24 February 2021

Ending the war on the world

We must urgently transform our relationship with nature, according to a major new UN report.

© Kowit Lanchu | Dreamstime.com

© Kowit Lanchu | Dreamstime.com

A tangled net of environmental hazards is strangling the planet. To escape it, we must change how we view the natural world. That is the message of “Making Peace with Nature”, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) coauthored by IIASA emeritus scholar Nebojsa Nakicenovic, that was launched on 18 February.

Its warning is stark. Climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss form a toxic alliance. We are on course for a catastrophic 3°C of warming. Pollution is killing 9 million people a year. A million species are at risk of extinction. These problems all reinforce one another. Climate change and pollution both imperil ecosystems, while ailing ecosystems are less able to absorb our carbon emissions and other waste. Therefore, we are undermining the planet’s ability to heal itself and keep us alive.

“Humanity is waging war on nature,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “This is senseless and suicidal.”

The UN report draws on major global assessments, including studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); The World In 2050 initiative (TWI2050); and work by The International Recovery Platform, and The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, among others. Pulling together such a wide range of data and insights, it sets out a blueprint for dealing with our interlinked environmental emergencies.

We are failing to tackle these problems, the report says, because much of society retains an obsolete view of nature as a resource to be exploited. Instead, we need to put nature at the heart of decision-making, with “a fundamental change in the technological, economic and social organization of society, including worldviews, norms, values and governance.”

Everyone has a part to play. Governments can move on from the narrow goal of GDP growth, and instead include natural capital in their measures of economic performance. They can also tax resource use and waste, and stop subsidizing fossil fuels and other environmentally harmful activity. Financial organizations can stop lending for fossil fuels, and develop innovative finance for biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture. Businesses can pursue a low-waste circular economy, and adopt transparent supply chains with zero deforestation. As individuals, we can rethink our relationship with nature and reduce our environmental impact, for example with literally greener diets.

Our intertwined environmental problems should be tackled in conjunction, with a systems approach. This can prevent unintended consequences, such as trying to curb climate change with biofuel, and planting monoculture crops that damage biodiversity. It raises awareness of crossover risks. For example, an expanded global network of protected areas, to conserve biodiversity, should be designed to be resilient to climate change. A systems approach can also unearth simultaneous solutions, such as reforestation with native vegetation, which addresses climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, and water security all at once. International environmental agreements should be aligned to become more mutually supportive.

The COVID crisis was probably caused by our exploitation of the natural world, making diseases more likely to move from other animals to humans. The report however concludes it could also be an impetus to speed the transformation we need, bringing recovery funds and a willingness to change that can be channeled into a new, more cooperative relationship with nature.

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Last edited: 24 February 2021


Nebojsa Nakicenovic

Emeritus Research Scholar Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Emeritus Research Scholar Integrated Assessment and Climate Change Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

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International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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