We live in the age of the Anthropocene – a period during which human activity is having to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. In this era we have seen many flourish, but at great cost to the environment and the species we share the planet with.
By 2050 over two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. Development will continue at an increased rate. Development and environmental sustainability are concepts which are, to many, in irreconcilable conflict. Is it possible to vision a way of development which is not inherently destructive, and which simultaneously does not seek to greenwash the subject? The alternative is that development will only stop when tipping points are reached and the ecosystems on which we depend have collapsed.
On the last Friday of February Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation launched our new webinar series, “Tipping Points” and the first episode sought to discuss approaches to sustainable development.
Our panel’s sustainability scientist Dr Nadia Sitas, climate scientist and activist Ndoni Mcunu, and economist and development expert Dr Emmanuel Owusu-Sekyere tackled the question “Building or Burning: How can development advance environmental sustainability?” and discussed their visions for the future.
Watch the webinar recording here on the OGRC YouTube channel.
How can we advance human development without crossing planetary boundaries? It is key that we understand that the biosphere underpins human wellbeing. In order to survive and thrive in this era we need to redesign paths to progress that respect the intertwined paths of people and nature. “Humans and nature are not separate, and therefore, it is not about choosing people or the environment of development, it has to be neither or both,” said Sitas. These are coupled systems, with co-evolving fates. “This socioecological systems perspective enables us to respond to the causes, paradigms and value systems that underpin decisions [on development],” said Sitas.
Visions for the future
Sitas also spoke about the need to “change doom and gloom narratives, and to instead focus on seeds of change”. Futures thinking helps us reimagine different futures and different pathways towards futures (“plural because there is no one way”, said Sitas) and how we can bring people together to navigate this. Including the visions of the youth and building them into the decision-making process is important because, after all, they will inherit the future.
Representative Climate Action
With issues like drought, flooding and rising energy and food costs on the horizon as climate change worsens, Ndoni Mcunu provided insight into climate action for Africa. “We’re good at talking about these things, but when it comes to action we really struggle,” said Mcunu. Her next steps would be to focus on research and development and to strengthen economic mechanisms and leadership.
Whose future are we planning development for? According to BBC News, fewer than 1% of the authors of the 100 most cited papers on climate change in the last 5 years are based in Africa. Whose voices and knowledge are being considered when we design models for adapting to extreme weather events? There is a need for climate action projects that link grassroots organisations to tailor-made adaption projects on the ground, said Mcunu, and we must create sustainable funding mechanisms that continue to support climate projects with or without international funding. Technical skills development, renewable and gas-to-liquid technologies, and eco-tourism were all cited by Mcunu as important areas for sustainable development.
The oceans provide us with valuable ecosystems services and hold tremendous potential for economic development and job creation. Dr Emmanuel Owusu-Sekyere explored the anthropocentric, future and ecocentric dimensions of sustainability through a case study on the blue economy, and reflected on the need to and challenges with assessing impact on economic, social and environmental levels. “Nature does give back, nature does feedback, nature does respond to irresponsible human behaviour,” he said while emphasising that it is humans’ responsibility to develop sustainable systems for development.
Owusu-Sekyere’s next steps for change include developing universally accepted definition of the blue economy; translating these into standards, regulations and best practices; increasing knowledge and capacity sharing; coming to a consensus on desired outcomes and design comprehensive indicators them; and recording accurate high frequency data.
Tipping Points will return on the 25th of March at 1pm CAT for the second episode: “How does landscape-scale research contribute to climate conversations?” watch the recording
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