The scenarios point to both risks and
opportunities in the future. Of particular
significance are the risks of crossing
thresholds, the potential of reaching turning
points in the relationship between people
and the environment, and the need to
account for interlinkages in pursuing a
more sustainable path.
Chapter 9: The Future Today - Towards 2015 and Beyond
This chapter builds on previous chapters by exploring how current social, economic and environmental trends may unfold along divergent development paths in the future, and what this might mean for the environment, development and human well-being. It presents four scenarios to the year 2050, using narrative storylines and quantitative data to explore different policy approaches and societal choices at both global and regional levels. The main messages of the scenarios – Markets First, Policy First, Security First and Sustainability First – are:
There is a need to address interlinkages among numerous environmental issues, such as air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and biodiversity loss. There is also a need to link environment with development issues, such as extreme poverty and hunger, implementation of the MDGs, and addressing human vulnerability and well- being. This addresses one of the statements in Our Common Future, which says “the ability to choose policy paths that are sustainable requires that the ecological dimensions of policy be considered at the same time as the economic, trade, energy, agricultural, industrial and other dimensions – on the same agendas and in the same national and international institutions.”
For a range of indicators, the rate of global environmental change slows or even reverses towards the middle of the century. In all scenarios, the rates of cropland expansion and forest loss steadily decline over the scenario period. The rate of water withdrawals eventually decreases in all scenarios, except Security First. Some scenarios also show a slackening in the tempo of species loss, greenhouse gas build- up, and temperature increase. The slowing down of these global indicators is due to the expected completion of the demographic transition, the saturation of material consumption, and technological advances. This slowing down is important because it gives us hope that the society and nature can more successfully catch up to the pace of change and adjust to it before experiencing many negative consequences.
Despite a possible slowing down of global environmental change, the peak rate and end point of change differs strongly among scenarios. The higher the rate of change, the greater the risk that thresholds in the Earth system will be exceeded in the coming decades, resulting in sudden, abrupt or accelerating changes, which could be irreversible. Differing rates of change lead to very different end points for the scenarios. Under Markets First, 13 per cent of all original species are lost between 2000 and 2050 as compared to 8 per cent under Sustainability First. The range in 2050 for atmospheric CO2 concentration is over 560 ppm in Markets First as compared to about 475 ppm under Sustainability First. It is expected that the risk of exceeding thresholds increases with a higher level of change, and that this change could be sudden rather than gradual. For example, the GEO-4 scenarios showing the fastest rate of increase in fish catches are also accompanied by a significant decline in marine biodiversity, leading to a higher risk of fisheries collapse by mid-century.
Investing in environmental and social sustainability does not impair economic development. Scenarios, including increased investment in health, education, and environmentally benign technologies result in equally large and more equitably distributed economic growth on a per capita basis in most regions as those that do not. The levels of GDP per capita are particularly higher in Sustainability First and Policy First than Markets First and Security First in nearly all of the currently less developed regions.
Relying on the market alone is unlikely to achieve key environmental and human well-being goals. The extreme emphasis on markets in Markets First results in significant increases in environmental pressures and only slow down advances in achieving social targets. Alternatively, the increased levels of investments in health, education and the environment, along with increased development assistance and new approaches to lending in Policy First and Sustainability First make for significantly faster progress, without sacrificing economic development in most regions.
Greater integration of policies across levels, sectors and time, strengthening local rights, and building capacity help achieve most environmental and human well-being goals. Additional action under Sustainability First – integrating governance across levels, sectors and time, strengthening local rights, and building capacity – lead to greater improvements and slower degradation than in Policy First. Much of this is related to the increased ownership of the issues by the broader public, and the greater legitimacy of policies. Interaction between global and regional processes suggests that concentrating environmental governance at one scale is unlikely to result in appropriate responses to environmental problems with their feedbacks.
Both trade-offs and synergies exist in the efforts to achieve key environmental and human well-being goals. Competition for land is likely as a result of competing goals: the production of biofuels to achieve climate goals, the production of food to achieve food security, and designation of areas for biodiversity. Competition can be expected for water use between the provision of adequate supplies for human activities and the maintenance of adequate in-stream flows for the integrity of aquatic ecosystems. Furthermore, achieving these goals may require the acceptance of rates of economic growth, as presently measured, in the currently highly-developed countries that, while still significant, are lower than would be the case otherwise. Key synergies result from policies that address the drivers of many of the problems. These include investments in health and education, particularly of females, which directly achieve key human well-being goals, and help to address current and future environmental goals by improving environmental management and reducing population growth.
The diversity and multiplicity of trade-offs and opportunities for synergy increases complexity for decision-makers, requiring new and adaptive approaches. This complexity should not be ignored. It, however, points to the need for innovative approaches for exploring the options for action to address the intertwined environmental and developmental challenges the world faces.