The current climate and biodiversity crisis is driven by a global focus on short-term financial profits and economic growth, according to a new United Nations-backed report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
The report calls for “transformative” political and social change to allow for the natural world, human flourishing, and ideas of justice to be incorporated into government policies worldwide. Facilitating this shift provides the clearest path to achieving the Paris climate agreement and the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity, the authors argue.
“Nature is what sustains us all. It gives us food, medicine, raw materials, oxygen, climate regulation and so much more,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in a statement. “Nature, in all its diversity, is the greatest asset that humanity could ever ask for. Yet its true value is often left out of decision making.
“Nature’s life-support system has become an externality that doesn’t even make it onto the ledger sheet,” she said. “And so, it is lost in the pursuit of short-term profit. If we do not value nature and account for it in decision-making, it will continue to be lost. And that can only be bad news for humanity.”
The Assessment Report on the Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature is based on four years of research, discussion, and analysis by 82 scientists and Indigenous and local knowledge-keepers around the world. Much of their effort involved looking at how policies are conceived and enacted in countries.
With few exceptions, the market economy dominates modern life, with the most fundamental aspects of survival — shelter, food, water, health — tied up in the marketplace, and most major political and development policies shaped by the narrow filter of economic impact.
Rather than asking how a new policy would affect the environment or human well-being, most decision-makers in positions of power focus almost exclusively on questions of economic impact, according to the report. That’s how you get development projects that displace communities, destroy wildlife, and leave vast legacies of pollution.
Decades of this orientation have caused catastrophic harm to the global environment, pushing all sorts of wildlife to the brink of extinction, hollowing out vibrant ecosystems to extract resources in the pursuit of financial profit, and driving the global temperature nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
A few more decades of this approach would turn Earth into an inhospitable rock incapable of supporting human life, as opposed to the utopian planet we’ve enjoyed for most of human history.
That’s why the IPBES — often called the “IPCC for Biodiversity” — is calling for a new model that draws on Indigneous wisdom and knowledge, and modes of thinking that animate civic life in all countries to a greater or lesser extent.
“Our analysis shows that various pathways can contribute to achieve just and sustainable futures. The report pays specific attention to future pathways related to ‘green economy,’ ‘degrowth,’ ‘Earth stewardship,’ and ‘nature protection,’” said Unai Pascual, the Ikerbasque Research Professor at the Basque Center for Climate Change, in a statement.
“Although each pathway is underpinned by different values, they share principles aligned with sustainability,” he said. “Pathways arising from diverse worldviews and knowledge systems, for instance those associated with living well and other philosophies of good living, can also lead towards sustainability”
These new pathways mirror the principles championed by advocates of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, environmental degradation, and human exploitation, and toward a world marked by restorative justice and environmental regeneration.
A new, sustainable model would mean different values guiding policies. Rather than focusing exclusively on economic concerns, policymakers should instead pursue policies that best maximize the health of the environment and human well-being.
For example, policies that minimize inequality both within and between countries would ease pressure on the global environment, while also improving the wellbeing of billions of people, the report notes.
In many ways, the authors of the report are calling on governments to appreciate what’s right in front of them. The natural world provides the foundation for human life and flourishing and its protection and maintenance should be a basic tenet of everyday life at the individual, communal, and institutional levels.
Countries face a range of environmental challenges, including rising temperatures, a warming and acidifying ocean, widespread species loss, plastic and chemical pollution, unprecedented forest fires, and extensive desertification.
Mitigating and ultimately overcoming these challenges requires investing in environmental restoration and conservation in ways that have proved yet to be possible in a system that greenlights new fossil fuel infrastructure in endangered forests because of its ability to generate money for some people.
The latest IPCC report on climate change noted that the technology, financial capacity, and public consensus are available right now to achieve the Paris climate agreement and protect the planet, but that political will is lacking.
The IPBES underlines these points and goes a step further by telling policymakers to build a new system, one that can meaningfully protect the environment.
“Biodiversity is being lost and nature’s contributions to people are being degraded faster now than at any other point in human history,” said Ana María Hernández Salgar, chair of IPBES, in a statement. “This is largely because our current approach to political and economic decisions does not sufficiently account for the diversity of nature’s values.
“The information, analysis, and tools offered by the values assessment make an invaluable contribution to that process, to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and to shifting all decisions toward better values-centered outcomes for people and the rest of nature.”