On Tuesday, the World Bank issued a report outlining how it will work to foster economic development that conserves natural resources and limits pollution even as it provides transportation, energy and food to a growing population. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has unveiled an initiative called “Sustainable Energy for All,” which is likely to become a focus of discussions at Rio along with a push to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies. Ban’s proposal aims to double energy efficiency and double renewable sources in the global energy mix by 2030 while providing reliable lighting and heating to the more than 1.3 billion who still lack it.
“I think everyone will know where we need to go coming out of Rio. Our job is to show, ‘Here’s one way to do it,’ ” said Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president for sustainable development. “We don’t have to have global agreements. It would be nice. . . .
It would be a whole lot easier if we had them, but we can move forward without them.”
Many are looking to the business community to take the lead at this point, by integrating environmental concerns into their everyday operations. Ceres, a group of investors, companies and nonprofit groups, recently conducted a survey of 600 major U.S. companies and found that just a quarter of them had incorporated sustainability into the way their firms were governed, and only a third had targets with a specific date for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, it noted that Coca-Cola was on track to improve its water efficiency this year by 20 percent compared with 2004, and Intel has cut its greenhouse gas emissions 8 percent two years after tying employee and executive compensation to meeting the firm’s environmental targets.
“Companies are getting it, that climate, water depletion and natural resource scarcity are business risks, not off-balance-sheet risks,” said Ceres President Mindy Lubber. Still, she added, “we’ve got an awfully long way to go.”
In the meantime, however, researchers continue to publish sobering findings. The UNEP report noted that indoor air pollution from fine particles — emitted from cookstoves and other sources — causes nearly 2 million premature deaths a year, including 900,000 deaths in children younger than 5.
The world missed its U.N. target for achieving a significant cut in the loss of species by 2010, it added.
In some ways, global connectivity and rising incomes are helping fuel these problems. One paper Nature published Wednesday, authored by six researchers from Australia, Japan and Italy, found that 30 percent of the threats facing species worldwide stem from international trade, whether it is palm oil production or mining.
The most daunting assessment may have come from a team of 22 scientists from five nations that warned that humans have radically changed 43 percent of the Earth’s surface from its natural state, far outpacing the 30 percent change that helped trigger the last planetary-scale environmental shift roughly 11,000 years ago, when glaciers advanced and then retreated.
The paper’s lead author, Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley, said that although it is impossible to predict an exact moment when this change could occur, “what we’re trying to convey is that these planetary tipping points actually do happen.”
If development keeps up at its current pace, he added, humans will have transformed 50 percent of the world’s land by 2025, and the consequences could be dramatic.
“People don’t do so well with rapid change because we base our whole economic system and food production and way of life expecting what is natural now is going to be natural going into the future,” he said, adding that many policymakers have not grasped how interconnected their communities now are. “People tend to think on a very local scale, and that’s what we actually need to get away from, both scientifically and politically. We have to realize in some sense, there is no local scale anymore.”