Economy and Ecology at a Crossroads: The Pathway to Planetary Health

Tags: #climatechange, environment
Published on April 18, 2024

By Simon Ticehurst – Movements and Advocacy Lead at WEAll

Climate change has become part of our everyday news. It used to be a science story, but undeniable global warming, record heat waves, wildfires, and extreme weather events, have made climate change an obvious part of our daily lives. Yet all earth systems processes are now heavily perturbed by our economies, and climate change is just one of them.  We are overshooting the planetary boundaries, critical for maintaining the stability of the Earth system as a whole. 

The Planetary Health Annual Meeting held this month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the Sunway Center for Planetary Health launched a roadmap to address this decline in our planetary health, which directly impacts our own health and well-being and puts at risk a liveable future. The Planetary Health roadmap proposes a transformational shift in how we live on Earth, what many are calling the Great Transition: rapid and deep structural changes across most dimensions of human activity and a rethinking of our values and relationship with and within nature and to each other. Such a shift would require a fundamental change in our economic systems: 

“The link between the decline in Planetary Health and the drivers of this emerging devastation, have their roots in our economic system – which seeks and relies on profit, growth, extraction and exploitation. The climate crisis, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation are linked to our economic systems, as well as how economic productivity and growth is valued above responsible management of planetary resources by the current governance, education and communications systems. We argue that our current economic system is now uneconomic; directly undermining Planetary Health now and for the future. The health of the planet and its inhabitants can only be improved through a seismic shift in how we govern and manage our economies.” Planetary Health Roadmap.

This would change how we produce and consume food, energy, water, and manufactured goods; how we build, live and move in our cities; how we consider and measure growth, progress and development, and how we govern ourselves. 

The Planetary Health Alliance, which is a consortium of more than 420 organizations in 70+ countries, provides the evidence base that it is not only the climate system, but deforestation and the loss of biodiversity, including pollinators, the pollution of air and water, soil erosion and the degradation of marine systems, that is affecting the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we produce, our exposure to infectious diseases, and the habitability of the places where we live. 

The environment and human health are interconnected, and changes to natural life support systems are impacting our physical and mental health, driving human displacement and conflict. World Health Organization research shows that 3.6 billion people live in areas highly susceptible to climate change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  2023 report warns that every increment of warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards with more intense heat waves, heavier rainfall and other weather extremes further increasing risks for human health and ecosystems. A newly-inaugurated Johns Hopkins Institute for Planetary health is bringing together experts from different fields with the aim of safeguarding human health on a rapidly changing planet.

The World Meteorological Organization March 2024 report has confirmed 2023 as the hottest year ever, breaking records for surface temperature and ocean heat. This trend warrants the focus of global climate negotiations on global warming and emissions. We have to get over our fossil fuel dependency, and radically bring down greenhouse gas emissions, and yes we have to expand renewable energy. But, as politically challenging as this is proving to be, we are facing a wider set of interrelated systemic issues. It is not just climate change affecting our health, but earth system change. 

With profit and growth so central to our economic thinking, the very profitable combination of the extraction from nature and the exploitation of people, is leading to a negative spiral of decline for people and the planet. Extractivism is leading to environmental destruction. Economic design and planned obsolescence maximize throughput and output and lead to excess resource use, waste and pollution, overshooting planetary boundaries and the carrying capacity of planet Earth. Even with this extractive logic we are not resolving the minimum social floor of poverty, hunger and respect for basic rights. The extreme inequality and concentration of power is affecting governance and further eroding social and environmental standards –  a self-reinforcing race to the bottom. 

By putting planetary health and wellbeing as the central purpose of our economies, we challenge the idea of infinite growth driven by the profit-seeking consumer economy and look instead at what we need to produce and how much, as the post-growth community argues for. We would see a new design of the economy in a way that stops harm happening in the first place, not extractive, but preventive, regenerative and circular, with less use of resources and less waste by design, and better still, putting back more than is taken out.

This changes the goals of business away from strictly profit to generate social and planetary wellbeing, using public policy and public procurement to support this transition with an enabling regulatory environment and a progressive tax system with the right incentives. And it would transform finance, scaling down harmful investments (for example in fossil fuels) and scaling up new purpose-oriented social and environmental objectives, public banks, cooperatives, green investment or social wealth investment funds. 

Such a transition would also be toward a more caring society, recognizing and rewarding the undervalued role of care of people and the planet, addressing issues of poverty and inequality with the provision of universal basic social services, a universal basic income, and hunger zero.

The seeds of such a transition are being sown. Several Well Being Economy Governments are trying out new policy ideas, new wellbeing frameworks and budgets. In 2019, New Zealand implemented the country’s first Wellbeing Budget with the commitment of putting wellbeing and the environment at the heart of policies. Iceland has introduced a wellbeing framework for prosperity and quality of life, focusing on a range of economic, social and environmental indicators. Wales has implemented a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, looking at wellbeing goals, and how policies impact on Future Generations, with the intention to move beyond our obsession with economic growth. A wider new economy and wellbeing economy movement is bringing together the learning from policy practice, local government, and business.

More and more climate and environmental organizations are embracing the need for economic systems change. Greenpeace International is developing an Alternative Futures campaign which proposes addressing the climate and environmental crisis by putting people and planet above growth and profit, through a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, and transitioning to a wellbeing economy.  

Many might not see the urgency of this. The world is caught up in the dilemmas of the digital world, misinformation and disinformation, cyber security, societal polarization, conflict and the short-termism linked to a series of elections, in which an estimated 3 billion people will be voting over the next two years. The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2024 study on the perceptions of global risks sees these as the main short term risks.

But looking longer-term (next 10 years), the top global risks identified by the WEF are all related to the changing climate and earth systems, with extreme weather events; critical change to Earth Systems; biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; and natural resource shortages, the top 4 global risks identified, in that order. 

The most recent IPCC report predicts that adverse climatic and non-climatic risks will increasingly interact, creating complex cascading risks. And the World Economic Forum warns of triggering long-term, self-perpetuating changes to planetary systems, further accelerating and amplifying climate related impacts on a wider scale, with overwhelming costs. 

So let’s not wait another ten years. The cost of not working on this Great Transition for our Planetary Health will be much greater in the future. The time to act is now. Every person, everywhere, from every calling, has a role to play in safeguarding the health of the planet and people for future generations, working to bring about an economic system that puts the well being of people and the planet at the center.

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