Land meets sea at Uruma City, Japan/Ryo Yoshitake © Land meets sea at Uruma City, Japan/Ryo Yoshitake ©

Imagine a world where sustainable development is no longer an oxymoron, one where the Earth is economically and ecologically stable and food and energy needs are met. It’s a place where habitats are preserved and pollution is limited.

Don’t worry – you’re not alone if you can’t.

But according to a recent study published in The Ecological Society of America, this vision is not just imaginable, but it’s attainable. And by 2050 no less.

Head researcher Heather Tallis, the global managing director and lead scientist for strategy innovation at The Nature Conservancy in California, collaborated with researchers at numerous  universities and institutes on a study that used systems modelling to examine whether the demands of population and economic growth could exist alongside the advancement of global conservation goals. They think it’s possible.

It’s about time for some good news.

Recent debates around Canada’s carbon price proposal have been dominated by (mainly conservative) arguments that cite an added expense to taxpayers while questioning the effectiveness of a carbon price to stem the effects of climate change, despite Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer saying the opposite is true.

The idea that economic development and environmental conservation are mutually exclusive is not only unrealistic – it’s destroying us.

In the United States, President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the Paris Agreement on climate change has coincided with a related view that natural resource and conservation policies are economically destructive. And the recent ‘Open for Business’ signs that Ontario Premier Doug Ford has erected at the province’s land borders suggests this way of thinking is prevalent in Canada as well.

It also doesn’t help that climate change, a factual, anthropogenic phenomenon, has morphed into a political tool that’s become subject to debate during election cycles. It’s no secret that when it comes to climate change, many people regard policies advocating for sustainability as unnecessary, expensive and ultimately, not worth the long-term effort.

In developing countries, meanwhile, a disdain for conservation occurs when locals desire rapid development to catch up with the West yet are constrained by regulations. This practice of green imperialism also contravenes human rights: namely, to what extent can Western countries impose control over another’s development when they have already had access to unrestrained growth?

In the face of these two conflicting interests, how can conservation and development work together to achieve a healthy environment and economy?

Option one is a bit gloomy

There are two options, according to Heather Tallis and her research group. Continuing on our current trajectory of consumption for the next three decades and maintaining our existing/degraded environmental conditions affirms what we fear most – more people, more pollution and more degradation. Under these conditions, we can expect an average temperature increase of 3.2℃ in 80 years, far exceeding the limits outlined in the Paris Agreement.

With environmental degradation also comes a decay in human welfare. In only 30 years, the Earth will support 9.7 billion people with a 50 percent increase in demand for food, shelter and energy from current levels. It will be impossible to support all human populations if fisheries are collapsing as a result of overexploitation and natural systems are increasingly converted into agricultural lands.

Over the next 30 years, we know we'll face rapid population growth and greater pressures on our natural resources. The statistics are sobering -- with 9.7 billion people on the planet by 2050, we can expect a 54 percent increase in global food demand and 56 percent increase in energy demand/The Nature Conservancy

In this unchecked scenario, nearly a quarter of the population will lack access to clean drinking water; poor air quality will affect nearly half of all people on the planet. The loss of these natural systems – and their associated ecosystem services – will ultimately mean a decrease in their air-purifying functions, rendering them incapable of helping us mitigate our own anthropogenic effects on the environment.

Alternate future

But there could be an alternate future for these 9.7 billion people. Tallis and her team explored how meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals could impact the effectiveness of these sustainability policies. And given these goals include capping the global average temperature increase to 1.6℃, increasing the use of renewable energies use to reduce greenhouse gases and working towards a ‘no net loss’ approach to natural habitat, meeting the UN SDG’s can play a sizable impact in creating a brighter future.

Under this scenario, air pollution would affect less than 10 percent of the population via more renewable energy use in developing countries and an increase in protected natural areas. Hunger could be reduced with a 100 percent sustainable fishing industry and sustainable agricultural practices that provide more food generated from less land. Human welfare increases. And in tandem, natural ecosystems and biodiversity thrive, too.

The Sustainability scenario aims to show how environmental conditions and human well-being can be improved through expansion of several leading conservation strategies/Photo collection by D Lauridsen and G Dian Balan/TNC Photo Contest 2018

Some days, these conditions seem too good to be true – indeed, Tallis and her team say they may be unreachable if we don’t change our practices by the next decade. In the short term we’ve got to think long term to change how we do everything from manage our fisheries to produce our energy, all while protecting natural ecosystems and the valuable services they provide.

A balanced world is possible, but it’s up to us to ensure this sustainable future. The idea that economic development and environmental conservation are mutually exclusive is not only unrealistic – it’s destroying us. The environment isn’t only for environmentalists anymore – it’s a global concern that underlies our economy, our health and our welfare.

This piece was edited by Andrew Reeves and A\J guest editor Tina Knezevic.

Hai Lin studies Conservation Biology and Biodiversity at University of Toronto. She’s interested in sustainability, green economies and baking. In her spare time, she likes to visit botanical gardens and pretend she lives in a tropical forest rather than a concrete jungle.

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