by Larry Smith
Most people these days are focused on the economy, and the ups and downs of the stock market. But later this month, the world's attention will switch to the environment, as 180 political leaders and 50,000 activists, businesspeople and NGO representatives meet in Brazil for a generational conference on sustainable development.
Among them will be a high-level delegation from the Bahamas led by Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett, Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell and BEST Commission chief Philip Weech. They will be taking part in what is expected to be the largest ever United Nations conference.
And rather than the stock market, they will be focused on something called the Living Planet Index - a measurement created by the World Wildlife Fund to gauge the health of global ecosystems by tracking population trends of over 2600 land and sea animal species.
Much as the stock market tracks the value of a set of shares, the LPI calculates the average annual rate of change for species populations from a base year of 1970 to 2008 - the latest year for which sufficient data are available. Alarmingly, the index shows a 28 per cent global decline in average species population size over the past 40 years.
And for land and sea species in tropical zones, the decline is even more dramatic - over 60 per cent since 1970.
Instead, says the WWF, "We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal. We are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change course that number will grow very fast – by 2030, even two planets will not be enough."
So the ultimate goal of the UN's upcoming Rio + 20 conference is to create a prosperous future that provides sufficient food, water and energy for the 9 or perhaps 10 billion people who will be sharing the planet in 2050. This can only be done by making better choices, placing the natural world at the centre of economies, business models and lifestyles.
Perhaps even more alarming than the ongoing decline of species are the findings related to our ecological footprint, which tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing the renewable resources we are consuming against the Earth’s ability to regenerate them - something termed biocapacity.
The WWF expresses this measurement in a unit called a global hectare, in which one gha represents a biologically productive hectare with world average productivity. Components of the ecological footprint include the land and sea areas needed to grow crops, graze livestock, site infrastructure, sequester carbon (in forests), and support fisheries.
"The ecological footprint shows a consistent trend of over-consumption," the WFF says. "In 2008, the Earth’s total biocapacity was 12 billion gha, or 1.8 gha per person, while humanity’s ecological footprint was 18.2 billion gha, or 2.7 gha per person.
"This discrepancy means that we are in an ecological overshoot situation: it is taking 1.5 years for the Earth to fully regenerate the renewable resources that people are using in a single year. Instead of living off the interest, we are eating into our natural capital."
According to the WWF, ever since the 1970s, humanity’s annual demand on the natural world has exceeded what the Earth can renew each year. And just as we can overdraw a bank account, eventually those resources will be depleted. At current consumption rates, some ecosystems will collapse even before the resource is completely gone.
Five critical pressures contributing to this over-use have been identified by the WWF: the loss, alteration and fragmentation of natural habitats to agricultural, industrial or urban use; the over-exploitation of wild species; pollution from pesticides, fertilizer, urban and industrial wastes; climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation; and the destructive spread of invasive species.
For example, "A nearly five-fold increase in global catch, from 19 million tonnes in 1950 to 87 million tonnes in 2005, has left many fisheries overexploited. Catch rates of some species of large predatory fishes – such as marlin, tuna and billfish – have dramatically declined over the last 50 years," the WWF says.
If we are to reverse the declining Living Planet Index, bring our ecological footprint down to within planetary limits, avoid dangerous climate change and achieve sustainable development, the WWF says "a fundamental reality must be embedded as the basis of economies, business models and lifestyles: The Earth’s natural capital – biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services – is limited."
The solution is not rocket science. The simple advice is to consume more wisely; reduce input and waste in production systems; preserve natural capital by, among other things, expanding the global protected area network; and improve governance by making fair and ecologically informed choices.
"Efforts must particularly focus on protecting and restoring key ecological processes necessary for food, water and energy security, as well as climate change resilience and adaptation." But, the WWF adds, "The Earth’s diversity of species and habitats must also be preserved for their intrinsic value."
At the upcoming Rio conference, governments are supposed to agree on concrete measures to begin making more wise choices. The meeting will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development. The general aim is to tweak outdated growth models to instead focus on boosting people’s living standards without exhausting natural resources and destroying the environment we rely on.
The UN describes Rio as "an historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all." The conference is a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, also at Rio de Janeiro, which established the Convention on Biological Diversity, and put the idea of sustainable development squarely on the global agenda. Ten years later, a follow-up meeting took place in South Africa.
But there is widespread skepticism over whether the upcoming conference can achieve much of anything in the current economic climate. And as a group of senior global leaders has pointed out, "Though farsighted commitments were made (at the last conference in South Africa 10 years ago), many have not been met, including restoring the world’s depleted fish stocks by 2015, and considerably reducing by 2010 the speed at which rare animals and plants are going extinct."
In 1992 leaders recognised that – in a world of finite resources – economic development had to go hand-in-hand with social progress and protecting the environment. And in many countries, there has been determined action to cut pollution and invest in renewable energy. Businesses also now routinely look beyond the bottom line to consider the wider social and environmental impact of their decisions.
But according to Australian Mark Notares, an editor for the United Nations University Media Centre: "It is becoming harder to get consensus from all the players at the negotiating table. This is especially true now that the financial markets are in a mess and many countries are burdened with debt and others are even staving of collapse. Rio+20 should be too big to fail. But it isn’t."
This is the context in which Ministers Dorsett and Mitchell will be attending this conference. At the same time, the Bahamas faces wrenching environmental and cultural change from the prospect of large-scale oil drilling in our environmentally sensitive shallow seas.
The government has made no statements on this looming and hugely controversial issue since being elected on May 7 - despite the fact that several of its leading members and backers were for years on the payroll of the company that plans to drill - and we clearly lack a regulatory system robust enough to deal with the environmental fallout from hydrocarbon production.
Our position is in stark contrast to the situation in the East African country of Mozambique, where major onshore and offshore natural gas finds were recently made. The Mozambique government has stepped back from a business-as-usual approach to reflect on how best use their “natural capital” by creating a 20-year Green Economy Plan.
This plan will be presented at the Rio conference and will focus on agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism, energy and urban planning. This is something we desperately need in the Bahamas - a transparent and inclusive effort to look at the threats to our future and make wise choices in the present.