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COMMENTARY: May 22 is international biodiversity day — and this scientist thinks change is possible

The United Nations issued its first comprehensive global scientific report on biodiversity on Monday, May 6, 2019.
The United Nations issued its first comprehensive global scientific report on biodiversity on Monday, May 6, 2019. AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

In the jobs-versus-environment debate, neither side is wrong. The problem is the 20th-century economy that forces us to choose. This is a key message of the new UN report I co-authored about nature — a message often overlooked.

Of course, British Columbia and Alberta are at loggerheads over oilsands pipelines when Albertan jobs and the B.C. environment are both on the line.

This interprovincial tussle is just one symptom of a global economic system that prioritizes economic growth over sustaining its foundations. Whereas our economic systems were sufficient to industrialize nations, now these systems are showing their incapacity to deliver what humanity — and nature — now need. Rather, they fuel economic growth at the expense of wildlife declines and the erosion of critical life-support services that ecosystems provide, yielding polluted water, floods, soil loss and crop failures.

READ MORE: 1 million species face extinction as humans plunder nature at ‘unprecedented’ rate

This is the conclusion of the recent UN report — the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment — the most exhaustive and authoritative assessment on nature and human dependence on it ever.

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Faced with a choice between our livelihoods and sustaining the environment for nature and future generations, we have generally chosen our livelihoods, understandably. In the current economy, tragic trade-offs arise when local environmental protection fuels the export of not only jobs but also damaging production. The benefits of this economic growth are short-lived, but many costs are long-lasting, widespread and unjust. Dam collapses, oil spills, forest loss, landslides, coral reef bleaching and persistent pollution affect us all, but particularly the most vulnerable, while a few grow wealthier.

Near the start of the three-year IPBES assessment, it became clear that nature and its contributions to people were still being degraded at an alarming rate — despite major previous intergovernmental and government measures. Clearly, a bigger change was in order. Thus, my co-authors and I undertook extensive analyses to determine what changes would enable feeding the planet, maintaining clean water, resourcing our growing cities, providing much-needed energy, combating climate change, protecting nature and achieving other crucial goals. What would it take? New technologies? New environmental laws and policies? More money for conservation?

READ MORE: Canada’s biodiversity is in danger — here’s what you can do to help

No: all three were helpful but insufficient, alone or together. To achieve the kind of world envisioned in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 — and maintaining it past 2050 — meant much more. Success appeared to require a series of fundamental changes directly addressing economic, political and social structures.

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In a nutshell, success requires a global sustainable economy.

For instance, our analysis suggested that national policies would likely need to move away from the current paradigm of economic growth. We would likely need more internationally consistent taxation, technologies and economic activities with net positive environmental effects and less income inequality. We would need to reduce consumption among the affluent and to cut waste, including by repurposing it as resources in a “circular economy.” We would need to overcome opposition from vested interests — including those in government.

WATCH: Humans have put 1 million species at risk of extinction, UN report says

Humans have put 1 million species at risk of extinction: UN report
Humans have put 1 million species at risk of extinction: UN report

In a global sustainable economy, governments could not undercut each other by allowing damaging development to foster artificially cheap production. Within nations, the choice would be between different forms of environmentally sensitive development, not between jobs and the environment. Multi-sector industry organizations are already moving in this direction — like the Marine Stewardship Council for seafood, Forest Stewardship Council for wood products and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. We need to help these organizations to grow and strengthen along with regulations and we need to cover all products.

A global sustainable economy is achievable. Humanity is clearly capable of incredible feats: walking on the moon, building the internet, mapping the human genome.

Yet, as authors of the report, we felt sure that IPBES’ 132 member nations would not accept these provocative findings. Any nation could strike any finding from the assessment or torpedo the whole.

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WATCH: Scientists say it’s not too late to save biodiversity after release of report on possible extinction of species

Scientists say it’s not too late to save biodiversity after release of report on possible extinction of species
Scientists say it’s not too late to save biodiversity after release of report on possible extinction of species

Full of trepidation, we waded into a week of negotiations that went past midnight every night, past 3 a.m. on the last. Governments nitpicked about words, and some threatened to veto the report. It came down to the wire.

On May 4, all 132 nations approved the Global Assessment with all of its most challenging findings, to high fives and a standing ovation.

Clearly, this is just the beginning. There are no concrete prescriptions, no binding agreements, no penalties. But pinpointing the solution is the first step in this journey.

For Canada, the next steps are in motion: reforming environmental impact assessment in Bill C-69, substantially expanding networks of protected areas and strong and nationally consistent carbon pricing.

But going beyond this is key, and it will require that citizens demand and participate in this transformation. Join us.

Kai Chan is a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia and a co-ordinating lead author of the IPBES Global Assessment.

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