Extinction Rebellion 2019, New York
Extinction Rebellion 2019, New York. Photo: Felton Davis

Opinion: The related extinction and climate crises that are threatening the survival of life on earth can only be solved by reducing our ecological footprint – systematically curbing impacts and repairing nature to a level that sustains us within the planet’s means.

“We are facing a climate catastrophe.” These are not just the words of tree-hugging Gaia-worshippers. They were said this week by the Legal & General insurance company, the UK’s largest money manager, which last year blacklisted many companies for being unsustainable.

“As financial policymakers and prudential supervisors we cannot ignore the obvious physical risks before our eyes. Climate change is a global problem,” it said in a statement.

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, and Villeroy de Galhau, said the same in an article in the UK Guardian newspaper last week, as they called on financial institutions everywhere “to raise the bar to address… climate-related risks and to ‘green’ the financial system”.

The wave of protests sweeping around cities across the world – International Extinction Rebellion – is aimed at common sense to prevail in the face of the overwhelming threats facing the planet, organisers say. 

The plain fact is that all money spent everywhere must now be only spent sustainably: to meet our needs while also rebuilding and repairing our planet.

Not unlike the immediate French and worldwide response to the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral, we must all, especially our leaders, pledge to take urgent action. Watching this global icon go up in flames has struck the hearts and souls of people around the world; within a few days almost €1 billion (AU $1.57 billion) has been pledged to rebuild it. 

Rebecca Johnson, a former Greenham Common anti-nuclear protestor, on BBC News compared this to the extinction crisis: “Imagine millions of Notre Dames, all over the world, and not just art and history, but full of people, animals, plants and insects, the biodiversity. That is what the protesters are concerned that leaders are doing nothing about.”

The movement’s articulate young visionary, Greta Thunberg, told an assembly of European members of parliament this week: “We need cathedral-like thinking”. 

Watch this speech. She cries as she laments the rate of extinction of species. “Forget Brexit, tackle climate change,” she tells the MEPs, to a standing ovation. “Our house is falling apart and our leaders need to start acting accordingly and they are not.”

As she was speaking, and all the following week, the streets of European cities were blocked by Extinction Rebellion protesters, who have pledged not to stop blocking traffic until their demands are met.

Some city leaders are already responding. 

New Zealand’s Environment Canterbury councillors have said that they will consider declaring a climate emergency at the regional council’s next meeting following talks with Extinction Rebellion Aotearoa NZ.

About 100 cities and towns in the UK have already passed resolutions declaring a climate emergency. 

The Climate Mobilization website is attempting to keep track of all cities in Switzerland, North America, Australia and the UK that have declared a climate emergency and has so far logged about 460 of them, including 18 in Australia, such as Darebin, Yarra, Vincent, Victoria, Gawler, Mariby, Hawkesbury and Adelaide Hills.

In California there’s Los Angeles, Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland and Santa Cruz, to name but a few.

But the question for everybody is what does a council do to follow up, having passed the resolution?

To meet the demands of the resolution they have to become carbon neutral by 2030 at the latest. They also have to include the population in their decision-making.

This will need action on many fronts.

There is a solution.

All cities must become “one planet” cities

A campaign is beginning to persuade cities, towns and communities to declare “one planet” status that allows them to plan and track a path into the “safe and just space” defined by the work of Kate Raworth and others, where the basic needs of citizens are met without damaging the planet.

The framework proposed is a way for any town and city to work out how to #MoveTheDate of their Earth Overshoot Day (a measure of unsustainability) to become more and more sustainable over time using a framework like this.

You can start this process in your own town, wherever you live. 

The aim is to make all cities regenerative, based on circular economies and renewable energy, to ensure we live within our means. The solutions already exist. Policies to support them must be based on evidence, not on ideology, belief systems or loyalties, because we are all in this together. 

Policymaking has not caught up with the fact that humanity crossed the threshold of “one planet” living and began living in deficit way back at the beginning of the 1970s. This is why we need data, indicators and standards to relate our activities to what the biosphere of our planet can tolerate. 

The six-step path towards One Planet Cities and communities

  1. Obtain community buy-in and feedback at all levels 

Hold a series of public meetings and online and off-line consultations to explain the context and aims in order to obtain feedback and community buy-in. This might take a year.

  1. Decide which standards and objectives to use 

These will include a methodology and accounting system and be applicable to all sectors such as soils, biodiversity, water, energy, buildings, transport, well-being, etc. They must include ecological footprinting.

  1. Set baseline – the current situation 

Use data and surveys to ascertain the starting point from which goals will be set: On the supply side, the productivity of its ecological biocapacity (greenspace and water bodies). On the demand side, the ecological footprint – assets/resources required to produce the natural resources and services it consumes.

  1. Set targets for each sector over realistic timescales 

A system similar to that applied by the UK Climate Change Commission could be adopted, along with the Global Footprint Network’s Net Present Value Plus (NPV+) tool to test the results of different scenarios. A set of five year plans may result, each with a budget and a set of targets. The overall target could be, say, 40 or 50 years away, to meet everybody’s basic needs within planetary limits. Each short-term target will be a step closer to the overall one. Each sector (biocapacity, water, energy, buildings, transport, industry) will have its own schedule.

  1. Set in place ways to measure them 

This should be based on what data is easy and cost-effective to gather, and relate to the baseline situation, chosen metrics and sector targets. The data should be transparent and publicly available. Everybody should be able to view the progress being made.

  1. Ratchet down consumption over one or two generations

Each five-year plan will have its own evaluation period to check that all expected benefits are occuring, to share experiences, to accommodate criticisms, to potentially revise plans, and to celebrate successes.

If a population’s ecological footprint exceeds the region’s biocapacity, that region runs an ecological deficit. 

Almost all regions are in ecological deficit

…which almost all regions now do. A region in ecological deficit meets demand by importing, liquidating its own ecological assets (such as overfishing), and/or emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It must therefore identify the origins, destinations and impacts of consumption. 

It would then be possible to model the effects of changes of policy and practice towards a circular economy upon the related biocapacity. 

Tracking the Human Development Index (a measure of how human needs are being satisfied) against the ecological footprint over a time period can indicate the direction of progress. 

Government agencies at all levels can manage their capital investments in a fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable way by using ecological footprint accounting and the Global Footprint Network’s Net Present Value Plus (NPV+) tool. 

The traditional net present value (NPV) formula used by economists adds up revenue and expenditures over a period of time and discounts those cash flows by the cost of money (an interest rate), revealing the lifetime value of an investment in present terms. 

GFN’s NPV+ tool adds to this calculation currently unpriced factors, such as the cost of environmental degradation, and benefits like ecological resiliency. 

All costs and benefits – even those where no monetary exchange occurs – thereby can be seen as “cash flows”, and can be evaluated using different future scenarios. 

This will provide a more accurate and useful guidance on the long-term value of the investment, because it makes reference to the ecological footprint of the project in question. 

The ecological footprint can therefore help to identify which issues need to be addressed most urgently to generate political will and guide policy action. It can improve understanding of the problems, enable comparisons across regions and raise stakeholder awareness. 

Identify hotspots

By identifying footprint “hot-spots”, policymakers can prioritise policies and actions, often in the context of a broader sustainability policy. 

Footprint time trends and projections can be used to monitor the short- and longterm effectiveness of policies.

By understanding where the best long-term value is, policies can be oriented toward better outcomes, building wealth, avoiding stranded assets and leaving a better legacy for future generations. 

The standard PAS 2070 can assist with monitoring cities’ carbon footprints of consumption and production. ISO standards cover environmental management, energy management and life-cycle analysis to help put in place procedures for reducing impacts. 

At the same time, all citizens and politicians need to do more to raise awareness about the issues.

If you want support in doing this in your neighbourhood, get in touch.

We can do this. It just needs a massive, concerted effort.

David Thorpe is the author of the book  The ‘One Planet’ Life and the forthcoming bookOne Planet’ Cities.

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  1. regarding this statement… Extinction Debt is so much more crucial to our own human extinction! should perhaps read “so much more crucial to preventing or slowing our own human extinction”

  2. Hi David – thanks very much for this article and the previous other dealing with a similar subject “It’s time for all investors to wake up and save the planet”. It seems people are either awkward and embarrassed or else unable and unwilling, to talk about saving the planet, be it on line responses or in social conversation.

    Judging by responses (were there any responses?) to your excellent and timely article “It’s time for all investors..” and for comparison say, the many job-centred responses to “Tim Williams: Why we need to plan our cities for the jobs of the future”, it is worth exploring that discrepancy, as it is an ominous and scary reflection on our anthropocentricity.

    We humans can talk endlessly about social and economic issues but life-supporting matters are difficult or taboo. So Fifth Estate is to be congratulated for putting forward articles that compel these issues into media focus. Will we be able to discourse the future of the planet in the ecological language that we need to use, quickly enough to get the essence of what to do to change the status quo ?

    The answer to this question is (exactly what is being done by this media) to bring these environment-related articles into direct juxtaposition with articles about socio-economic matters like investing and construction, planning and policy. We need to force government to take notice of people brave enough to broach soft environmental discussion about survival – in the face of pure profit and promotion of stadiums.

    The effort to save Ecology should be especially strong in environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) where forests and rivers and wetlands form the last bastion of wildlife in Australia. This is where the Extinction Rebellion needs special support – since the dynamics of population collapse as a result of habitat/food source loss are invisible – until it is too late. We find it so easy to talk of financial debt but so hard to discourse Extinction Debt.

    Yet the latter debt is so much more crucial to our own human extinction!
    The neo-liberal propensity to put finance and accounting into the so-called protection of Nature has led to gross practices of offsetting which has become the buzzword for protecting the other buzzword – biodiversity. The result is (due to our anthropocentricity)a Life-supporting matter is easier to discuss in financial terms rather than in biological terms.

    Not sure what the answer is at such a late stage in conservation of other than human species. All that can be said is thanks to Fifth Estate and yourself, endgame topics about Nature are actually brought front and centre by responsible media, and sharing them with others is made possible.
    Thanks again!