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Forget about Climate Commitments…

By Mathis Wackernagel, Global Footprint Network

In the third installment of our ongoing series “Three Decades & Counting: Insights from successes and failures in 30+ years of communicating about sustainability,” Mathis Wackernagel  discusses the importance of  making human wellbeing and resource security central components of the climate conversation.

Moving out of carbon means transforming into a regenerative economy. It means living off of what nature can renew. Since living off depletion is not a viable long-term strategy, the transition will happen, whether we like it or not. It’s up to us to decide how: by design or by disaster?

Prosperity requires material inputs which all come from nature. If humanity transitions rapidly to living again within nature’s budget, we increase our chances of future prosperity. In this case, our assets will be more valuable: we will have the right infrastructure and better management strategies in place. Further, fast action will temper climate damage and help us maintain more biological resource regeneration.

In contrast, if humanity moves slowly, we all will be faced with less ecosystem regeneration in the future.

Human wellbeing as the focus

The fundamental concern to most societies is securing human wellbeing. Therefore, it may be counterproductive to position climate action as a goal – rather, it is a necessity for securing human wellbeing. By making climate action the goal, we make it a competitor to human wellbeing, when in reality it is an enabler. Therefore, commitments need to focus on human wellbeing – and the recognition that wellbeing will not last without climate action.

The deep challenge is how we can enable a thriving future for all, given:

  • increased climate change and resource scarcity,
  • the need to operate without fossil fuel within a couple of decades (or earlier),
  • the narrowing of energy options as fossil fuel cannot just be replaced with resources that merely shift the demand on other portions of the biosphere, such as using more wood for fuel, and
  • a still growing human population with many unmet material needs.

Traditional approaches to carbon reduction treat carbon as an “externality” or a separate silo that can be managed as a single issue. They propose to run detailed carbon inventories, tracking scope 1, 2, and 3 of cities’ carbon footprints, and provide plenty of forms and calculators. But such approaches turn decarbonization into a conditionality; they become additional requirements that make already difficult conventional city management even more demanding. Such efforts will be seen as an extra cost, a noble effort that competes with all other important and urgent needs that are also underfunded: health care, education, public safety, potholes, workable transportation systems, food security, etc.

In contrast, successful carbon strategies produce results if addressed as an integral necessity for human wellbeing. Carbon strategies cannot win if they are competing with other needs. They must be enablers for human wellbeing. Because lasting wellbeing can only succeed with strategies informed by the real climate and resource constraints every city and country faces.

Prioritizing resource security

Climate stability and resource security are neither luxuries nor nice-to-haves. Addressing these fundamentals goes far beyond an additional noble task. It is essential for securing a functioning economy. Resource security is most immediately critical for lower-income populations. These populations do not have the extra savings to buy themselves out of a squeeze.

Currently, most economic development theory or practice build on a depletion model. We destroy assets, particularly nature, as we produce income; the destruction is not the purpose, but a seemingly inconsequential side-effect. The real trick is to shift development to a model based on regenerative value creation, where we truly build our city’s or country’s wealth, so income can be maintained now and in the future.

The strategic questions for any city, company or country become:

  • How much nature do we use in our country and our city?
  • How much nature do we have in our region, our country, and in the world?
  • Which domains (food, shelter, mobility, etc.) contribute to what percentage of the total demand? And what are the trends?
  • Where do we want to be? More specifically, which demand to regeneration ratio do we want to achieve to thrive now and in the future, given the physical realities within which we live? (These realities are shaped by ecological constraints and the need to move out of fossil fuel)
  • How does this desire translate into priorities, for budgets and policies?
  • How can we invest our public and private budgets most effectively to maximize wealth generation?
  • How can we determine the relative benefits of options? And,
  • Are the imagined options good enough to serve our need to secure our wellbeing now and in the future?

Widening our lens

To understand the entirety of resource dependence forces us to go beyond carbon. It is more helpful to consider all resource demands that compete for the planet’s limited regeneration. Ecological Footprint and biocapacity accounting (https://data.footprintnetwork.org) take such a comprehensive approach. These accounts include all human demands that compete for nature, including the need for sequestration of anthropogenic carbon. They also show us how much regeneration is available, locally or globally.

What does this all mean? To succeed, we do not need stand-alone climate commitments. Rather we need to focus on how to manage for lasting wellbeing, realizing that this is not possible without being resource secure. Investing in our company’s, city’s or country’s success therefore necessitates actions that are also profoundly beneficial for the climate. These actions enable our success.

Municipal, corporate, and national leaders who want to become equipped to deal with the climate crisis would be best served by strengthening their abilities to answer the above questions, so they can find the most effective ways to enhance wellbeing, given the climate and resource realities in which we increasingly operate. It is not about extra budgets for the climate; rather it is about how to use existing budgets in a way that strengthens true, regenerative wealth creation, enhancing our ability to thrive now and in the future.

Let’s take our wellbeing seriously, because this will help us recognize how fundamental, if not existential, bold climate action is.

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Creation of this content generously funded by the MAVA Foundation for Nature