Can we drive economic growth, meet rising demand for food, energy and water, and make significant environmental progress? The short answer is “yes,” but it comes with several big “ifs.” New research shows that we can put the world on a path to sustainability if we make significant changes within the next 10 years.
The Nature Conservancy, together with the University of Minnesota and 11 other institutions, analyzed the feasibility of advancing major conservation goals while meeting the demands of population and economic growth in 2050. The research paper, “An Attainable Global Vision for Conservation and Human Well-Being,” presents a scientific test of a vision for the future where thriving human communities and abundant, healthy ecosystems coexist.
“A growing body of scientific evidence shows us that people and nature share many of the same challenges. The analyses we did here are encouraging because they show that we can also share success. We are not looking at an inevitable tradeoff—expected growth in GDP, population and its demands can be balanced with major improvements for climate and nature,” said Heather Tallis, report coauthor and Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation at The Nature Conservancy.
“Of course, it will require big shifts in the way we think about and use natural resources, but our study shows it’s possible with expected technology and consumption patterns,” adds Steve Polasky, coauthor and Regents Professor and Fesler-Lampert Professor of Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota.
The paper moves beyond existing analyses of global challenges that have been more sector specific, or pit environmental and economic interests against each other. As leaders in the health, development and environmental sectors pivot to act collectively—in support of global frameworks such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—they need more integrated analyses to help identify linked problems and accelerate progress to solve them.
By 2050, as the word population grows toward 10 billion, demand for natural resources will reach unprecedented levels—intensifying the harsh impacts of climate change. Leading global development organizations are already highlighting air pollution and water scarcity (environmental challenges) as the biggest dangers to human health and prosperity.
The study modeled what the world would look like in 2050 if human development progressed on its current “business-as-usual” path compared to a “sustainability” path, which would require major changes in production patterns to overcome substantial economic, social and political challenges. The “sustainability” path requires a number of paradigm shifts but demonstrates the feasibility of meeting human demands while simultaneously advancing several major conservation goals.
“Our results show that expected technologies and large-scale adoption of common conservation approaches can make meaningful contributions to multiple economic and environmental objectives,” said Polasky. “Protecting nature and providing water, food and energy to a growing world don’t need to be either-or propositions.”
The environmental and economic objectives analyzed in the study can be achieved by adjusting how and where economic activity occurs:
Climate, Energy and Air Quality – transforming energy production from primarily fossil-fuels to renewable and nuclear energy; siting new energy infrastructure on already converted land.
On Land: Food, Conservation and City Growth – Shifting crops within agriculture production regions to better match growing conditions. This lowers water stress and reduces the land footprint.
In the Water: Drinking Water, River Basins and Ocean Fisheries – The energy transition and crop adjustments lead to large water savings, reducing water stress for agriculture, people and biodiversity. Sustainable management of all wild fish stocks increases landings.
The research addressed 10 of the SDGs and illustrates how the sustainability scenario could help advance them. Further explorations with more comprehensive, dynamic global models is needed to address the full set of SDGs and to consider the potential of crossing earth system ‘tipping’ points that may have large impacts on sustainable development. Transitioning away from “business as usual” would reduce the likelihood of crossing such points.
Brian McPeek, President of The Nature Conservancy, said, “Our science-based research is not a prescriptive ‘blueprint’ of where and how we think conservation should happen. But, it does show that a sustainable path is indeed possible. The limits of the planet are not what stand in the way of a sustainable future, it is the limits of our will and creativity.”
ABOUT THE NATURE CONSERVANCY: The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.
For more information on this study please visit: nature.org/twopaths