The science is in: humans are dramatically altering all our ecosystems. From the sea floor to the tops of the tallest trees, we are losing precious biodiversity – with almost one million species on the brink of extinction – and more generally the nature that underpins our daily lives. Worse, often we do not notice the effects of these losses of productive capacity until decades later, when it is too late to correct efficiently or at all. Development policy practitioners are asking the question: how do we provide the resources people need without fundamentally destroying our natural environments?
To provide a better understanding of the dilemma, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) compiled a report that brought together more than 450 experts from around the world and from different disciplines. The report, which included feedback from governments, scientists, economists, sociologists, and indigenous peoples, is a remarkable achievement in a context where facts and science are increasingly questioned.
On a recent podcast, three of the report’s authors described the report’s take on mankind’s and nature’s situations and the future. The upshot? It’s not too late, but we have to kickstart real responses (and not just with individual actions).
One of those expert authors was DCID faculty affiliate Dr. Alexander Pfaff. He was joined by Dr. Kai Chain from the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Pamela McElwee from Rutgers University.
Here are three takeaways for development policy practitioners from that interview:
Ask Why (…and Be Specific)
As an economist, Pfaff focuses on changing behaviors.
“WHY are we seeing these choices that degrade Nature? The answer differs depending on the local context- sometimes it’s luxury or greed but sometimes it’s just hungry people.”
Human population growth, exploding global trade, migration and urbanization, and changes in technology all affect nature, across the globe. Different locations share many patterns and yet countries differ in their dominant drivers of pollution, extraction, and indeed restoration. Getting clear about the key local choices and their motivations, from illegal hunting or logging to unintended effects from roads investment, is critical to inform policy responses in any country.
Knowing the local needs, or the “why,” also helps us consider tradeoffs more intelligently. Should a piece of land be mined for a community’s energy needs or protected as a natural ecosystem? Should an acre of land be used for farming or preserved for species? To what extent can we do both?
And how do we handle interactions across political units like nations? For example, if we use technology to increase yield so that less land is used to produce the food the world needs, but that occurs in richer countries, do other countries lose out on trade? Or how do we coordinated across government agencies. For instance, we can build a road that helps a local economy but could we also manage to look ahead to avoid critical habitats and/or put in new protected zones around the road that could control the sprawl (and subsequent environmental impact) that might otherwise occur
Individual Voluntary Actions and Typical Easiest Quick Fixes Aren’t Enough
At a recent public talk on the report’s findings, audience members asked Pfaff about individual consumer choices, for example hybrid cars and reusable grocery bags, sharing a dismay that it seemed impossible to make these individual changes more widespread. The good news in the sense of personal dismay, Pfaff said, is that individual changes just aren’t enough. Grocery bags, hybrid cars, and turning off lights are good habits, including as their spread and linked environmental education could help to prompt bigger actions, but both Chan and Pfaff note that the only thing that can address the devastation predicted in the report is widespread structural change. Of course the bad news would then be that government actions not yet sufficiently frequent to stem the tide need to now occur. Yet they are clearly possible.
On the other hand, we need to guard against the tendency to “just do something.” Quick fixes often aren’t enough and sometimes don’t do anything at all. For instance, simply drawing lines on a map and declaring them protected may not actually shift many behaviors. And even actions that do have impacts may not alone be sufficient. Planting new trees to replace those cut down for development is often touted as a way to address carbon emissions, for instance, and while tree cover is a crucial tool, McElwee notes “reforestation is not a get out of jail free card. There just isn’t enough land surface on the earth to get us out of climate problems without running into tradeoffs in terms of food production.”
All three experts say that in order for the necessary structural changes to actually work, they will require intergovernmental cooperation at a scale we’ve not yet seen.
Policymaking Should be Inclusive from the Beginning
One of the most crucial points made in the report, and something that Pfaff has repeatedly emphasized in his own work, is that environment can’t be an afterthought to development if we want it to be obtained effectively or cost-efficiently. Too often, when the question about environmental impacts is finally asked, the road has already been built, forest has already been cleared. It’s too late for smart policy requiring development and environment to be at the table together.
The IPBES report emphasizes such inclusive thinking. Chapter 5 looks at big picture solutions- or what it would take society to solve this crisis- and Chapter 6 gets into some detailed policy options – though as McElwee points out, the significant differences in culture, values, religions, governance, politics, and of course natural environments across countries meant that the policy options had to be general enough to provide a framework without being prescriptive.
Beyond these three takeaways, McElwee offers four general recommendations for governments and policymaking:
Chan says, “these levers are not rocket science,” yet they’re not making their way into policy discussions to date. While frustrating, it illustrates just how close we are: hope for reversing this is within reach, and the next generation of development practitioners, including MIDP fellows, could be at the forefront.