First “State of the Planet” declaration published

On 29 March, 2012, the Planet Under Pressure conference published the first State of the Planet declaration to “our global interconnected society”.

State of the Planet Declaration

Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions

1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.

3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

5. The Global Environmental Change Programmes[1] with the International Council for Science convened the Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions conference to assess the state of the planet and explore solutions to impending global crises. The conference brought together nearly 3000 leading experts and decision-makers to discuss global challenges and offer new solutions. And at least 3000 people across the world participated in the conference online.


6. Humanity has taken a huge leap and become a planetary-scale force. Significant changes have occurred since the 1950s, and the rate of change is accelerating. Researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilisation.

7. The past decade has seen the emergence of important areas of new scientific understanding by which to define what we are witnessing:

A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.

A2. The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are themselves highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation. But they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.

A3. Assessments of current mechanisms for governing global environmental change show why existing international arrangements are not dealing quickly enough with current global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. There is growing evidence that diverse partnerships amongst local, national and regional governments as well as business and civil society provide essential safety nets should singular global policies fail – a polycentric approach for planetary stewardship.

8. These insights from recent research demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountabilities of nation states to support planetary stewardship. This requires goals aimed at global sustainability in order to achieve universal sustainable development. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of well-being and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.


9. Interconnected issues require interconnected solutions. Rapid scientific and technological progress can provide potential solutions – if adopted in timely manner – to reduce the risk of deleterious consequences for societies everywhere. But technological innovation alone will not be enough. We can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.

10. Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions. This contract needs to encompass three elements:

B1. Integrated goals for global sustainability based on scientific evidence are needed to provide essential targets for societies. In support of this, the international scientific community calls for a framework for regular global sustainability analyses that link existing assessments that build on the foundations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and other ongoing efforts. Such analyses can be designed to bring coherence to the science-policy interface.

B2. The challenges facing a planet under pressure demand a new approach to research that is more integrative, international and solutions-oriented. We need to link high-quality focused scientific research to new policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability. This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems, across the North and South, and must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector. As part of this new collaboration, at this conference the global-environmental-change programmes support a major research initiative, Future Earth: research for global sustainability.

B3. New mechanisms to facilitate an interactive dialogue on global sustainability among the various stakeholders and the policy-making community at different scales. Such interactions should be designed to bring societal relevance and trust to science-policy interfaces, and more effectively inform decision-making to keep pace with rapid global change.

11. To these ends, the initiatives above must be supported by:

  • A greater commitment to fund and support capacity-building in science and education globally, and particularly in developing countries.
  • A strong commitment to both applied and pure research and increased efforts to bring together disciplines, across all research domains.
  • Strengthened support for observing systems, particularly in developing countries, including the new observations needed to support decision-making for global sustainability. New approaches should fully integrate global observing systems for environmental and social issues.
  • Continued exploration of new areas of knowledge, such as theoretical and applied research in behavioural science and economics addressing ecological and social tipping points and irreversibility at multiple levels.


12. The United Nations Rio+20 Conference is an opportunity the world must seize at this crucial juncture. The UN Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, provides a strong strategic framework for a sustainable future while calling for a marked strengthening of the interface between science and policy. The findings of the Planet Under Pressure conference support the key recommendations including:

C1. Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars. Current understanding supports the creation of a Sustainable Development Council within the UN system to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level. There is also strong support for strengthening global governance by including civil society, business and industry in decision-making at all levels.

C2. A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production. The research community should be involved in the development of goals, targets and indicators, recognising interconnected issues and building on existing measures of well-being. They should apply to all levels of governance.

C3. Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.


13. Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The Planet Under Pressure conference has taken advantage of this potential to explore new pathways. It has marked a new direction for global change research. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.

14. Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action. We must show leadership at all levels. We must all play our parts. A strong contribution from all stakeholders should make the UN’s Rio+20 conference a defining moment that sparks global innovation to move us towards a sustainable future. We urge the world to grasp this moment and make history.

London, 29th March 2012

[1] DIVERSITAS, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change and World Climate Research Programme.

Ten urbanization statistics

Population growth and rapid urbanization mean we need to create the equivalent of one new city of one million people every 5 days between now and 2050. Ref.

Ten referenced statistics on urbanization

  1. Global urban population: 3.5 billion.
  2. In 2008, civilisation crossed a landmark: half the global population now living in urban areas. Fifty years ago it was 30%. A century ago it was 10%.
  3. In 1800, Beijing was the only city with a population of one million or greater. By 1900, 16 cities had reached this figure. By 2000, it was 378 cities. By 2025, there will be about 600 cities of one million or more worldwide.
  4. By 2030, the world’s urban population is expected to hit five billion. By 2100, an additional three-to-five billion people will live in cities (creating an urban population of 6.4-8.4 billion people).
  5. China has the highest rates or urban expansion. Annual rates of urban land expansion vary from 13.3% for coastal areas to 3.9% for the western regions.
  6. In 2010, 33% of the urban population in developing regions lived in slums. Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest slum population, 199.5 million (61.7%) people, followed by Southern Asia with 190.7 million (35%).
  7. By 1950, the New York City metropolitan area became the first urban area to reach a population of 10 million. In 1962 Tokyo was the first city to have a population of 10 million. Today there are 19 urban agglomerations with populations of 10 million or more.
  8. Tokyo is the world’s largest city with the population in the Tokyo-Yokohama area hitting 36.7 million. The urban extent of Tokyo-Yokohama covers 13,500 km² , an area bigger than Jamaica (11,000 km² ). Tokyo accounts for almost 2% of the world’s GDP.
  9. Global urbanization is following the blueprint of North American cities, but faster and at larger scales. These trends are most evident in developing countries.
  10. Urban areas in low-lying coastal zones are growing faster than elsewhere. Inadequate responses to protecting coastal urban areas from climate change will be devastating to the economies and infrastructure of 13 percent of the world’s urban population.


1 UNEP Keeping track of our changing environment (2011)

2, 3, 7. United Nations. 2008. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision. New York: United Nations

4 Michail Fragkias, Karen C Seto 2011. The rise and rise of urban expansion. IGBP Global Change.

5 Karen C Seto et al. 2010. The New Geography of Contemporary Urbanization and the Environment. Annual Review Environmental Resources

6. UN Millennium Development Goals 2011 Report. UN Habitat State of the World’s Cities

8 Karen C Seto et al. 2010. The New Geography of Contemporary Urbanization and the Environment. Annual Review Environmental Resources and UNEP Keeping track of our changing environment (2011) and UN Habitat State of the World’s Cities (Tokyo GDP).

9. McGranahan G, Balk D, Anderson B 2007. The rising tide: assessing the risks of climate change and human settlements in low elevation coastal zones. Environment and Urbanization 19: 17–37.

10. Karen C. Seto et al. 2011. A Meta-Analysis of Global Urban Land Expansion. PloS ONE.

Is Natural Prosperity the new Green Economy?

Definition of prosperity: the condition of being successful or thriving; especially economic wellbeing.

Definition of natural prosperity: the condition of being successful or thriving, in a thriving society on a thriving planet.

The road to the Rio+20 summit is littered with new(ish) buzz words and phrases, memes and new ideas: natural capital, green growth, green society, global sustainability, inclusive wealth, natural capital. Here’s another: Natural Prosperity.

Do we need another one? Probably. It looks like “Green Economy” – one of the two central themes of the summit – is on the rocks.

More to the point, what do people actually want?

People want prosperity. They do not want something jargony and vague like “wellbeing”. They are not interested in natural capital, a green economy or inclusive wealth.

People everywhere, rich or poor, want propserity. They want their family and their next generations to prosper. They do not relate to theoretical concepts dreamt up by economists, policy advisers and social scientists.

In two words natural prosperity captures wellbeing, green growth, natural capital and a host of other ideas. Natural prosperity is a new kind of wealth. It is about shifting mindsets beyond the bank balance. It indicates there are other ways to enrich your life. It says you need more than financial reward to be rich. It is bank balance and life balance combined.

Most importantly it is aspirational.

As French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Just an idea. Like we need another one.

Rio+20: Plan A for Planet Earth

In the face of unprecedented global change, the next ten years is a crucial period for our global society. Rio+20 could well be “Plan A for Planet Earth”? If so, we all must be part of the plan.

Joel Pett, 2009.

Joel Pett, 2009.

The media often describes geoengineering — large-scale deliberate interference in the climate system – as Plan B for the planet.

By default, this makes the UN’s Rio+20 summit in June this year Plan A for Planet Earth. So, will Plan A work?

These so-called Earth summits, Rio+20 will be the third, occur every 20 years. They’re once-in-a-generation opportunities to save the planet, or at least minimize risk to the planetary components humans need most to support seven billion people and counting.

Since the last summit Earth-system scientists have shown the risk is indeed great. Some talk about threats to civilization. Others discuss unprecedented destabilization of the Earth system. Rio+20 comes at a time when science is saying we need to make great leaps in the next ten years or miss the boat and risk facing a global environmental, economic and humanitarian crisis. But the next summit seems to be missing too many ingredients to ensure success.

The two summit themes, the green economy and institutional frameworks for sustainable development, are meant to kickstart genuine progress towards a sustainable planet. But so far, as the BBC’s Richard Black has reported, the summit is failing to excite the very people it needs to: world leaders and finance ministers. Moreover, this summit must inspire people everywhere.

There is room for some optimism. Ban Ki Moon’s Global Sustainability Panel has published its report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: a future worth choosing. The report contains 56 recommendations for global sustainability. Many agree it is significantly more inspirational than the soporific Rio+20 Zero Order Draft.

But as a Plan A for Planet Earth, Ban Ki Moon’s panel couldn’t solve the biggy. No matter how you look at it, we lack leadership to deal with the challenge and massive grass roots support to prod leaders to action. And of course real progress is increasingly hampered by lobbying groups and the oil industry that ensure many democracies operate as plutocracies in all but name.

And besides, as academics such as Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom point out, given the nature of how societies work, there is a danger in relying on single global solutions to global sustainability. We need a plan that works at local, national, regional and global levels to provide essential safety nets should single global policies fail.

Another biggy is how to manage change in highly complex interconnected systems like our global economic, political and cultural systems. We are seven billion people made up of politicians and voters, employers and employees, parents and children, consumers and producers, teachers and students, and so on. Attempting strategic comprehensive change within such a vast, complex, and highly dynamic system is mind boggling, as the global financial crisis demonstrated.

Do we have a wildcard? The Invisible Children campaign, Kony 2012, is intriguing. To date, 67 million people viewed the 30-minute documentary about a Ugandan warlord within days of release, which has been promoted almost entirely through the power of social media. This is an interesting development particularly as it follows the Arab Spring and Occupy movements that show a new power flexing its muscle.

Curiously, these events demonstrated an uncanny sense for how to affect rapid and large-scale change in complex interconnected systems. Economists and world leaders watched helplessly as their top-down strategies for stemming the financial crisis failed, elsewhere, more organic approaches to state change in complex interconnected systems yielded remarkable results.

The digital revolution in its current form is barely more than ten years old, but these events show how networks can use our newly-connected global society to take on traditional power bases – and win.

If we want a Plan A for Planet Earth that stands a chance of success – within ten years – perhaps the digital revolution is the wildcard.

One third of the world’s population is now online. The rise in online connectivity has been dramatic. Five years ago, only one fifth of the world’s 1.8 billion households had internet access. In this period, developing countries increased their share of the world’s total number of internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011. Today, 25% of all internet users are in China.

These figures are dwarfed by the explosion in mobile phone use. Mobile phone networks now reach over 90% of the human population. There are nearly six billion (5.9) mobile cellular phone subscriptions for seven billion people, though many have multiple subscriptions.

By 2020 internet and mobile phone coverage will reach all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere. As we frantically scramble to understand tipping points in the Earth system, we are rapidly heading towards a tipping point in our global society with little clue how this will play out.

Plan A for Planet Earth should not be left to a small handful of people engaged at the top of international negotiations. It must be driven by us all. At an early Rio+20 preparatory meeting delegates discussed two things: the need to engage many, many more people; and the need to make better use of digital communication technology to communicate more widely. Perhaps, if you join the two together you could conceivably think about the world’s first global referendum. And the subject of the referendum: global sustainability. That would be a tipping point worth crossing.

Good news for glaziers in Belfast

We need more James Hansens

Growing up outside Belfast in the eighties, daily news bulletins brought a relentless barrage of atrocities into our home: bomb blasts, kneecappings, executions, plastic bullets, riots, Molotov cocktails.

A campaign developed to bring more positive news to the screens. The crusade died when one cynical journalist remarked: “Good news for glaziers in Belfast this evening. A 1000-pound car bomb has exploded in the city centre.”

There is a time and a place for news spin and positive messaging, but sometimes we must face the grim reality. Some news stories are too important.

As we approach the Rio+20 Summit (essentially Plan A for Planet Earth), some argue the “urgency” message is not working and should be abandoned. Politicians are numb to doom and gloom, so instead science must put a positive spin on things: less negativity, let’s focus on solutions.

Well great, but this is a mistake. Science has a responsibility to tell the story straight. The message is too important to pull punches. Besides, if you said to Obama he had to deal with three crises: global financial meltdown, Syria, and global sustainability, but the last one is not quite so urgent, what would happen? Go figure.

The sarcastic Belfast journalist’s remarks came back to me this week as TED published NASA scientist James Hansen’s recent talk Why I must speak out about climate change.

Hansen must be applauded for steadfastly refusing to dilute the message. The TED lecture is a great example of focusing relentlessly on hard facts, no matter how unsettling.

Sure, he offers solutions (market based with minimal government intervention! It is an election year after all) but he is unflinching in his message that humanity is sleepwalking towards a colossal global catastrophe: not for life on Earth, but for societies everywhere. We need more like Hansen.

See: Is civilization really at risk of collapse?

Global temperature 1880 to 2011

Recently, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a time series of global temperatures from 1880 to 2011. The data shows how Earth continues to experience higher temperatures than several decades ago. The average temperature around the globe in 2011 was 0.51 C higher than the mid-20th century baseline.The global average surface temperature in 2011 was the ninth warmest since 1880.The finding sustains a trend that has seen the 21st century experience nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record.

NASA 2011 Global Temperatures, 9th warmest year since 1880