7 July 2020
Agreeing on Transformative Action under Extraordinary Conditions
UN Photo/Logan Abassi
story highlights

A synthesis of lessons from five major global environmental assessments reveals that any approach aimed at enabling transformative change over the long-term should address the root causes of environmental degradation.

It is important for this year’s HLPF to stress the integrated nature of the challenges, to recognize the need for policy coherence by creating policy synergies where possible, and deliberately accepting trade-offs where these are unavoidable.

This year’s High-Level Political Forum will be different from previous HLPF sessions. Normally, numerous delegations from across the globe flock to UN Headquarters in New York. This year, the final format of the annual event on SDG performance has been based on recommendations from the UN medical doctor. As a result, the HLPF will take place online. But while the global health situation impedes a full-fledged, in person HLPF event, the meeting is more urgent than ever, perhaps even more so because other global summits on climate and biodiversity have been postponed.

For sure, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will influence the HLPF: how will we keep on track, or get back on track, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, especially in light of the emerging worldwide economic crisis? But already, several months before the pandemic was declared, 2020-2030 had been baptized a ‘decade of action’, and rightly so. The impact of corona should only strengthen the conviction that this year’s HLPF should put us on track towards transformative action.

The motto for the 2020 HLPF could not have been chosen better: “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”. At PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, we are currently synthesizing lessons from five major global environmental assessments. We will publish this study later this year, but we are happy to share some overall findings that link to this year’s HLPF.

A unanimous call for urgent action

A quintet of unison voices. That is how we would characterize the UNCCD Global Land Outlook, the IPCC report on Global Warming of 1.5 OC, UNEP’s 6th Global Environment Outlook, the IPBES Global Assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services and UNEP-IRP’s Global Resources Outlook. The assessments agree that the international community should tackle global environmental challenges head-on. Even with full implementation of nationally stated mitigation ambitions (NDCs) the world is headed towards 3ºC global warming. Business as usual means continuing changes related to land use and decreasing  soil productivity. Negative trends in nature, ecosystem services and nature’s contribution to people are likely to continue and may even accelerate. These trends not only leave internationally agreed environmental goals unachieved, but also increase risks for human well-being and achievement of the SDGs.

Incremental change is insufficient. Accelerated action and transformative pathways are clearly needed. While this message is not new, the remaining time for putting words into action has shrunk considerably. See for example a recent comment in Nature showing what a wasted decade means in terms of intensified action to achieve the Paris Agreement on climate change goals. The fact that the international community has lost time means there will be  fewer policy options , while trade-offs between achievement of various goals may intensify.

Root causes and policy coherence

All five assessments point in the same direction: any approach aimed at enabling transformative change over the long-term should address the root causes of environmental degradation. Think of societal values that underly lifestyles and production choices, consumption patterns, inequality, externalities and footprints, technological innovation, and the financial system. An example of such an approach is financial institutions identifying the physical, transitional and reputational risks in their portfolios resulting from the loss of biodiversity, as recommended by the Dutch central bank DNB and PBL in a recent study. This is an important step towards incorporating nature’s values into the financial system.

Climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss are highly interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Not only do they affect each other negatively and share similar root causes, the available solutions intensify their interlinkages. The assessments highlight consumption change, resource efficiency and ecosystem restoration as highly synergistic across various environmental and human development objectives, while land-based mitigation measures and agricultural intensification are associated with numerous trade-offs. It is important for this year’s HLPF to stress the integrated nature of the challenges, and to recognize the need for policy coherence by creating policy synergies where possible, and deliberately accepting trade-offs where these are unavoidable. For example, to address the multiple claims on land the assessments explicitly point to integrated landscape and spatial planning approaches. Natural capital accounts can aid such approaches.

Changing consumption patterns

Compared to earlier assessments, the five that we are studying pay much more attention to the contribution of changing consumption patterns towards achieving environmental goals. Awareness is growing that many technological solutions also have their downsides, and sometimes risk narrowing the solution space available for future generations. An example is the search for different ways of removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Many technologies to this end have significant impacts on land, energy, water, and nutrients, especially if deployed at large scale. Combinations of measures that consider interlinkages between environmental issues and include strong contributions from consumption changes can be more effective and efficient. Such combinations imply that current generations with a high environmental impact shift their consumption significantly. As consumption patterns are largely determined by social routine and changes in routines do not happen overnight, policy efforts should start sooner rather than later.

Keeping the momentum

Now that other big summits have been postponed (in particular, the climate change conference in Glasgow, UK, and the biodiversity conference in Kunming, China have both been moved into 2021), it is to be hoped that the HLPF, even while taking place under strange conditions, will retain momentum and chart a path for the coming years. One thing is sure: with the five global assessments, a clear and consistent knowledge base is available for the national delegates to take a well-informed, science-based position when negotiating the Declaration that will be adopted at the end of the Forum.

This guest article was authored by Paul Lucas, Senior researcher, Sustainable development and international climate policy, PBL; Timo Maas, Researcher, Environmental policy PBL; and Evert-Jan Brouwer, Senior spokesperson and communications adviser. PBL.


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