In the last several months I’ve been amazed – and encouraged — by the high number of impactful articles and reports coming out on key sustainability topics such as food, water, plastics, circularity, and climate change. These writings reflect an understanding of the importance of addressing the many human-driven issues contributing to many of the major challenges set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In addition to several pieces on plastics, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report on The New Plastic Economy, I’ve been particularly struck by two recent reports – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of global warming, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report 2018.
In my last ten-plus years of work on food waste and the food-water-energy nexus, I have also been amazed by the sheer magnitude of the food waste problem, as reflected by numerous impactful statistics. The fact that we waste between 30 and 50% of the global food supply annually (between one and two billion tons) while 800 million global citizens are hungry is of course, one of the most impactful and concerning (and is even more so now that hunger figures have ticked upward after years of decline). Another often cited statistic: If ranked as a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind the U.S. and China. That’s staggering. And others from FAO: Food waste’s carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of annual GHG emissions. Fully 28% of the world’s agricultural area (1.4 billion hectares) is used to produce food that is lost or wasted. And in terms of water use, WRI notes that annual global food waste involves the waste of 45 trillion gallons of water – which amounts to 24% of all water used for agriculture.
Closely related to food waste is the plastics problem. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent report provides a plethora of equally concerning facts about plastics. First, the volume of plastics production is staggering. The authors note that plastics production totaled 311 million tonnes in 2014 and is expected to double within 20 years (just after our 2030 goals come due). Further, 95% of plastic packaging is “lost to the economy” after one use, and 8 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the oceans annually (equivalent to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute). Plastics remain in the ocean for hundreds of years, so that by 2025 the ratio of plastics to fish in the ocean could total one to three. Without significant action, we could have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
All of these statistics are alarming, and at times I think they are perceived as almost too big – so daunting that they lead many individuals to avoid them out of feelings of hopelessness rather than embracing them and becoming advocates for change. I’ve specifically been searching for some core aspect that has the potential to galvanize individuals to change behavior regarding food waste, to really adopt a new mindset which properly values food resources and accelerates the path to achieving the Target 12.3 goal of 50% reduction by 2030.
I keep returning to the fact that most individuals want to leave their children in a better place. Typically, that involves leaving financial resources, or perhaps a house or other valuable asset(s). But whatever assets we have to leave them, they don’t matter much if we don’t also leave them an environment that is habitable in which to enjoy them. We’re well on the way to the uninhabitable side, and we’re getting plenty of signals from Nature that we’d better give the state of the environment urgent consideration.
That’s why the recent IPCC and World Wildlife reports are so critically important. Both clearly lay out the need for change that will require sustainable practices and circular production systems to halt our negative impact on climate and biodiversity – and both have a framing around choice. As FAO noted on World Food Day, our actions will determine our future.
The IPCC report, for example, notes that human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming over pre-industrial levels, and that figure is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues at the current rate (i.e. if we don’t change the drivers). The authors note that climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher than present in a 1.5°C scenario, and higher still for a 2.0°C scenario. Lowering the impact of global warming to 1.5°C versus 2.0°C is predicted to have lower negative impacts on terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems, and it is estimated to reduce increases in ocean temperature – thereby reducing risks to marine biodiversity and fisheries.
The IPCC report also notes that a range of climate-related risks (health, food security, water, human security) are estimated to increase with global warming of 1.5°C, and increase even further at 2.0°C. And not surprisingly, adaptation needs will be lower at 1.5°C versus 2.0°C. And the kicker: pathways to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement would not limit global warming to 1.5°C “even if supplemented by very aggressive increases in the scale and ambition of emissions reductions after 2030.” That’s a very concerning statement, indicating that humanity’s most collaborative effort to address global warming to date is insufficient at the objective level (without even getting to the actions needed to make it happen). Further, the report notes that the only way to avoid “overshooting” the 1.5°C mark (and therefore placing heavy reliance on unproven carbon dioxide removal (CDR) as a saving measure) is if global CO2 emissions begin to decline well before 2030 – and that’s highly unlikely.
So the IPCC report paints a stark picture – but it also lays out the choice we face. We can seek urgent global collaboration and action for global warming reduction, or we can continue to operate as is and let future generations pay the price.
In addition, the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) recent Living Planet Report (2018) has a similar frame around choice – and action. The report notes the impact on our natural systems of “The Great Acceleration” – the surge in population and economic development since 1800 that has led to sharp increases in demand for energy, land, and water – and the dangers of continuing on our current destructive path. The authors cover runaway consumption patterns, habitat disruption, land and soil degradation, deforestation, ocean plastics, declines in freshwater ecosystems, threats to biodiversity, planetary boundaries, and more.
In his Foreword, Marco Lambertini notes that we are pushing our planet “to the very brink,” citing the 60% decline in the size of animal populations in the last 40+ years. Notably, he points out there has never been more awareness about the impact of humanity on the planet – and that “the science has never been clearer.” And with that knowledge comes a powerful responsibility – “we can no longer ignore the warning signs” that we are seeing, and “there is no excuse for inaction.”
Lambertini emphasizes that we need to urgently transition to a net carbon-neutral society in the near term – a point supported by the IPCC report – and preserve sufficient land and ocean resources to sustain all life on the planet. His points are reflected in our ultimate challenge of sustainably feeding 9.6 billion by 2050.
He also notes that we must overcome two main problems. We must shift cultural attitudes to cease taking Nature for granted. And second, from an economic standpoint, we must address current unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Significantly, Lambertini notes that we have a choice. We are facing our generation’s greatest challenge, and we have enough information to make an informed choice for change in what he terms “a rapidly closing window for action.”
In a nutshell, it’s decision time, and it’s action time.
I often reflect on the fact that our parents’ generation is frequently referred to as “the greatest generation” for winning World War II and freeing the world from tyranny. It’s a worthy comparison to note that our generation now has a watershed opportunity to change the course of the world as well – we can choose actions that set pathways to ensure a sustainable future for life on Earth, or we can fail to act and put the next generation at extreme risk from potentially irreversible changes to climate and natural systems.
As a parent who wants to leave a better world for my children, I’m for the latter.