This special issue of Solutions celebrates this year’s most important environmental event: the Rio de Janeiro summit on sustainable development in June. Twenty years have passed since the first Earth Summit in 1992, and we need an urgent reevaluation of how our economies depend on our environment.
Since 1992, the earth’s population has grown from 5.4 billion to more than 7 billion—a leap of almost 30 percent. This has had a knock-on effect on global use of natural resources, in tandem with increasing per capita consumption levels. Although greenhouse gas emissions have fallen in Europe, globally they have jumped by approximately a third over 20 years, and the total metric tons of natural resources extracted has also leapt by a third in the same period. These figures mask huge inequalities—per capita resource use and emissions are many times higher in some countries than others.
We should all be worried by our ever-increasing use of minerals, water, oil, and gas. As Penny Sackett describes compellingly in this issue, global reserves of many unheralded but vital elements are on the verge of being exhausted. She states that re-mining these elements from landfill sites may meet some demand, but it is clearly impossible for the current rate of consumption to go on forever.
Technology experts often talk about systems that are “future proof”—those that will be useful long into the future and that are able to endure foreseeable challenges. Our current economies do not meet that test. If we are going to decouple economic growth from resource use effectively and efficiently, we need to approach these resources very differently.
Fortunately, there is one resource that is not being depleted. In fact this resource has grown immensely. Moreover, when humans use and share it, this resource improves and grows still further. That resource is information, and it can help us reorient our approach to natural resource use.
Over the last 20 years, our understanding of the environment and natural resource issues has improved dramatically, as Katherine Richardson and Ole Wæver argue in their piece on the future of resource management. Organizations like the European Environment Agency, founded shortly after the first Rio summit, are already playing an active role in this improved understanding of the environment.
In many countries, especially in Europe, pollution of our air and water has decreased dramatically. We successfully banned many of the substances damaging the ozone layer. And several species of animals have been pulled back from the brink of extinction.
We know what works, and we can do more of it. And if we share what we have learned we can help others do more too. The spread of agroforestry in Haiti is one such example, the restoration of degraded ecosystems in places like China another—both described in this issue.
Better information can also show that, in some cases, our resources are not “exploited” enough, or are not exploited intelligently. By informing people’s choices we hope to help tip the balance toward more rational behavior. Once we recognize the need for a sustainable economy, we can start building it—as Van Jones and Gus Speth urge.
That process can start at Rio.
International agreements have not always been successful—but for issues where the global commons is at stake, international agreements may be the only option. We can learn from past agreements that have succeeded in bringing us together as a global community. The question is not whether we should try to create ambitious international agreements, but how. Sustainable Development Goals are one way forward from Rio, giving us a chance to establish concrete targets for changing the way governments measure progress. But whatever agreement is reached, the outlines of a fairer, greener economy are becoming clearer.