The world has reached a tipping point. The loss of natural habitats is a driver of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. Simply conserving nature and critical ecosystems will no longer be enough to avert catastrophic climate change and mass extinction. Humanity needs to bring back what has been lost, by restoring degraded ecosystems - in order to achieve the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Restoring forests, peatlands, and mangroves (and other natural solutions) can provide more than a third of the greenhouse gas mitigation needed by 2030. And, by halting and reversing the degradation of land and the ocean, we can prevent the loss of one million endangered species. Scientists say restoring just 15% of ecosystems in priority areas and thereby improving habitats can cut extinctions by 60%.
More than 115 countries have included ecosystem restoration as part of their commitments to the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, covering roughly one billion hectares - an area larger than China. However, the status of actual implementation is uncertain (ecosystem restoration must follow strict guidelines to avoid monocultures and invasive species and to ensure that local communities benefit).
The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Decade is designed to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It will draw together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to revive millions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
Restoration is also key to human prosperity and well-being; vibrant ecosystems provide the food, water, health, and security that a growing global population needs more of every day. Halting the decline of ecosystem services (such as climate control or oxygen production) could prevent the loss of $10 trillion in global income by 2050 - currently, some 2.3 billion people suffer from ecosystem degradation, which undercuts their access to safe food and water.
Restoring ecosystems is critical for global health. The loss of natural habitats is a key driver of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, for example, and forest restoration and better farm practices could reduce the pollution of water supplies in 81% of the world’s cities. Adding urban trees can blunt the impacts of pollution and excessive heat, while boosting mental and physical well-being.
Managing Chemicals and Waste
Chemicals are an integral part of our lives. They can improve health, supply the food we need, and when managed well they can be truly invaluable. But when poorly managed, hazardous chemicals and waste threaten human health, biodiversity, and fragile ecosystems.
Pesticides have threatened global food security, and ‘dead zones' are being created in the ocean
The World Health Organization has estimated that contamination resulting from the use of even a relatively small group of chemicals claimed roughly 1.6 million lives in 2016 alone. In addition, research has shown that pesticides are contributing to the loss of pollinators such as bees, and in turn, threatening global food security - while excessive agricultural use of phosphorous and nitrogen has created “dead zones” in the ocean.
The resulting financial costs amount to tens of billions of dollars annually. According to the second edition of the Global Chemicals Outlook published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the chemical industry will reach about $10 trillion in value by 2030 - the challenge will be ensuring this growth is a net positive for humanity and the planet. The good news is that governments, investors, retailers, and consumers are increasingly working to make it so.
Hazardous substances generated from toxic chemicals have been banned from production and usage in several countries, which has in turn brightened the growth prospects of green chemicals as alternatives. Green and sustainable chemistry is being applied across the entire lifecycle of chemicals, including their design, manufacture, application, and disposal.
Companies are advancing their standards beyond mere compliance and sustainable supply chain management, for example, while entrepreneurs are tapping into more sustainable innovation. Meanwhile consumers are driving demand for safer products and production, and adding to a growing realization that we have to rethink current business models.
The demand for green alternatives is particularly high in the textile industry, which is one of the major end-users of chemicals, and their continued evolution will be critical for a chemicals industry constantly in search of expanding markets and growth. Businesses, governments, and civil society organizations have all played important roles in exploring the full potential of sustainable chemistry, the 2022 Chemicals Industry Outlook by Deloitte gives a more comprehensive look at what the future holds in this regard.
FUTURE OF THE ENVIRONMENT
Decisions made in the next few years will determine whether our existence on Earth as we know it will continue, or collapse as a result of human activity.
Future changes are expected to include a warmer atmosphere, a warmer and more acidic ocean, higher sea levels, and larger changes in precipitation patterns. The extent of future climate change depends on what we do now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The more we emit, the larger future changes will be.
The need to change the ways societies interact with and affect the environment becomes more urgent as the tangible impacts of a planetary crisis accumulate - generating daily headlines about extreme weather events, pandemics, pollution, and a mounting shortage of essential natural resources.
As the COP26 climate summit demonstrated, effectively addressing these challenges will require increased commitments from the public and private sectors.
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Environmental dangers threaten economic growth and viability and can trigger violent conflict.
While non-environmental risks have typically flared and then subsided as conditions have varied, or as the international community has mobilized to contain them, environmental issues consistently remain among the top global risks from year to year. This points to a systemic problem, and responding effectively has proven to be a challenge. While the Paris Agreement on climate change was ratified in 2017, for example, as of 2021 countries were still generally considered to be falling short on related commitments.
A lack of effective management of the ocean, the atmosphere, and climate systems generally can therefore have local as well as global consequences, which extend well beyond the environment.
Even if countries do deliver on their Paris Agreement commitments, the United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that the world will still warm by as much as 3.2°C compared with pre-industrial levels - far above the targeted ceiling of 2°C. Meanwhile, the impacts are spreading. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an annual average of 25.3 million people were displaced by climate- or weather-related events between 2008 and 2016, and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters has estimated that 96 million people were affected by natural disasters in 2017 alone. Entire communities have already had to be relocated or plan to relocate amid rising sea levels.
A World Bank report suggested that water stress may trigger extreme societal problems in regions such as the Middle East and the Sahel - where water scarcity could affect as much as 6% of local GDP by 2050. The same report projected that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two-thirds between 2015 and 2050, due to climate change and increased competition within the energy and agriculture sectors.
The WEF’s Global Risks Report has underlined a series of interconnected environmental risks, related to extreme weather events, climate change, and water crises. These are all closely tied to other categories of risk; changing weather patterns or water crises, for example, can trigger or exacerbate geopolitical and social issues like domestic or regional conflict, not to mention involuntary migration - particularly in politically-fragile areas.
The United Nations World Water Development Report 2022: Groundwater: Making The Invisible Visible describes the challenges and opportunities associated with the development, management and governance of groundwater across the world. It aims to establish a clear understanding of the role that groundwater plays in daily life, of its interactions with people, and of the opportunities for optimizing its use in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of this largely available yet fragile resource.
Unlocking the full potential of groundwater will require strong and concerted efforts to manage and use it sustainably. And it all starts by making the invisible visible.
The stresses that have accumulated on the environment and on natural resource security have become so great - with most of the resulting impact yet to fully play out - that many academics now report that human activity, mass extinctions, and extensive pollution have demarcated a wholly new epoch for Earth, dubbed the “Anthropocene.”
Some ‘planetary boundaries’ within which humanity can thrive have already been crossed. Human activity has placed the environment under extreme stress. In 2009, an international group of scientists proposed the concept of “planetary boundaries,” within which humanity can continue to thrive for generations.
Already, four of the nine boundaries have been crossed - even though neglecting to remain within these limits, which are tied to factors like climate change, freshwater use, and chemical pollution, can result in irreversible environmental damage.
Meanwhile, water stress is exacting a heavy toll; the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2020 that available freshwater resources had declined globally by more than 20% per person over the preceding two decades, and an estimated four billion people may live in countries with physical water scarcity by 2050. Barring a significant change, the world could face a serious water deficit by 2030 affecting sanitation and health, energy generation, and agriculture.
Roughly 400 billion metric tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere due to the consumption of fossil fuels since 1751, and half of these emissions have occurred since the late 1980s, according to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.
Ocean acidification, a harmful process that increases as greater amounts of carbon dioxide are absorbed from the atmosphere, is a mounting concern for the tourism and fishing industries - and is poised to accelerate as the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide declines.
Overfishing is also a concern; according to figures published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2016, nearly a third of global fish stocks had already been overfished, and illegal fishing was removing about 26 million metric tons of seafood - valued at nearly $23 billion - per year. According to figures published subsequently by the FAO, the percentage of global fish stocks deemed within biologically sustainable levels fell from 90% in 1974 to just 65.8% by 2017.
A 2022 Special Report by UNDP New threats to human security in the Anthropocene offers a way forward to tackle today’s interconnected threats. First, by pursuing human security strategies that affirm the importance of solidarity, since we are all vulnerable to the unprecedented process of planetary change we are experiencing during the Anthropocene.
Global energy investment is poised to rebound post-pandemic, but more must be directed at the clean energy transition
According to a report published in 2017 by the International Finance Corporation, building climate-smart infrastructure would require about $90 trillion in investment over the subsequent 15 years, with most of that in developing and middle-income countries.
As of May 2021, the World Bank said it had issued the equivalent of roughly $16 billion in so-called green bonds, or debt raised specifically for environmentally-focused investments, since 2008. These bonds were issued in 23 different currencies, the World Bank said, while noting that their triple-A credit quality is the same as for any of its other bonds. Amid growing political interest in infrastructure investment as a means to boost productivity and create jobs, the appeal of sustainable infrastructure has long seemed poised to grow. However, there have been troubling signs; a political shift in the US in recent years, for example, resulted in the withdrawal of money promised to the United Nations-backed Green Climate Fund (the US has since promised to make good on its funding pledges).
The continued, healthy expansion of sustainable infrastructure will require a new architecture of public-private investment, supported by overseas development assistance, government spending, and sovereign wealth funds.
Much of the interest in green bond issuance has been driven by China, as the Bank of China and the Shanghai-based New Development Bank began issuing their first green bonds in 2016.
While renewables were expected to account for 70% of all investment in new power generation capacity in 2021, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, much greater resources must be directed to clean energy technologies in order to put the world on track to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.
However, investment in renewable energy technology has disappointed recently, according to the agency; it reported in 2021 that while global investment in energy was poised to rebound following a COVID-19-related decline, spending on clean energy transitions needs to accelerate.
Cost may play a decisive role in whatever progress is made. In 2021, the International Renewable Energy Agency, through its report World Energy Transitions Outlook 2022 (WETO) charts the fastest path to emissions reduction, consistent with the 1.5°C goals. It prioritizes existing solutions and those with the most chance of becoming viable in the coming years. The Outlook positions efficiency and electrification as primary drivers, enabled by renewable power,
green hydrogen, and sustainable modern bioenergy. WETO also shows that, with a holistic policy framework, serious investment, and co-operation, the energy transition can be a means for job creation, an inclusive economy, and a more equal world.
According to the International Resource Panel’s report Global Resources Outlook 2019, the extraction and processing of materials including metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass are responsible for half of all global climate change, more than 80% of water stress and land-related biodiversity loss, and a third of all air pollution. According to IRP estimates, barring drastic change, global resource consumption will double by 2060. This rate of growth would not only be catastrophic for the climate and for biodiversity, it would also further undermine notions of fairness and equality - as these resources would be used up inordinately by high-income countries, while related negative impacts are primarily absorbed by the less fortunate.
Science suggests breaking the destructive link between economic growth and natural resource use is possible
As the global economy and population have expanded, the use of natural resources has more than tripled over the past five decades - with dire consequences for the environment and human health and well-being.
Natural resources underpin the global economy, as biomass, fossil fuels, metals, minerals, arable land, and water supply everything from the food we eat to the buildings we live in. These resources are also a bridge between economic activity and climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and poor health.
Better resource management is key in this regard - for example, IRP modelling shows that by implementing proper resource efficiency, circular economy practices, and sustainable consumption and production policies, the growth of global resource use could slow by 25%, greenhouse gas emissions could decrease by 90%, forested areas and natural habitats could increase by 11%, and the global economy could grow by 8%, all by the year 2060.
The average person living in a high-income country consumes 60% more natural resources than their counterpart in an upper-middle-income country, and more than 13 times that of a counterpart in a low-income country. In every type of economy, the decoupling of natural-resource use (and related environmental impacts) from economic growth and human well-being is necessary to transition to a more sustainable future.
In particular, by managing natural resource use in more efficient and sustainable ways along some of the most resource-intensive value chains, such as those used for food, construction, mobility systems, and textiles (among others), we can better ensure economic competitiveness, bolster social equality, more aggressively tackle environmental challenges, and advance the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.