1 trillion or more per year by 2025 to the global economy. But the overall pace of change remains grossly inadequate if we are to take pressure off common resources to the extent required.

Disruptive behaviour required

Photo by British Columbia Ministry of Transport
Arctic research. Photo by British Columbia Ministry of Transport

In each of these areas there is a beneficial path forward. But this won’t happen automatically, or with only incremental change. Such a future requires transformational shifts in policy and behaviour along with unusual political, social and corporate partnerships, and needs to be understood in the context of movements rather than policy shifts.

A successful strategy will require a much greater focus on how to catalyse these mega- transformations as an essential complement to current efforts. We need ‘hockey stick’-type take-offs that are non-incremental, with cascading impacts that ultimately ‘tip’ our economic and social systems to reduce the great strain on our global environmental commons. Much can be learned from existing examples of positive tipping points that have exceeded anything previously anticipated. Examples include the sudden shift in social acceptability of same-sex marriages; the radical improvement of economic policies in 100 countries between 1985 and 2000; the halving of maternal mortality rates in the first 15 years of this century; and the spread of bike sharing from zero to 850 cities in less than 10 years.

Upon examining them, we must identify common features that can trigger the policy, corporate and behavioral shifts leading to the transformative change we need. We need to identify the ‘sticky’ messages that will inspire action, and the winning messengers to convey them. We need to be much more strategic in supporting citizen mobilization, and diagnose the potential paths of influence and seize them. And we must develop technical and political strategies to bring them together with the disruptive power of information technology and multi-stakeholder cooperation, which are already driving profound and far-reaching convulsions in our wider models of government, business and society today.

These are the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that must be brought together to decouple our human economic footprint and protect the global commons. The task ahead is huge. But new technologies and emerging practices offer unprecedented hope for the future.