To Preserve the Earth, Rethink Our Relationship with Nature

This is a big year for the planet. Just look at the United Nations’ calendar.

Just last week, the global community saw the launch of the U.N.’s new and ambitious 15-year Sustainable Development Goals. And in December, leaders will be convening at the U.N.’s Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris with the hopes of coming to a worldwide agreement — after more than 20 years in the process — to reverse runaway carbon emissions and minimize climate change.

Humanity has the opportunity this year to take a huge step in transforming our current course for the better.

In the run-up to COP21, more conversations have shifted to the nexus of food, water and energy, and about poverty, climate change and risk. It’s become a familiar story and the mid-century projections are well documented. By 2050, the planet faces the challenges of providing for more than 9 billion people, including:

  • A food supply that will need to double.
  • As much as a 40 percent deficit in clean water compared with anticipated demand.
  • Expanded urban infrastructure to support three out of four people living in cities.
  • Nearly 2 billion more people with electricity.
  • The need to maintain economic growth while reducing carbon pollution.

All of this discussion boils down to one word: development.

Sustainable development needs sustainable conservation

When businesses, governments and pundits talk about developing “sustainably,” we’ve tended to provide adequate detail and clarity around the material things we need, and then caveat those needs with the vague recognition that we must do it all “within the boundaries of what nature can provide.” It’s almost as if the “sustainable” in sustainable development has been an afterthought.

But the new U.N. Sustainable Development goals represent progress in recognizing that the success of the 21st-century development story — increasing economic growth and prosperity while solving poverty, disease, hunger, climate change and inequality — depends in no small part on what people do with the natural world.

Despite the ominous facts and figures, this is a story about opportunity — to be smarter about farming and ranching practices; where and how to set up mining, oil, gas and renewable energy activities; and preserving the services of crucial natural infrastructure as a central part of expanding urban spaces.

And to understand the opportunity, we need to understand the risks. Until now, there hasn’t been a great picture of how expected future development will affect nature’s future.

A starkly different landscape

A new study from The Nature Conservancy — our Global Development Risk Assessment — now offers that glimpse. It’s the most complete look, to date, at the potential impact global growth will have on forests, grasslands and other natural ecosystems that people depend on worldwide.

Bottom line: a full 20 percent, or nearly 2 billion hectares, of the world’s remaining natural lands could be developed by just the middle of this century. That’s an area double the size of the United States.

If nations do this poorly, this development could drastically change the lives of long-standing human communities that have lived in harmony with their lands for millennia. The planet will lose clean water and critical climate regulation. And, we will lose iconic plants, animals, savannas and forests. All priceless ingredients of a sustainable future, and nearly irrecoverable once they’re gone.

South America and Africa will be ground zero. According to our study, the amount of natural land converted to working land in South America could double, while in Africa it is set to triple. These two continents stand to look wildly different than they do today.

Even more staggering: Only 5 percent of natural lands considered to be at the highest risk for development are under protection today.

This key finding tells us two important things:

  1. These critical places are completely vulnerable, and
  2. Conservationists must think beyond traditional land protection to find solutions that work with development — we must do more.

A big-picture approach

Nations and other stakeholders now have an opportunity to get ahead of the growth curve, to bring world-class science to the development decision-making fore, and to make conservation a central part of smart development strategies.

This starts by simply taking a bigger-picture approach to development choices. Governments, companies and communities must trade the narrow single-outcome decision-making of the past in exchange for more fully informed planning across entire landscapes.

When we evaluate resource, conservation and community needs across entire landscapes, we are able to make better choices about where and how to satisfy those needs in concert rather than conflict.

And this landscape-scale approach has applications for climate-change mitigation as well, through a combination of land protection, restoration and sustainable use practices that maximize the conservation of forests and other crucial natural carbon stores. The science and decision-support tools exist to make this happen, and progress is already being made in rapidly growing places like Brazil and Indonesia.

Fundamentally, ensuring sustainable development and reversing climate change is about transforming our relationship with nature — how we think about it, value it and use it.

Right now we have a historic chance to show the world what that transformation should look like.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on

This article links to a session at the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum (5-6, December in Paris): Green Growth Compacts: Realizing the promise of sustainable development.




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