2040: creating the future we want and nature needs

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

2040: creating the future we want and nature needs

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Last night, I participated in a debate about our vision for 2040.  The context, of course, was the Conservative Government’s 2015 manifesto commitment to restore biodiversity in 25 years which will be brought to life through Defra’s ‘soon’ to be published 25 year environment framework. 

To prepare for the debate, I thought I would see what the futurists are predicting about social trends, technological advancements and political developments...

...robots will be common features of the homes and workplaces

...depression will be the number one global disease burden

...tobacco will be largely eradicated

...the European Union will have collapsed

...chocolate will become a rare luxury

Many of these may lead to eyebrows being raised a bit, yet, predictions about the state of the environment future are much more stark...

...global temperatures will be 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels triggering a large-scale melting of the permafrost and an acceleration in global temperature rises resulting in catastrophic impacts for people and wildlife

...there will have been major extinctions of animal and plant life including the loss of 50% of amphibians  and 20% of birds in Europe; less than 2% of coral reefs will be remaining; nearly half of the Amazon rainforest destroyed with 2000 tree species becoming extinct

You can see why the 21st century has been categorised as a period of “an increasingly globalised humanity facing climate change, dwindling resources, overpopulation and technological upheaval”. 

Scanning the horizon for a brighter future for people and wildlife (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

We’re currently on this pathway and it’s clear that we have our work cut out to avoid this dystopian view of the future. 

I lay this out not to hasten the advance of mass depression, or to encourage you to give up and go party but to stress that we really do need to act and we need to act now not towards the end of the 25 year plan.

The impact on the natural environment is a function of how many people there are on the planet, how much they consume and available technology.   Given current fertility rates, and assuming there are no major human catastrophes, global population will have reached 9 billion by 2040 leading to a 50% increase in demand for energy, 50% increase in demand for food and 30% increase in demand for water.  Unless we find a development pathway which decouples growth from economic harm, it is difficult to see how we can avoid the apocalyptic future described above. 

Yet, the world has a plan to tackle climate change and I am confident that technological advances will allow us to fully debarbonise the economy.   While current national greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments are inadequate to keep global temperature rises below 2.4⁰C-2.7⁰C, it is not unrealistic to believe that technological advancements and growing public pressure will mean that we will have a chance to keep within the safe limits of 1.5⁰C set out in the Paris climate agreement.  But hope and faith is insufficient, we need governments to plan, and most of all to act, to make this future become reality.

To avoid mass extinction we have to redouble our efforts to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 targets – especially to increase the amount of land and sea that is well managed for nature.  But we also need to tackle the major drivers of decline (aka the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse): habitat destruction, invasive non-native invasive species, pollution (including climate change) and over-exploitation. 

These issues are deeply complex and challenging and require political effort equivalent to that which has been afforded to climate change.  For example... 

...fundamental reform of our food and farming is essential.  Changes in agriculture has been identified as the primary driver of change in nature both within the UK (for species assessed through State of Nature) and globally (for birds assessed by BirdLife International).  What’s more a billion people go to bed hungry each night while a billion people are overweight or obese.  Within the UK, as a result of the Brexit vote and our expected withdrawal from the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy, we have a once in a generation opportunity to rethink our farming and landuse policy.  We must believe that we can lead the world in driving genuinely environmentally sustainable agriculture.

...greater action must be taken to control invasive species and intensify biosecurity efforts.  We have, over the past decade, successfully eradicated non-native species as part of island restoration projects and I am delighted that plans are in place to extend this efforts.  Yet, finances are limiting our capability to keep up with the challenge which is growing inexorably as global trade intensifies.  Whilst the future of the EU Birds and habitats directives is thankfully now more secure (see here) there is still much work to be done to ensure the EU regulation on Invasive species is not weakened and is fully transposed into UK law.

... the value of nature need to be captured in decision-making.  Our thinking about natural capital must improve and new policies developed to make it easier to invest in nature’s recovery, both for nature and for the benefits it brings us.

... people’s everyday connection with nature needs to be improved for our well-being today and to help create the environmental leaders tomorrow.  We will know if we are on the right path if we see new interventions such as a) Defra and the Department of Health rolling out an extensive programme of natural health provision to transform the way we improve mental and physical health or b) Defra and the Department for Education revising the curriculum to make caring for the environment a key part of learning. We need these big transformative changes if we are to improve peoples lives and save nature.  

I shall be 70 in 2040 and probably/hopefully be on the cusp of retirement.  I want to be able to look back and feel that collectively we did a good job, that we did manage to pass on to our children the natural environment in a better state than we inherited. 

Anything less is too painful to contemplate.

That’s why our Government’s 25 year plan for the environment needs to be ambitious and groundbreaking.  Get it wrong and we will no longer be living in a green and pleasant land.  Get it right and we can be proud of what we will achieve and have the confidence to inspire others around the world through our own actions.

  • I've been depressed about this issue for a long time. I've lived through the best of times and am now witnessing the beginning of the end.

    Jonathon Porritt wrote a similarly themed book - The World We Made. An optimistic look back from the year 2050! A very clever concept! But who is listening?

    Mankind is listening to the marketing man who can create and sell stuff that people think they need. Nobody (I use the term relatively) is listening to the environmentalists/conservationists who have shown themselves overall to be unable to sell what people actually need (although Sir David, as always, did a pretty good job last night on Planet Earth II). Scientists vs the marketing man. It's a non contest. Why should they be able to sell, they're scientists!

    The marketing man is very clever but our consumption will consume us all eventually. A strength overdone becomes a weakness! Will the tables turn and the scientists start to use the marketing man's strategies? If not I console myself in the thought that Its just in the nature of things!!

  • If only all the people who enjoy watching David Attenborough's TV wildlife programmes did a bit more to actively contribute to improving our environment and showed they really care about the natural world by lobbying political parties to persuade them to take these issues seriously - I might feel more optimistic.