“We have kicked the can down the road once again - but we are running out of road.”
Rachel Kyte, Dean of Fletcher School at Tufts University
We, in our capacities as scientists, economists, governance and policy specialists, are shifting
from warnings to guidance for action before there is no more ‘road.’ The science is clear and
irrefutable; humanity is in advanced ecological overshoot. Our overexploitation of resources
exceeds ecosystems’ capacity to provide them or to absorb our waste. Society has failed to
meet clearly stated goals of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Civilization
faces an epochal crossroads, but with potentially much better, wiser outcomes if we act now.
What are the concrete and transformative actions by which we can turn away from the abyss?
In this paper we forcefully recommend priority actions and resource allocation to avert the worst
of the climate and nature emergencies, two of the most pressing symptoms of overshoot, and
lead society into a future of greater wellbeing and wisdom. Humanity has begun the social,
economic, political and technological initiatives needed for this transformation. Now, massive
upscaling and acceleration of these actions and collaborations are essential before irreversible
tipping points are crossed in the coming decade. We still can overcome significant societal,
political and economic barriers of our own making.1
Previously,2-4 we identified six core areas for urgent global action – energy, pollutants, nature,
food systems, population stabilization and economic goals. Here we identify an indicative,
systemic and time-limited framework for priority actions for policy, planning and management at
multiple scales from household to global. We broadly follow the ‘Reduce-Remove-Repair’
approach5 to rapid action. To guide decision makers, planners, managers, and budgeters, we
cite some of the many experiments, mechanisms and resources in order to facilitate rapid global
adoption of effective solutions.
Our biggest challenges are not technical, but social, economic, political and behavioral. To have
hope of success, we must accelerate collaborative actions across scales, in different cultures
and governance systems, while maintaining adequate social, economic and political stability.
Effective and timely actions are still achievable on many, though not all fronts. Such change will
mean the difference for billions of children and adults, hundreds of thousands of species, health
of many ecosystems, and will determine our common future.6
I - INTRODUCTION
Most people can now see that our planet is literally and metaphorically burning: massive
wildfires; record temperatures; sustained, life-threatening high heat events and droughts; record
floods; intensified tropical storms; species under high threat. We have already crossed tipping
points like sea level rise and Arctic sea ice loss that will take a millennium (40 generations) or
more to restore.1 Climate change is the best known, but by no means only symptom of
exceeding planetary boundaries.7
The World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency paper2 - endorsed by a total of 14,236
scientists from 158 countries by October 2021 - identified six priority areas for global action.
Two updates3,4 found that few successful actions had been taken and that climate indicators
had worsened, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
What values and systems led humanity to this point, and where do we go from here?
The frequency of massive droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and intensified storms and floods has
begun to convince society and its leaders that immediate action is essential. Carbon and heat
trapped in our oceans and atmosphere already guarantees that we will exceed 1.5C.8 High
temperatures and sea levels will likely persist for millennia or longer.9 We can mitigate the
severity of weather events to some extent if we employ significant climate restoration methods
before 2030. Not only should global society redouble its decarbonization commitments, it should
also take thoughtful, equitable and decisive action, both to help citizens adapt to a less energy-
intensive future and to develop workable methods to extract carbon and methane from our
atmosphere and oceans at an aggressive rate.
Having wasted precious decades, we now face severe timelines to accelerate the societal,
political and economic implementation of climate solutions, as scientists have called for publicly
for decades.10-13 The faster we can invest in the future, the less it will cost. Complex natural
systems under stress, like the climate, do not change gradually or predictably. Critical
thresholds (tipping points) may be unknown before they are breached and, once breached, the
consequences may be irreversible. Many climate scientists fear that the 1.5 or 2.0 C degree
Paris Accord targets, while ambitious in the current political context, are insufficient and could
push us irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.14
Climate restoration, not just mitigation and adaptation
Ensuring humanity's long-term survival requires climate repair by reducing greenhouse gases
(GHG), including methane, to earlier levels that we and other species have survived in the long-
term. Earth’s rising CO2 levels are now higher10 than at any time in at least the past 800,000
years15 and 48% higher than pre-industrial levels. Nature has previously regulated GHG to
maintain a habitable climate,10 and it is essential that we try to restore those conditions.
By collaborating and acting rapidly, we can indeed slow changes by 2030 and 2050, and start to
reverse them during the rest of the century.1 To make this happen, we should transform our
global economy by 2030 to at least halve emissions of CO2 and other GHG, and to increase
removals from the atmosphere of methane, tropospheric ozone, carbon soot and
hydrofluorocarbons by natural systems and other means. This is absolutely necessary to
achieve significantly negative emissions by 2050.
At the same time, we can rapidly learn to use resources much more efficiently, to require less of
them, and to develop and adopt alternative technologies.
Stringent protection and restoration of natural systems are critical to success
Global heating can eventually be reversed, after the drawdown of atmospheric CO2 and
methane by natural and anthropogenic systems starts to exceed annual additions from all
anthropogenic and natural sources. To reach and exceed net-zero carbon, we would need to
immediately halt the destruction and degradation of critical carbon-accumulating ecosystems
like forests, wetlands and grasslands. The two global bodies, the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and
Ecosystem Services (IPBES), jointly concluded that to succeed, climate change and biodiversity
loss must be addressed rapidly and together.16
Designing a global ‘Marshall Plan’ for civilization
So what actions are needed by 2026, 2030 and 2050 to turn this grim situation around? Here
we identify an indicative, systemic array of priorities for policy, planning and management at
multiple scales, individual to global (see also17). Implementing these will require rethinking the
constraints and values that habitually frame planning, resourcing and decision making.
“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to
which life on Earth is adapted”18, a global Marshall Plan-style transformative collaboration can
and should legally end destructive actions taken for short-term self- and national- interests. We
can build an economy which embraces values and policy goals capable of restoring our
wounded planet, its people and biosphere.
II - MOVING FROM CLIMATE WARNINGS TO CLIMATE ACTIONS
The six urgent areas identified for action in the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate
Emergency2 and its updates3,4 are: energy, atmospheric pollutants, nature, food, population and
This paper aims to support decision makers at different scales - household, community, city,
district/state/province, nation, global - in planning and implementing the urgent actions on
energy, pollutants, nature, food systems, population and the economy by 2026, 2030 and 2050.
Our approach cannot be both global and comprehensive, but we suggest actions to support the
prioritization, scheduling, budgeting and identification of unmet needs at different scales and in
different regions. We also identify those areas currently most amenable to individual, household
and community actions in many countries. As a cross-cutting action, we also identify (section III)
some of the very basic procedures of government and other large organizations which still block
progress. It is essential that actions be well underway in the five-year period 2022-2026.
Actions will likely fail if planned in isolation from deep systemic change, or from collaboratively
agreed alternative visions. We do not articulate our own visions, as these must be the products
of action by participants at all scales. Yet as a global society at a crossroads of the most critical
kind, we should all ask the questions faced by societies at transformative moments: “What kind
of a society do we want to have now? And how do we get there from here?”
Humanity has both a daunting challenge and a vast opportunity. By reforming past destructive
practices, societies globally can achieve multiple deep and lasting benefits - for human and
planetary health, biodiversity, water and air quality, food security, mental and physical wellbeing,
human relationships and community cohesion. If successful, we will look back from a safe place
and wonder what took us so long to overcome destructive trends and antagonists in our society.
Civilization requires energy for industry, heat, electricity, transportation, construction, agriculture
- indeed, all human activities. Today, fossil fuels (FF) are the major source of primary energy for
these services and the productivity or conversion efficiency is extremely low. To meet sufficient
emissions reductions requires integrated efforts to greatly reduce energy requirements and
replace primary energy with zero-carbon renewables.
Reducing demand, increasing decarbonization, efficiency and innovation
Conservation and improved productivity of energy are essential counterparts to innovation and
low-carbon generation. At all scales from households to nations, these should and can be
massively accelerated: e.g. better thermal building insulation in hot and cold climates,
redesigning cities for walkability and cyclability, local and home-based work, transition to LED
lighting for just one-fifth of the electricity use. Heat pumps provide the same space heating at
one-fourth to one-third the electricity, and high performance buildings need as little as 20% of
the energy19 required by standard structures. Electric cars require just 20% the energy of same-
sized petrol vehicles. The rate of change in energy productivity must exceed the growth in
energy demand globally. Additional energy will be required for remediation to clean and restore
ecosystems, including clearing ocean plastic garbage, remediating water and soils damaged by
toxic chemicals, restoring and rewilding post-industrial landscapes and remediating ocean dead
zones. However, these new uses can power the new restoration economy.20
By imposing carbon pricing and focusing heavy taxes21 on “luxury” travel and trade, especially
flights, inefficient vehicles and imported luxury goods, carbon emissions will be significantly
reduced in a decade.22 To achieve these goals requires an immediate energy transformation
roadmap far more assertive and far less platitudinal than the actions being discussed today.
Relocalizing, regeneration, redesigning, retrofitting, and resilience
Over the next decade, towns and cities in many countries will be increasingly reconfigured to
facilitate walking, cycling, and green electric public transport, around community hubs improving
equitable access and social justice (accommodation, work and leisure activities integrated within
the same area). Retrofitting buildings, decentralised energy generation, low energy local food
growing and soil improvement are all essential, cost-effective investments in community
resilience and energy efficiency.23 Restoring/rewilding and protecting natural habitats24 within
and around human communities enables low-maintenance pollinator corridors and habitat, thus
turning cities, towns and villages into a network of insect reserves.
To address the most pressing challenges of society, we need to move beyond sustainability
towards regeneration.25 This means that spatial planning and zoning would increasingly
embrace complexity and interconnectivity, rather than the car-centered linear isolation and
siloed planning of the past industrial era. Encouraging repair cafes and makerspaces,26 as exist
less formally in many developing countries, would reduce plastic and overall waste, resource
consumption, and greenhouse/landfill emissions.
Some necessary steps toward these objectives might include (adapted from Rees27):
- Manage regional economies and commerce to sustain the population as much as
possible on regional resources to reduce reliance on carbon-intensive trade goods.
- Relocalize light manufacturing, food production and processing as much as possible to
enhance regional self-reliance, increase economic diversity and employment security,
and bolster community pride and cohesion.
- Re-engineer urban utilities to convert cities and towns from resource-depleting linear
throughput systems into self-sustaining circular-material flow systems, e.g., convert
waste streams into resources; collect, treat and recycle animal and domestic wastes on
local farmlands, thus restoring soil quality, reducing the need for artificial fertilizers, and
eliminating ground and surface water pollution.
- Actively promote agroecological and permacultural practices to improve quality food
production, reduce FF-intensive fertilizer and pesticide use, and provide extension and
training programs for farmers in ecologically and socially restorative production methods.
- End essentially all conversion of arable land. Invest program money in long-term
restoration of depleted soils, degraded landscapes, forests, wetlands and grasslands to
promote biodiversity, enhance regional productivity, increase carbon accumulation, and
mitigate climate change. Humans have destroyed half the world’s forests, wetlands and
topsoil, but soil still contains28 several times as much carbon as the atmosphere.
- At city and community scale, build up rather than out. Densify existing transformed areas
in ways that spatially reintegrate work-places with living and recreation areas.
- Use economies of scale that confer a substantial ‘sustainability multiplier’ on well-
designed high-density settlements: e.g., reduced per capita demand for space and
transport, low-cost or free public transit, higher potential for recycling, reuse and
remanufacturing, and district heating/cooling; expanded opportunities for co-housing,
tool-sharing and other activities that reduce material demand.
This is an opportunity for humanity and our resilience
Social and technical innovation presents major opportunities for greater productivity, improved
balancing of human and ecological needs, and improved quality of life. The practical, cultural
and logistic challenges of energy transitions from the status quo are complex,29 but not more so
than other ambitious human endeavors. In several decades they are quite possible - and of
course essential for the survival of civilization and a stable, habitable planet. Reduction in
energy consumption, especially among those who consume the most, is inevitable30 and even
desirable, given innovations that support greater wellbeing on lighter footprints.
Finally, even at peak wind and solar electricity production, less energy will likely be available to
humankind in the future than now. A carefully designed decrease in global energy demand is
necessary for this reason. Relocalisation would significantly curb energy demand,31,32 mitigate
GHG emissions, build community resilience,32 improve health and wellbeing, increase energy
security, and reduce supply chain vulnerability.33
2. ATMOSPHERIC POLLUTANTS
Our current accumulation of atmospheric carbon, its acidification of our oceans, and the
dangerous increases of methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons and air pollutants in our
atmosphere, have far exceeded even the worst case scenarios projected by the scientific
community decades ago. Methane (CH4) is the second largest contributor to global heating after
carbon dioxide (CO2), almost 90 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years34, but it has a
relatively short average lifetime in the atmosphere of 12 years. Current methane levels are at
800,000-year highs and rising rapidly. Since 2007 there has been a particularly sharp rise in
atmospheric methane35 that is not well understood, with 2020 posting the largest annual growth
on record. According to the 2021 IPCC WG1 report,1 methane has already caused one-third of
global heating, and has contributed at least half as much warming as CO2.1
The possible pathway assessed in the AR6 IPCC1 report to keep global heating below 1.5C
assumes enormous reductions of methane emissions by 2050. The largest source of
anthropogenic methane emissions globally is agriculture - especially livestock for meat and
dairy products. These emissions can be reduced, but are impossible to eliminate completely.
About 40% of global methane emissions are from natural sources such as wetlands,36 which
could increase as global temperatures rise. Degrading or destroying wetlands rapidly releases
additional methane and CO2, so protecting them is an essential, effective strategy. The Arctic is
warming dramatically, with potentially catastrophic climate impacts through rapid mobilization of
giant reservoirs of carbon sequestered in permafrost. Thawing permafrost and collapsing
methane hydrates in the Arctic may move substantial amounts of carbon from land and ocean to
atmosphere (as CO2 and CH4) on decadal-century timescales. Destabilization of shelf Arctic
hydrates could lead to large-scale increases of aqueous and atmospheric CH4.37 Thawing
permafrost on land can only be controlled by reducing temperatures in the Arctic. In addition to
aggressively mitigating methane emissions wherever we can, we should reduce other GHG
emissions to compensate for natural and anthropogenic methane emissions that we cannot
effectively reduce or eliminate. Yet the potential massive release of CH4 from the subsea
permafrost cannot be mitigated. An overarching goal is to transform this area from a data-lean
and largely descriptive state to provide breakthrough understanding of one of the largest
challenges today: the vulnerability of the Arctic’s giant seabed carbon/hydrate pool to
progressive subsea permafrost degradation.
Reduce, remove, repair - and monitor
In order to take effective action on the methane crisis, all jurisdictions can aggressively reduce
or mitigate emissions of methane at their sources wherever possible - agricultural, industrial, oil
and gas production. One such approach is to require all new household appliances and
buildings to be electric in areas where renewable energy makes up a large and rapidly
increasing part of the electric supply, as several jurisdictions have done.38 Another approach is
to shift subsidies for large methane-producing meat and dairy firms and FF companies to fees
on large methane producers. At household, community and corporate levels, except perhaps in
dry rangeland nations, eating less meat and dairy from current production methods can reduce
direct methane emissions and altered grazing practices can actually increase soil carbon
In addition, local, state and federal authorities can assess, prioritize and require the use of best
available technologies for reduction and removal of methane emissions, while also supporting
policies, practices and technologies for the development of atmospheric methane removal at
national and international levels.
Simultaneously, the global community should initiate programs to monitor atmospheric methane
reductions, fund and initiate programs to develop technologies and natural practices (e.g.
methane-loving bacteria) that reduce atmospheric methane safely and effectively, provide
funding for documented atmospheric methane level reduction, and frame and implement global
governance requiring the use of such methods to return atmospheric methane to preindustrial
levels as rapidly as possible.
Nitrous oxide is the third largest direct contributor to global heating and now the largest depleter
of stratospheric ozone. It arises from bacterial metabolism of excessive nitrogen fertilizer, FF
combustion and industrial processes. The most effective way to control agricultural emissions is
to use less fertilizer by better timing smaller amounts during the annual growth cycle.
Other nitrogen oxides associated with combustion produce tropospheric ozone, which has
contributed more to global heating than nitrous oxide. Fortunately, tropospheric ozone is
relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. Nitrogen fertilizers added to biofuel crops are
problematic in this context, but if FF combustion vehicles are replaced by electric or fuel cell
technologies where electricity and hydrogen come from zero-emitting sources, the effect of
heating by tropospheric ozone would rapidly disappear, and no nitrous oxide from fertilized
biodiesel or bioethanol vehicle crops would be burned into the atmosphere.
Our current crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and cultural disenfranchisement are all
rooted in the widespread degradation, destruction and commodification of land and natural
resources. Few ecosystems or ecoregions are sustainably managed for biodiversity and carbon
as well as production, and few have escaped adverse alteration through extractive economies
and methods. This has crippled complex, interdependent ecosystem processes - like pollination,
natural flood control and water purification.40 In many regions, the ecosystem goods and
services provided to humanity and other species are no longer available. The consequences of
lost ecosystem services are profound. While humans constitute just 0.01% of total living
biomass, the expansion of the human enterprise has eliminated 83% of wild animals and 50% of
natural plant biomass. From a fraction of 1% ten millennia ago, humans now constitute 36%,
and our domestic livestock another 60%, of the planet’s much expanded mammalian biomass -
compared to only 4% for all wild mammals combined.41,42
Fig. 1. A US example of collaborative municipal natural climate
solutions emphasizing the value of saving mature trees in carbon terms.
Credits as above. Click the image to enlarge.
Nature is all-encompassing in its benefits - not just a set of commodities
Protecting oceans, natural landscapes, and remaining primary forests43 are critical for
successfully accumulating carbon out of the atmosphere. Afforestation, from planting trees, has
relatively little impact on increasing forest carbon. But trees alone do not make a forest.
Proforestation is the practice of purposefully growing existing forests intact toward their full
ecological potential, as a nature-based solution protecting existing intact ecosystems to
maximize carbon storage, biodiversity, and structural complexity, including soil, mycorrhizal
fungi, insects, plants, lichens, etc.44,45 while avoiding emissions from harvesting of forest
products.46 Existing forests and grasslands could likely store twice as much carbon as they
currently do under alternative management practices.47 A study on western U.S. forests found
that reducing harvest by half of public lands would accumulate 10 times the carbon by 2100 as
planting trees now.48
If we exceed the global goal of protecting an effective 30% of land and water by 2030,49 while
rapidly halving FF use, natural systems can likely accumulate and store sufficient atmospheric
carbon and biodiversity to restore safety and stability to our climate and ecosystems. For the
past 60 years, natural ecosystems have removed 56% of all atmospheric CO2 added to the
atmosphere by human actions: 31% by existing forests and land plants, and 25% by oceans.1 It
is essential to accelerate this removal of atmospheric CO2 by protecting and restoring forests
and other land ecosystems, coastal mangroves and marshes, and ocean kelp forests.50,51 Yet a
disturbing number of tropical52 and temperate forests (Brazil and Canada) are now increasingly
susceptible to fragmentation, wildfires and invasive pests, and no longer store more carbon than
they release to the atmosphere.53 They have become carbon sources, instead of sinks.54
Conservation, restoration, rewilding will get our civilization back on track
Widespread conservation, restoration and rewilding are needed to help natural habitats recover
sufficient resilience to support the survival and migration of biodiversity, including humanity, in
the face of now-inevitable climate disruption. This is why bold goals such as the UN Decade of
Ecosystem Restoration, setting aside 30% of land and water by 2030 to protect biodiversity
through the Convention on Biological Diversity, and IUCN Motion 101, calling for setting aside
50% of our planet for nature, are essential - even if perceived as unattainable within current
economic and political systems. But such a goal requires a roadmap of action at local, regional,
national, and global levels. These actions must begin showing real headway in implementation
within the 2030 decade to be effective at securing our life-support system.
For the next decade we strongly recommend concerted actions in three areas associated with
Reduction, Removal and Repair (restore), at all scales from household to global:
(a) Actions to reduce (2022-2026) and then halt (2027-2030) habitat transformation,
even in peri-urban areas, through policies and bylaws for densification, sprawl
reduction, rezoning and repurposing and multi-purposing of underused transformed
habitats (e.g. extensive lawns, strip malls, and associated parking areas);
(b) Actions to remove pollutants from habitats, especially wetlands, soils and air, e.g.
through remediation of pesticides from soils, removal of lead shot from wetlands;
removal of airborne toxins through point-source interventions; an important action
would be the gradual internalization of all externalized costs (e.g. pollution), reduce
unnecessary consumption and conserve resources;
(c) Actions to repair (restore) prioritized critical habitats, including the rewilding of
ecosystems which have been depleted, particularly of apex predators and
economically important species and groups that shape and stabilize food webs;
(d) Actions to restore natural systems should include all plants, macro animals, insects,
fungi, lichens, soil and other bacteria and viruses that are components of a
functioning ecosystem and exclusion of invasive species to the extent possible.
(e) Actions to halt the burning of ‘forest bioenergy’ wood as a replacement for FFs, and
the subsidies that support the practice. This is more carbon intensive than burning
coal, and reduces the accumulation capacity of the forest because of the loss of the
harvested trees and associated disturbance.
Bioenergy continues to be subsidized in Europe, North America, Japan and elsewhere, despite
the carbon burden, air pollution, environmental justice issues, and very high cost.
Oceans annually remove and prevent an additional 25% of atmospheric CO2 increase1 and
store vast amounts of dissolved CO2 in several chemical forms, but this has led to long-term
acidification of the oceans, threatening coral reefs and many other living organisms and
imperiling ocean food webs and global food security.55 As ocean temperatures rise and society
diminishes its emissions of CO2, oceans will release some carbon back to the atmosphere,
slowing climate recovery.1
To “stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a concentration that will avoid dangerous
anthropogenic interference with the climate system”56 requires rapidly reducing CO2 and other
greenhouse gas emissions, while simultaneously increasing accumulation of carbon in forests
and other natural systems to remove as much atmospheric CO2 as possible. Photosynthesis by
forests and other land and ocean plants is the major means for removal. Proposed technological
CO2 removal is receiving attention and may be useful in limited circumstances, but the scale of
construction and energy intensity of removal and storage suggests this may have limited utility.
A useful quantitative summary of natural CO2 removals is in the Drawdown Table of Solutions.57
Major natural solution benefits are estimated for forest protection, restoration of temperate and
tropical forests, restoration of abandoned farmland soils, and peatland protection and rewetting.
Cities and communities have big roles to play
While major mandates for these actions sit at national, state/provincial, and county/district
levels, the most rapid and visible progress is often at more local city and community levels.
Local intensification to serve people in urban centers can leave more of the surrounding land
available for nature and natural processes. Within urban areas, urban trees provide shade and
evaporative cooling. Multipurpose urban food and energy gardens, densification and rezoning
for climate adaptation, multipurpose urban hubs, and restoration of landfills and industrial lands
for urban parks all use natural processes to provide needed services. Orlando, Florida, USA is a
good example of municipal reimagining of cities for biodiversity, people and carbon benefit.
4. FOOD SYSTEMS
After decades of improving nutrition levels, since 2014 the number of undernourished people in
the world is once again increasing.58 Extended and more frequent weather extremes such as
droughts, are impacting and will increasingly impact food production at local and global scales.
A few regions, mainly in northern latitudes, may see increased crop yields, but those in the
tropics and semi-arid zones are more likely to suffer net negative effects.59
Limits to production are already being reached
Although food production is projected to increase by up to 70%60 by 2050, its current impacts
are already vastly beyond levels that comply with planetary health goals. The food system is
responsible for more than a quarter of GHG emissions,61 around 70% of freshwater use, most
deforestation and nutrient run-off leading to freshwater and coastal dead zones.62 Nearly
doubling food production would increase GHG emissions proportionately if current patterns of
production and consumption persist.63 Even if FF emissions were halted immediately, ongoing
emissions from the food system would make limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C
unattainable.64 Fresh water is already being used in unsustainable volumes, with major aquifers
depleting65,66 and many of the world’s great rivers barely reaching their deltas for much of the
year due to over-extraction, causing seawater to invade the valuable delta soils.67 Soils are
being degraded due to overuse, or lost under urban development and infrastructure. And an
increasing proportion of fisheries are also in a parlous state of over-exploitation.58 Fertilizers
such as phosphorus and potassium could become scarce and costly as more accessible
sources are mined out.68 Production of nitrogen fertilizers can shift from dependence on natural
gas to electrolytic processes,69 and greatly increased nitrogen use efficiency will be necessary
to minimise nitrogen pollution.70
If we continued business-as-usual food production to 2050, even optimistic yield improvements
would be insufficient to prevent agricultural expansion to new areas, causing emissions from
carbon sinks.71-73 Globally, crop yields increased by 56% between 1965 and 1985, but only 20%
between 1985 and 2005, despite substantial, and unrepeatable, increase in the area irrigated.74
Major staple crops are reaching their genetic potential, barring major breakthroughs in genetic
engineering which are not guaranteed.75
Aligning food systems with planetary health goals
By one estimate, current production and consumption patterns could sustainably provide a
balanced diet for only 3.4 billion people.76 Shifting supply and demand has the greatest potential
to reduce food system impacts. Specifically, reducing meat and dairy demand and moving to
plant-based dietary patterns provides the greatest benefits across the suite of environmental
impacts from the food system - substantially reducing GHG emissions and the requirement for
land, water, pesticides and fertilizers.77,78, 63, 61,79 Water management is critical for increasing
crop production to match demand. Currently 40% of irrigated crops use water resources at an
unsustainable rate, causing aquifer depletion or inadequate environmental flows.80 However,
irrigation could be sustainably extended to around 26% of currently rainfed croplands,
potentially increasing global calorie production by 37%80 To achieve greater production growth,
water and land use efficiency should be paramount.81
Increasing cropping intensity tends to degrade soil carbon if not expertly managed. An
estimated 116 Gt of carbon (425 Gt CO2) have been released from soils over the history of
agriculture, most of it in the past 50 years.82 Although increasing soil carbon has been widely
promoted as a means of climate change mitigation, there are formidable social, technical and
logistical challenges to reversing soil carbon loss even in developed countries, and the
prospects for net gains on a global scale are severely undermined by the growth in food
demand. Less reliable weather patterns are likely to increase soil damage from overgrazing in
times of drought, and erosion during high rainfall. Often referred to as ‘regenerative agriculture’,
soil protection practices need to be prioritized for food security, climate change mitigation and
Taking a systems approach to food is essential
Relocalization of food supply has been advanced as a contribution to sustainability and food
security. However, the length of supply chains is a poor indicator of environmental footprints.84
Transport accounts for a relatively small portion (6%) of food system GHG emissions, with the
majority resulting from production.61
Moreover, billions of people lack sufficient local production capacity to meet their food needs. In
Africa and the Middle East, where almost all additional population growth is projected to occur,
rapidly increasing dependence on imported staple foods combined with widespread poverty
heightens vulnerability to supply shocks, such as those increasingly caused by extreme weather
events.85 Hungry people are angry people: a strong relationship exists between supply shocks,
the global food price index and the incidence of violent unrest.86 Low yields across Africa
suggest potential for productivity gains to mitigate import dependence. Yet this will require large
investments in infrastructure, especially for irrigation, and widespread uptake of fertilizers to
overcome phosphorus deficiencies, stem acidification and replenish nutrients removed in crops.
Reducing food waste can substantially reduce demand for food.87 Reducing harvest, storage
and processing losses requires substantial investments in infrastructure, information systems
and farmer training, so more attention is being given to consumer waste, stimulating many
initiatives to reduce waste in domestic, retail and hospitality sectors.88 There is some hope of
achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of halving food waste by 2050.88,89
The range of actions required across the food system gives a potential role to stakeholders from
local to global levels. National governments can facilitate production shifts through agricultural
subsidies and incentives, including transitioning some farmers' livelihoods to new enterprises,
which might extend beyond food production to the remit of habitat restoration to help meet
climate and biodiversity targets. While production shifts are the most crucial element of food
system transformation, it is also important to support consumers in aligning their diets with
planetary health goals. Clear national dietary guidelines, in addition to supportive regional food
systems are likely needed. City or institutional managers may adopt sustainable food
procurement targets. For example, procurement targets in Oslo aim to halve meat consumption
across the city’s canteens and institutions by 2023, and halve food waste by 2030.90
In summary, action is needed across three major components of the food system: production,
land, and farming practice.91 Shifting production from high impact foods (such as animal
products) to low impact foods (such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains), in addition to
reducing food waste, is essential for reducing current environmental impacts and preventing
further land conversion to agriculture. Even with such shifts, reducing the environmental impacts
of farming is also required. This can be partly through the use of technology to increase
efficiency of water use, for example, but also through adjusting farming practices to more
regenerative and less environmentally degrading methods. Shifting production is the crucial
enabling factor for food system transformation - allowing existing natural habitats to be
protected (and carbon sinks maintained), and reducing agricultural land requirements in turn
providing space for native vegetation (and carbon sinks) to be reinstated.
It is still conceivable that humanity can avoid major famines this century. But the convergence of
so many resource limits and environmental crises demands urgent action across the entire
global food system on many fronts simultaneously. Taking a systems approach is essential.
5. POPULATION STABILIZATION
Population growth and consumption are multipliers, exacerbating everything else
Global population is now roughly ten times the relatively stable pre-industrial level. The
associated consumption demand is massively, disproportionately so. The 80+ million extra
people added to the planet each year, equivalent to 10 New York Cities or a country the size of
Germany, make solving the issues above all but impossible. Climate instability, ecological
destruction, famine, social and political instability and insecurity, unprecedented suffering - all
our good works to forestall these are undercut and overwhelmed simply by needing to cut the
‘pie’ into an additional 80+ million pieces each year.
Acknowledging population and consumption as the two fundamental ‘multiplier threats,’ in both
public policy and broad public perception, globally and nationally, is the first step. The next is
significantly increased human wellbeing investments, through ethical and empowering health,
education and economic strategies assisting women and girls, and supporting men and boys.
This can already start to bend the global population curve by 2030.92 To significantly relieve our
planetary and institutional resources by 2050, bold actions are required by 2026 at all scales.
Scenarios that avoid calamitous outcomes assume that global population growth will slow, and
soon end. Yet this isn’t happening globally: the ‘demographic transition’ that made such
progress in the 1960s and 1970s slowed in the past 20 years, and investment in international
family planning programs faltered over the past 25 years, despite continued population growth.
Globally, births per woman fell by more than one in the 1970s, but by only 0.1 in the 2010s. With
twice as many women of childbearing age as 50 years ago, births have never been more
plentiful.93 Much more deliberate action is needed. To stabilize population and ease global
security, family planning should receive 4% of international aid budgets; women’s and girls’
voices should be heard on this, worldwide; and population and consumption should be
integrated into economic, social and political agendas worldwide, at all scales.
Society is changing fast anyway, everywhere
Women are increasingly choosing smaller families, to ensure that their children are better
provided for and to balance family life with economic and career opportunities. This is among
the most effective steps to reduce one’s impact on the planet.94 Many young people also
question the ethics of bringing children into a world so fraught with environmental crises.95,96 For
citizens of rich countries, having fewer children is the single most effective way to individually
reduce future GHG emissions.94,97 For those of poor countries, increasing economic and
educational advancement and urbanization are rapidly changing birth rates, although increasing
Many countries have perversely tried to increase birth rates, through ill-founded fears of the
economic impacts of an aging population. This ignores population growth’s enormous
contribution to countries’ carbon and ecological footprints.98 Such misconceptions contribute to
chronic underfunding of reproductive health and family planning services, and growing numbers
of women with unmet needs.99 Fulfilling these unmet needs could avoid 21 million unintended
births globally per year, while saving $3 on maternal and newborn health care for each dollar
spent on contraceptive services.100 The economic stimulus from slowing population growth
repays the investment more than one hundredfold within a few years.101
Effective measures for bending the curve
Despite 25-years of shortfalls in intergovernmental support for family planning programs, some
non-government initiatives have shown effective reach to under-serviced communities, and
transcended cultural barriers to family planning acceptance. For example, Population Media
Center’s serialized radio and television dramas in local languages in 50+ countries expose
people to new ideas and change attitudes toward women’s roles, family violence and
contraception.102 Adequate global and national funding for these reproductive norm-shifting
programs is an essential investment in human and planetary wellbeing.
A second positive development is the proliferation of Population-Health-Environment (PHE)
projects. Few environmental or livelihood programs in the past addressed linkages between
population growth and environmental stress, but this is changing. PHE projects integrate
community health and family planning alongside resource management and livelihoods, often
with greater community engagement and enthusiasm than single-sector projects.103-105 Linking
environmental health with population pressure improves men’s support for family planning.106
Yet such projects often lack sufficient scale and continuity of support. Improving these
measures would enable a steady annual reduction of the pressure on our planet and climate.
While lowered GHG emissions may not motivate everyone to have smaller families, the
improvement of family and community wellbeing certainly may. A smaller family improves
women’s health, infant nutrition, and access to schooling and employment prospects, while
easing pressure on the environment. All contribute to greater resilience to climate change107,108
and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.109 After a few decades, the lower
population trajectory becomes a dominant determinant of sustainable wellbeing.
Like planting a forest, our slow start only increases the urgency of our predicament. How we
normalize lower birth rates in this decade will make the difference between having 12 billion or 7
billion people to sustain in 2100.110 While accelerating the decline in fertility won’t contribute
much to phasing out FFs by 2050, it will significantly affect our trajectory for ending and
reversing deforestation.111-113,76 This is vital for achieving net-zero emissions.115 An Earth in
overshoot cannot sustain even the current 7.9 bn without unacceptable tradeoffs. We need to
acknowledge this, and find ethical, equitable ways to support smaller families and rapidly bend
the population and resource consumption curves.
6. ECONOMIC REFORMS
The global market economy represents a degree of social cooperation and coordination
unprecedented in the history of Homo sapiens. Yet as a delivery mechanism for the economic
flourishing of humanity now and for future generations, it is replete with deep structural flaws
that must be fixed if we are to effectively address the catastrophic effects of climate change,
extinction, poverty, and other converging crises.
Developing a conceptual framework for a sustainable and just economy has been a mainstay of
ecological economics and related disciplines for decades, and a principal focus for the United
Nations Conference on Environment and Development at its Earth Summit in 1992 and Rio+20
Summit in 2012. One of the most widely embraced frames is ‘doughnut economics’.115 It places
the ideal economic system within a safe operating space between a set of planetary boundaries
that cannot be breached without jeopardizing life on Earth, and a social floor of basic
guarantees that ensure all humans can live decent, healthy lives.7,116 An economy that operates
within this safe zone eliminates overshoot and advances each of the Sustainable Development
Our present patterns of consumption, production, trade and investment put us well beyond this
safe zone. Holes in the ozone layer, dead zones in the oceans, CO2 concentrations at 420
parts per million and rising, an extinction rate ten to a thousand times greater than nature’s
baseline rate117 and >1.2 billion people experiencing multidimensional poverty118 are stark
reminders that we are operating well above planetary boundaries and well below even the
stingiest standards of fairness and equity.
Governments, business leaders and individuals can all play roles in fixing the holes in both the
ceiling and the floor. But the urgency of today’s crises demands swift and decisive action by
governments at all levels. Government action, if carefully planned, can provide the enabling
conditions to dramatically scale up solutions offered by nonprofits and business leaders, and
major lifestyle changes by individuals.
Governments have many tools in the toolbox for steering the economy: taxation and spending,
monetary policy, investments, regulation, direct provision of goods and services, setting goals
and targets and by establishing and enforcing the rules of engagement – the institutional
arrangements that, for example, establish property rights and limits of liability.119, 120 To solve
humanity’s converging crises, all these tools need to be employed to catalyze the long overdue
transition to a sustainable, just and climate resilient regime. Some critical interventions include:
Replacing GDP growth with genuine progress as the primary goal of economic policy
In the past 200 years human societies turned the timeless and subsistence use of nature into an
economically profitable and destructive market economy powered by FF. Half of all CO2 from
FFs has been emitted since around the time of the UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change in 1992. Nature has also until recently been seen as a free source of commodities like
timber, water, land, soil and fish, without respect for nature’s role in providing habitats, critical
resources for other species, and ecological functions and services.40
Solving our related and equally urgent biodiversity and ecosystem crises will be a significant
part of solving our climate emergency.16 This requires a two-pronged approach, involving
immediate actions over the next decade, as well as profound but longer-term shifts in ethical,
social, cultural and economic values. Since the end of World War II, gross domestic product
(GDP) has been the dominant measure of economic health, although never designed for that
purpose.121 While GDP tells us important information about the level and monetary value of
production, consumption, trade, government spending, and national income, it tells us little
about the wellbeing of individuals, households and communities. Nor does it provide the right
economic signals when we breach planetary boundaries or fall below social floors. GDP growth
is celebrated even when it means growth only for the wealthiest, or when governments spend
enormous sums fighting wars and dealing with climate disasters, and when households spend
more on medical insurance and college tuition without improvements in health or education.
A global ‘beyond GDP’ movement has generated far better indicators to use to guide public
budgets. These alternative economic tools analyze the costs and benefits of policy interventions
and monitor economic performance.122 One metric extensively vetted by economists – the
Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) – is gaining traction worldwide.123, 124 GPI measures the net
benefits of economic activity – benefits minus costs - instead of counting all increases in
economic activity as positive. It goes well beyond GDP by assigning monetary value to
nonmarket contributions important for economic wellbeing such as unpaid labor, services from
both green and built infrastructure, and social benefits of education. While global GDP per
capita has increased steadily, human wellbeing has stagnated or fallen since the mid-1970s.125
Recently, federal legislation was introduced to move this metric to the forefront of economic
policy making in the US.126
Correcting market failures through carbon and other environmental taxes
In an efficient economy, prices should reflect not only the internal costs of producing a good or
providing a service, but also all external costs – like increased unemployment or climate change
– that are currently passed on to society. A gradual but determined strategy toward full social
cost pricing would dramatically improve market efficiency while reducing frivolous consumption.
Carbon and other environmental taxes provide a remedy for chronic underpricing but remain a
largely untapped tool, accounting for only 6.7% of total revenues in OECD countries.127 Carbon
taxes on all GHG polluting industries set at a credible social cost of carbon, when combined with
removing subsidies for FFs and other damaging products and practices, will decelerate
consumption of carbon intensive goods and services and generate badly needed revenues for
funding climate adaptation. However, market prices alone are unlikely to solve the full
dimensions of climate change and the degradation of nature.
Restoring natural capital and ecosystem services
The Earth’s remaining natural capital and biodiversity – in wild forests, rivers, grasslands,
wetlands and marine areas – provide services of immense economic value40 to humanity, like
carbon sequestration, flood control, water purification, pollination and disease control. They also
provide critical sources of food and medicine in both developed and developing nations and
sites for thriving tourism and recreation industries. Global estimates suggest the economic value
of ecosystem services to top $125 trillion per year, nearly double that of the economic
system.128 But their degradation and loss to society at large continue as more wild areas are
clearcut, paved over or polluted, to the benefit of private developers and the loss of humanity
and planet. Given the immense ecological and economic returns of protecting what’s left and
restoring natural capital and ecosystem services where they have been lost, protection and
restoration should be a strategy at the core of economic development and climate action
programs at all levels of government, to prevent near-term collapse of ecosystems and
Free trade is actually not free at all. Globalized trade comes with a steep price tag. Trade
exposes the world’s remaining stocks of natural capital to the largest possible market of ever-
wealthier consumers, thus accelerating depletion. Moreover, like many economic phenomena,
trade openness is subject to the law of diminishing returns. After a certain threshold, the
benefits of more and cheaper goods are outweighed by increasing costs of inequality, declining
wages, community instability, brain drains, pollution and CO2 emissions.129, 130 At least 30% of
transport sector GHG emissions are associated with international freight.131 Relocalization –
restoring socially efficient levels of local production – offers an opportunity to scale these
emissions back while fostering genuine economic progress in distressed economic regions, left
behind by the rush towards overspecialization and global hyper-trade. But to be successful,
barriers to localization – ranging from trade agreements to export subsidies – should be phased
Eliminating harmful subsidies
One of the tragedies of the global economy is just how much harmful economic activity is
sustained not by individual choice, but by deliberate market interventions by governments to
protect and expand the market share of favored industries and corporations - regardless of
social costs. For example, the US is the top global producer and consumer of wood products,
and to maintain this status the industry enjoys a diverse array of large tax breaks, subsidies,
and marketing assistance from the federal government and most states. Subsidies lower
production costs and consumer prices, thus artificially increasing consumption. Moreover, this
industry’s short rotation clearcutting practices are driving climate change and making the land
less resilient to its effects, including wildfire and pathogens.48, 132 The oil and gas industry,
corporate agriculture, and developers also enjoy generous subsidies. FF subsidies by
themselves were found to approach $5 trillion annually by a recent International Monetary Fund
(IMF) assessment, while subsidies for related sectors add at least another $1 tn.133,134
An increasing share of the means of production have fallen into the hands of investor-driven
corporations whose only goal is to provide maximum returns to short-term investors rather than
long term-benefits to society. Nowhere is the risk of this greater than in the colonization of the
world’s prime farm and forestland by these investors. Were these lands managed sustainably
for the long term, they could help bend the growth curve of atmospheric GHG concentrations
back towards a sustainable limit of under 350 ppm. Corporate land reform laws, such as those
enacted by midwestern USA states135 to protect family farms, are badly needed to begin the
process of transferring these lands back into the hands of families, indigenous communities,
cooperatives, land trusts, public benefit companies and other entities whose bottom lines are
consistent with regenerative agriculture and climate smart forestry solutions.
These are some of the most important interventions that regional, state/provincial, national and
global governments can take to accelerate the transformation of our global economic system
from a chaotic, deeply unjust and unsustainable free-for-all into a well-managed, equitable
vehicle protecting and restoring climate stability and biodiversity while ensuring adequate
livelihoods for all.
Yet there are material economic reforms that individuals can already demand of themselves,
their governments and corporations - at local, regional, national, and global scales, including:
Taxation and regulatory systems that ensure that prices properly reflect true
environmental and social costs of products and services.
Land rights and urban planning models that avoid perpetual land development, loss of
carbon and biodiversity, and annihilation of intact wilderness.
End of pronatalist policies designed to increase economic growth by adding additional
human labor and buyers - all while automation eliminates jobs.
Economic frameworks for profitable activities in ecosystem restoration, e.g. through
managed coastal retreat and restoring degraded ecosystems;
Densification of urban areas, multipurpose land uses, and other forms of efficiency
A culture of sufficiency and efficiency, rather than excess and waste.
III - BREAKING BARRIERS TO IMPLEMENTATION
How do we fix the proverbial car while we’re driving it? Our societal structures, values and
procedures are demonstrably inadequate for the task ahead. We have called for large-scale,
rapid, transformative changes in our economies, societies, cultures and politics - on a timescale
of almost superhuman speed. Several of us have worked intensely for many years in science-
driven and evidence-based public policymaking. We are not naïve about the odds of achieving
these changes - nor the difficulties of doing so within existing structures and processes of
government. The public can demand farsighted leaders willing to reform political systems to
resist powerful vested interests and manage the social and economic transitions associated with
decisive climate action. Each of us can also work to change the culture within society as well as
specific businesses and institutions to act responsibly and accelerate change. And each of us
can make changes in our own behavior.
Too many current leaders are willing to risk future catastrophe when it will be another’s problem.
Some of the changes needed are mundane, but require coordination across scales. Running
climate change preparedness workshops with provincial and local government planners in
South Africa in 2008-10, two of us realized that the difficulty of implementing transformative
change was often found at the most tedious level: basic compliance, planning and budgeting
processes. The civil servants in our workshops were often inspired to change, but hamstrung by
short planning horizons, performance indicators, budget cycles, restrictions on discretionary
spending and on shifts between budget allocations. All these defeated their best intentions to
plan better, save money, and reduce risks. Public management processes need reform to
enable rapid adaptation. This is not complex, but requires time and bold leadership. As the
climate and planet cannot wait for this reform to be complete, most nations, subnational
governments and business and institutions will need to invoke and monitor the success and
value of temporary measures. Another immediate step would be the consultative scheduling
and budgeting for priority actions and reforms.
Protest and other bottom-up demands for change and experimentation will help break through
barriers and instil urgent action. Social movements, NGOs, academics, the private sector
innovators all need to be part of the solution. This requires significant collaboration and social
learning.136 The youth have shown us this is possible for climate action and social justice.
Communities and governments, at all scales from local to global, have the responsibility now to
scale up solutions and actions in each of these areas. Scientists and others with essential
expertise can work together, and with those with the moral authority to engage society in the
massive cultural and economic change that is needed.
Finally: instability often brings out the worst in people, when the times require the very best.
Beyond rhetoric, our leaders are obliged, especially now, to uphold the culture and principles of
integrity, vision, and responsibility to future generations and others who are innocent of the
destabilization of our planet. Corruption has eaten deep into humanity’s moral fabric, leading to
widespread environmental, social and spiritual bankruptcy. Sadly, this “corruption tsunami” is
manifest in most nations: in corrupt electoral processes, questionable infrastructural
development financing, abuse of the rule of law, collusion in resource extraction contracts, and
stripping of the rights accorded to citizens under national constitutions and laws. We again ask,
what kind of leadership and systems of governance will take us successfully into the future?
IV - CONCLUSION
The time for empty commitments for the distant future of 2050 is over. The need for action is now.
Our challenges are less technical than social – taking the necessary actions quickly enough, in
all nations and governance regimes – particularly democratic ones - while maintaining adequate
social, economic and political stability to steer the ship of humanity safely into a wiser, more
sustainable world order. This will require unprecedented global collaboration, social learning,
and public awareness and pressure. This will profoundly challenge us all, and our systems of
planning, cooperation and governance.
Over the next decade, we have a stark choice: to demonstrate the very best of our natures as
Homo sapiens - cooperative, innovative, wise, and ethical, to learn from mistakes and create
better societies - or to go down with both a bang of conflict and a whimper of bickering,
entitlement and self-interest. That choice is ours. The actions or inactions of individual leaders in
government, communities and businesses in this decade will be remembered darkly, or
hopefully kindly. Everything we know and love is at stake.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Barnard, P., Moomaw, W.R., Fioramonti, L., Laurance, W.F., Mahmoud, M.I., O’Sullivan, J.,
Rapley, C.G., Rees, W.E., Rhodes, C.J., Ripple, W.J., Semiletov, I.P., Talberth, J., Tucker, C.,
Wysham, D., Ziervogel, G.*
*Phoebe Barnard and William Moomaw co-led the paper; other authors are listed in alphabetical order
Phoebe Barnard: a. Stable Planet Alliance, USA; b. Center for Environmental Politics, University of Washington, United States; c. African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, South Africa
William R. Moomaw: Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, Tufts University, United States
William F. Laurance: Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Cairns,Queensland 4878, Australia
Lorenzo Fioramonti, MP: a. Center for the Study of Governance Innovation, University of Pretoria, South Africa; b.
Member of Parliament, Italy
Mahmoud Ibrahim Mahmoud: National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Nigeria
Jane O’Sullivan: School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.
Christopher G. Rapley, CBE: Dept of Earth Sciences, University College London, United Kingdom
William E. Rees: School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, Canada
Christopher J. Rhodes, Fresh-Lands Environmental Actions, Berkshire, United Kingdom
William J. Ripple, Dept of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University, United States
Igor P. Semiletov, a. Laboratory of Arctic Research, Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far Eastern Branch of the Russian
Academy of Sciences; b. Institute of Ecology, Higher School of Economics, Russia
John Talberth, Center for Sustainable Economy, United States
Christopher Tucker, American Geographical Society, United States
Daphne Wysham, Methane Action, United States
Gina Ziervogel, Dept of Environmental and Geographic Science, University of Cape Town, South Africa
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