Interview: Professor Johan Rockström, Global Commons Alliance
If we are to arrest climate change, safeguarding the global commons – the areas and ecosystems of our planet on which we all depend – is an absolute priority. With over 40,000 fires burning across the Amazon rainforest this year, the world woke up to this ecosystem’s role as a global commons – an essential part of Earth’s life support systems. But the Amazon is just one of many global commons under threat, including the oceans, ice sheets, biodiversity, freshwater and carbon cycle. A new initiative, the Global Commons Alliance (GCA) is instrumental in catalysing efforts to help stabilise these systems and guide businesses and cities towards planetary stewardship.
In a significant statement of philanthropic intent, four of Europe’s most influential foundations tackling climate change have today announced substantial funding of the Global Commons Alliance pledging in excess of $13 million for the next three years. These pledges, made by Porticus, Oak Foundation, Good Energies Foundation and MAVA Foundation, will enable the alliance to deliver an ambitious agenda to identify science-based targets for Earth’s life support system. The funding is in addition to the $3 million already provided by these foundations as start-up funds in 2019, when they joined the Ikea Foundation, the Global Environment Facility and ClimateWorks Foundation in financing key components of the alliance.
So what will the money do? Will other funders follow suit? And how will the Global Commons Alliance complement other efforts to counter climate change? Professor Johan Rockström is director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a leading figure in the GCA. Rockström explains to Alliance magazine’s associate editor, Andrew Milner, what must be done to safeguard the stability of the natural systems that determine the state of the planet, our global commons.
How did the Global Commons Alliance come about and what’s your part in it?
The initiative for the Global Commons Alliance was taken by Naoko Ishii, the head of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). She asked the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre to produce a report summarising what the latest systems science on planetary boundaries means for the global commons. The GEF invests $1.5 billion on implementing the 1992 UN Rio convention focusing almost entirely on ecosystem management projects at the local scale. Naoko Ishii was concerned that, as we now live in an interconnected world where humanity poses unprecedented pressure on the planet as a whole, we need to become better stewards of the commons for the sake of securing Earth stability and economic development. That report led to the Global Commons Initiative which includes a partnership between GEF, the World Economic Forum, World Resource Institute, IUCN, WWF, and We Mean Business. So from the beginning, the initiative involved business, policy and science. I have been there with Naoko as the science representative.
Quite early, we recognised that one flagship project of this initiative would be to develop science-based targets for a stable Earth system, to be co-designed and operationalised by business and cities. This builds neatly on from the World Resource Institute’s (WRI) science-based target initiative for climate. It has been very successful with companies around the world adopting quantitative science-based targets for climate. And now, more and more businesses are demanding to take a step from climate to the whole planet. In other words, to have quantitative targets for biodiversity, water, land, oceans, effectively for all planetary boundaries that determine the state of the planet.
In that process, myself and other scientists thought, ‘this is a very promising development but we also need a scientific machinery that can inform those science-based targets. That gave birth to the idea of the Earth Commission, which will attempt to do a global scientific assessment, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) does for the climate, for all the processes and systems that regulate the stability of the Earth system. In doing so, it will be the upstream provider of science into the science-based targets work. So that’s basically what the Global Commons Alliance is about. I was originally there as a co-author of the report that justified the redefinition of the global commons and I’ve been involved in designing the science-based targets for the Earth system and subsequently also suggesting the idea of the Earth Commission.
So the science-based targets and Earth Commission are the core elements of the GCA?
Yes, these are the currently most developed core elements. Then we have two additional pillars namely the Earth HQ, which is an innovative communications and engagement platform, and a pillar on systems change, which will advance thinking and ideas on how to restructure institutions and scale action.
You mentioned a redefinition of the global commons? How do you understand them?
In its original definition, we can define global commons as the parts of our planet that nobody owns. They are beyond any nation state or political authority – the high seas, Antarctica, Space and the high atmosphere. Now in the Anthropocene era when we are collectively putting so much pressure on the Earth system as a whole, we propose to include among the global commons all the systems on Earth that regulate the state of the planet, that is the natural systems on Earth that we all depend on, irrespective of where we live. This includes, in addition to the “traditional” global commons, such as the high seas, the Arctic and Antarctica, also all the large biomes, such as the rainforests and temperate forests, that are fundamental in regulating the state of the planet.
The Amazon rainforest, for example, is a huge biome straddling seven nation-states and is part of those nation states but, at the same time it’s an Earth system-regulating biome and therefore it’s a global common. So we’re suggesting a new paradigm where we find new ways to support and protect these commons while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation-states of course, but at the same time, we all depend on a functioning rainforest.
You can easily find yourself subject to well-orchestrated manipulations of the truth and even be accused by opposing forces for completely unjustified reasons. That’s why we have to be twice as careful when it comes to funding, and to the independence of the scientific work.
Indeed, the opposing positions of Brazilian President Bolsonaro and French President Macron illustrate the debate. Macron justly calls the Amazon a global common, which Bolsonaro refuses to accept. Once upon a time, we could consider the Amazon or wetlands or the Greenland ice sheet as – let’s call it for simplicity – private property which could be dealt with in isolated units. No longer, because we have pushed them so close to the brink and they are so vulnerable that we risk crossing thresholds and end up losing them. They are so important that their collapse will affect everyone on Earth not just the people living in these areas. So two things have changed: first, irrespective of how much we’ve been destroying them, we now understand how much we depend on them and, second, we are pushing them to the point where there is an increasing level of nervousness over the real risk of pushing them across irreversible, catastrophic (for us) tipping points.
What will the GCA do that existing bodies like the Potsdam Institute, the IPCC, etc don’t already do? What will be its particular value?
There are two unique virtues. The first is to engage in a process with integrity while ensuring continuous co-development between science, business and policy, of quantitative science-based targets for the entire Earth system. This has never been done before. But we have test-run it for climate. So, here you have a global planetary boundary on climate – stay well below 2ºC and aim for 1.5 C. It translates to a budget and the budget can be divided among actors, like countries, cities and businesses, even though it’s a complex process. You can allocate a certain share to agriculture, to the construction sector, the transport sector, and you can even allocate it to a certain country or business, and that forms the basis for the science-based target. Now we’re setting out to do the same thing for all the planetary boundaries – what can Unilever adopt as its quantitative science-based targets on biodiversity? What should it be quantitatively aiming for? Within which boundaries does it need to operate and report on and not only do what it’s been doing for the past five years, which is reporting on climate. Now it would report on water, on land, on biodiversity, on nitrogen, on phosphorus, with the aim of advancing its business within the safe operating space on Earth.
I’m absolutely sure that if we are to stand any chance of scaling and accelerating progress towards delivering on the Paris Agreement, we have to have a positive story on sustainable economic development.
The second is – and the collision between Bolsonaro and Macron is so illustrative here – we’re slowly but surely coming to recognise that global commons are real and must be managed as a service to humanity as a whole. We are probably close to or at a social tipping point: One group of citizens, particularly educated young people, has understood the challenge, while other groups, still certainly in majority, do not recognise that in this crowded Anthropocene era humankind is affecting every square metre of the planet. That’s why we need a new paradigm for development. It’s not only about sustainable development in general which almost always is understood as reducing environmental impacts. Instead, we have to basically identify the hotspot systems on Earth that we need to keep intact. Then we have to collectively work on keeping them intact – while respecting the national integrity of Denmark and Greenland, Brazil and the Amazon basin– but it has to be done with a collective understanding. That is very challenging.
What happens if you suggest targets to business or you call into question the sovereignty of a nation-state and they say, ‘we don’t accept your findings and we propose to go on as before’? Is there any enforcement mechanism?
It’s a good question and it’s one we’ve come up against with the GCA – what mandate does the Earth Commission, for example, have? Importantly, it has no official mandate. It has some very powerful, influential institutions, like the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Economic Forum, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and many more, as custodians, but that is it. So you’re right, whatever the GCA accomplishes will be more like a bottom-up, pressure-point and inspiration that, we hope, will eat its way into the corridors of the UN Security Council and the General Assembly. For example, over 500 companies in the world have now adopted the SBTi, the science-based targets initiative for climate. If we can get over 600 multinational companies defining scientific quantitative targets for a stable planet, that in itself could tip over into influencing the EU, the G7, the G20 and so forth – which could get a new framework of operating within the safe operating space on Earth to go mainstream. We’re not expecting these to become regulatory measures, at least not at the start.
The UN hosted a Heads-of-state Climate Summit in September. Is that the kind of Forum into which you feed your findings and seek to influence?
Yes, that’s definitely the idea to feed into all different forums of this kind, from the SDGs, to the Global Reporting Initiative, and the UN Compact. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and We Mean Business are so deeply involved here, as is the World Economic Forum (WEF), so we see avenues into many influential platforms.
Several foundations have made substantial pledges to fund GCA. How significant would that money be to GCA’s functioning?
It is very significant. Oak Foundation, the MAVA Foundation, Porticus and GoodEnergies Foundation, have said they want to go in as long-term core funders. ClimateWorks Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, IKEA Foundation and GEF are already supporting parts of the GCA.
Obviously philanthropic money, while significant, is much less than public money. Do you see philanthropic funding as having a specific niche in combatting climate change?
Not really, though there is a divide here from a scientific perspective. On the one hand, funding that comes from the public sector and from philanthropy through non-commercial foundations is an invaluable source because it gives independence and integrity to the scientific endeavour. The Earth Commission can only operate with credibility on public funding or non-commercial foundation funding. As soon as you cross the Rubicon onto the commercial side, you put your objectivity at risk and thus also your influence and importance. Having several well-respected philanthropies as supporters and partners in authoritative science-based initiatives is tremendously valuable – just as valuable as getting funding from the German government’s science ministry. It gives the same kind of credibility and independence.
I know a lot of human rights groups, for instance, won’t take money from companies because of the perceived risk of their objectivity being compromised. I guess you’re in a similar position.
We are in almost exactly the same position and it’s a bit frustrating because, strictly speaking, we shouldn’t have to be, but we are because of the polarisation in society around climate change. You can easily find yourself subject to well-orchestrated manipulations of the truth and even be accused by opposing forces for completely unjustified reasons. That’s why we have to be twice as careful when it comes to funding, and to the independence of the scientific work.
On the Global Commons Alliance website, there’s an explicit link between the economy and the environment which is often not made. As you mentioned earlier, sustainable development is usually taken to mean minimising damage. Are we now talking about a new form of economics where we only produce what we need and what the planet can afford, rather than what we can produce and what we’ve been conditioned to think we want?
This is one of the grand questions for humanity’s future on Earth: is it possible to marry sustainability with economic growth? If you define economic growth in conventional terms as rising GDP, then the jury is still out. We find very little evidence that we have succeeded in an absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental impacts, that we truly reduce impacts on climate, resource use or biodiversity while the economy grows. I have always supported green growth, defined as absolute decoupling, that is, where we can see economic development without undermining natural capital or the functioning of ecosystems and the climate system. We are quite good at relative decoupling, meaning that the economy continues growing and so does environmental impact but at a slightly slower rate in relation to GDP.
We don’t know how successful we can be with green growth. However, I’m absolutely sure that if we are to stand any chance of scaling and accelerating progress towards delivering on the Paris Agreement, we have to have a positive story on sustainable economic development. We need to acknowledge economic development because if we contribute to deepening the divide between environment and economics, we can rest assured that the majority of citizens will turn their backs on climate and sustainability action. For decades, the agenda was focused on environmentalism only, namely. solving environmental problems by reducing human harm. This has led to some important progress, but will not take us to our goal: A planet sustaining 10 billion people living modern lives within functioning ecosystems and a stable climate.
We have to recognise that there’s a war going on. We should recognise that there are very strong forces who are putting tremendous resources into manipulating developments in their favour – aimed at locking us into a fossil-fuel based status-quo.
Today, it’s not enough to have 15 per cent of consumers buying organic food or 15 per cent of companies supplying it. We have to have 100 per cent decarbonisation of the energy system, and 100 per cent of citizens buying and consuming sustainable food. And all this has to happen within one generation. We have to go fully towards phasing out the combustion engine within a few decades, transform the global energy system to zero carbon emissions form fossil fuels within 30 years – that’s the pace of change we now need. You have a parliamentary decision in Sweden, for example, to reduce emissions from the transport sector by 70 per cent in the next 10 years. We’re talking about a transport revolution, not some incremental change. Whether it works or not, we need to take an integrated approach and really explore synergetic opportunities between environment and economics. When you look at the empirical evidence so far, we’re not doing a very good job of finding ways to deliver equity and sustainability simultaneously, and at the same time, provide jobs and economic development. We’re still powering our economic development by transgressing planetary boundaries. That’s depressing, but it’s the truth. And it goes for Sweden and Germany just as it goes for the US, Brazil and China, so there’s no A group and B group, it goes for all countries.
You asked if the solution was a new economic paradigm. The answer is probably ‘yes’, but do we have time for that? The answer is ‘no’. We have to work with the current, obsolete machinery. The IPCC – the careful scientific authority – concludes that we need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by half over the next decade to stand a chance of fulfilling the Paris Agreement. That’s the pace. However, in the last three years we have increased emissions by over two and a half per cent per year – so we’re talking big changes just to bend the curve.
The German government has recognised that to deliver on Paris, they need to have an economic policy that can reduce emissions in agriculture, in construction and in transport as well. These sectors are not in the EU’s emissions trading scheme. Sweden has had a price on carbon in those sectors since 1990 and I think that’s the route. We have the economic paradigm we have, we cannot scrap GDP overnight but you can have a €50 per ton of carbon dioxide price on carbon, as an effective way of internalizing parts of the externalities, that is, the damage, caused by emitting greenhouse gases. This would correct the world’s largest market failure – that the planet is subsidizing our economic growth by allowing oil, coal and gas, to defer its real costs. Economic research shows that a carbon price of above 50 Euro per ton of carbon dioxide would be a level high enough to really tip the scales away from coal and natural gas.
Current estimates are that only two per cent of philanthropic funding goes towards tackling climate change. Does there need to be much more philanthropic money or is money not really the problem? Is it more a matter of the adoption of technological innovation that already exists and sufficient political will?
I would say money is still very important. It’s quite popular to say, ‘there’s enough money out there and it’s really about the innovations and the solutions and the challenge of scaling them’, but I oppose that position. We have to recognise that there’s a war going on. Those who devote their lives to pursue pathways to sustainability should not be naïve. We should recognise that there are very strong forces who are putting tremendous resources into manipulating developments in their favour – aimed at locking us into a fossil-fuel based status-quo. And they have so far been very successful. I’m talking about the vested interests of the oil industry, the coal industry. They have been successfully adopting the tobacco industry approach of not questioning, but instilling uncertainty and thus keeping the status quo. And the big oil and gasproducing nations play along with that approach.
We have to take the bull by the horns and start putting money and expertise and support behind a new ‘green revolution’ that’s about sustainable food production
That said, and the size of the transformation ahead means we need to proliferate success in a way that we have not done so far. I wish that there weren’t one Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, I wish there were 100. How can it be that we have only big climate models, fully integrated Earth system models, and integrated assessment models, in their tens, not hundreds, when every country report daily into minor detail on interest rates, stock markets, financial flows and inflation? OK, we have 3,000 scientists co-authoring the IPCC reports, but why don’t we have 30,000? Why do we not have daily, or at least weekly reporting in every financial daily newspaper on ice melt from Greenland and West Antarctica? If you think of the money that is put behind defence or agriculture policies in the European Union, the amounts put behind climate science are ridiculous in comparison.
Philanthropy spends two per cent on climate change. I think that number should be 20 per cent. Scientifically, there is growing discussion about proposing the declaration of a state of planetary emergency. I fully support this and am heavily involved in those dialogues. The argument is a double emergency: Our global commons are approaching catastrophic risk zones, and the time window for us to avoid “pushing the on button” is closing. This means we have to act fast and we have to act at scale. So we need philanthropy more than ever. We need it’s power to outdo the forces of inertia with our force for transformation.
And in a sense, that’s part of what GCA is doing, isn’t it? To try to create that sort of momentum.
Yes, absolutely. And it’s trying to do so by offering a new narrative where people and planet are truly integrated, not only in rhetorical terms, but also in operational terms.
Finally, in ‘big picture’ terms, what needs to happen over the next 10 to 15 years if we are to arrest or reverse climate change?
Number one, we need to cut fossil fuel emissions by half over the next decade. That means decisively tipping over the point where decarbonising the global energy system becomes irreversible – phasing out coal, oil and natural gas. We know how to do it and we can do it – technologically and economically – which is exciting. But it’s not happening yet. A key tool to unleash investments towards green energy is to introduce carbon prices in all countries and markets.
Number two is more challenging but equally important: to embark on a transformation of the global food system. This goes for the whole chain, but it must start, I would argue, on the farmer’s field. That’s because almost 25 per cent of greenhouse gases originate from food production, making it the single largest emitter. But that’s not the only challenge. How we produce food – and this often surprises people – is often the single largest cause behind biodiversity loss, the single largest cause of land-use change and deforestation, the single largest cause behind water use and by far the single largest cause of pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilisation. But it does not end there. Food is also the single largest killer in the world, where unhealthy food causes diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, malnourishment, obesity, cancer, and other non-communicable diseases, that shorten the lives of millions each year. As we have shown recently in the EAT-Lancet report, which for the first time scientifically defines targets for a universally healthy diet from sustainable food systems (the planetary health diet), we could save 11 million lives and reach win-win outcomes for people and planet by eating healthy food produced in a sustainable way. You could say that if you get it right on food, you’re almost back in the green safe operating space on a stable planet, and in doing so, we live longer and healthier. It’s as if you have this little magic wand, the food wand.
What right do you and I have to have a material footprint that is about 10 times larger than an average Nigerian? The equity implications of that are incredibly challenging but have to be brought to the fore
All that’s easily said and very difficult to do. Yet we have to take the bull by the horns and start putting money and expertise and support behind a new ‘green revolution’ that’s about sustainable food production. The exciting thing is that, here again, we have the solutions. We know how to produce high yields by sequestering carbon, we know how to close the cycle of nitrogen and phosphorus, and there are numerous scientific papers showing that we can feed humanity without destroying all the forests. I would argue, just like Edward O Wilson is arguing in his Half Earth initiative, that we’ve come to the end of the road of expanding agricultural land into natural ecosystems. We’ve transformed 50 per cent of the Earth’s natural ecosystems into agriculture and urban areas. Now is the time to stop. Why? Because we need the carbon sinks, rainfall generation, and ecological functions, provided by the remaining natural ecosystems on Earth. What does that mean? It means that we have to produce more food on current farmland and we have to do it in a sustainable way.
Third – and there are many, but I’ll just give you three main ones – I think we need a big value shift. A value shift is a combination of behavioural change, meaning basically lifestyle patterns and consumption patterns, with a different understanding of equity. As we are starting to hit the ceiling of what the planet can cope with and when we set scientific targets for the global commons, one implication is that we have to share in a fair way the remaining space on Earth. That question of equal rights remains very sensitive in countries like the US.
But what right do you and I have to have a material footprint that is about 10 times larger than an average Nigerian? The equity implications of that are incredibly challenging but have to be brought to the fore – just like the global commons. If I were to choose the three big shifts over the next 10 years, it would be transition to a decarbonised energy system, transformation to a sustainable and healthy food system and to have a global dialogue on the ethics of how 10 billion co-citizens can share the remaining space on Earth.
Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance magazine
- ^ French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that fires burning in the Amazon were an international crisis and should be made a top priority at the G7 summit. In an angry riposte his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro accused Macron of a ‘colonialist mentality’. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2019/aug/27/macron-and-bolsonaros-war-of-words-over-amazon-fires-aid-and-their-wives-video-report.