Halving the footprint of production and consumption is critical to protecting nature and ourselves

Credit: Karine AIgner / WWF-US

September saw world leaders meet virtually for the UN General Assembly. It was a historic moment for nature — with biodiversity loss finally receiving the attention it deserves via a special summit featuring statements from leaders from 124 countries, including 65 Heads of State and Government; and more than 70 countries endorsing a Leader’s Pledge for Nature in the lead-in, committing to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030.

This momentum for nature comes not just in the context of a global pandemic that has forced us to re-examine our relationship with the natural world, but in response to a series of damning reports that have outlined the extent of our nature crisis, and its impacts on our health, well-being and livelihoods. Voices from across society are calling for urgent action, to safeguard people and the planet.

It is crucial that we now work together to ensure this unique movement translates into ambitious action to address the interdependent crises of nature loss, climate change and health. With the Conferences of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and a Food Systems Summit all taking place in 2021, and with more and more leaders calling for nature loss to be reversed, then an ambitious and integrated set of transformative targets to set nature well on the path to recovery by 2030 is urgently needed, in support of climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals. In doing so nature can become an essential component of the economic recovery from the impacts of the current pandemic — a green and just recovery.

A key driver of nature loss is humanity’s footprint of production and consumption, i.e. the impact of our production, consumption and related socioeconomic activities on nature and nature’s ability to sustain us. Concepts such as Planetary Boundaries, Ecological Footprint and Material Footprint all indicate that we have already significantly surpassed the carrying capacity of our planet’s natural systems and are cutting away at their ability to provide essential services that support both our health and well-being and the global economy.

Infographic by Metabolic

Halting and reversing nature loss, while meeting other global societal goals and promoting equity, is possible through transformative change, including a major and urgent shift in how we produce and consume.

In order to better understand the extent to which we must decrease our global footprint of production and consumption, and the steps necessary to bring it within sustainable levels, WWF recently commissioned a study by Dutch consultancy Metabolic to develop a framework for measurable action and outcomes. The report, published today, provides an extensive set of targets and actions that must be embraced in order that we rise to meet the challenge of halving the footprint of the world’s production and consumption. They are crucial to delivering a nature-positive and resilient future that supports human health and livelihoods in the long-term.

With this in mind, efforts to conserve and protect natural habitats on land and sea along with initiatives to protect and recover species must be complemented by a goal of cutting in half the impact of everything the world produces and consumes in the next decade.

What action is needed?

Public policies at different scales are needed to deal with the complex governance systems that govern production and consumption patterns. They set the boundary conditions driving production and consumption practices. Levers such as regulation, fiscal measures, including taxes and subsidies, capacity building and awareness raising can all be used to address the root causes of nature’s degradation. Effective design and implementation of policies will require the full participation and ownership of all actors from governments and businesses, as well as civil society — including Indigenous Peoples and local communities, women and youth. It will only be possible to achieve conservation targets through recognising the leadership and rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to their lands, territories and resources, to ensure fair and better outcomes for people and planet.

While it is clear that the global footprint will need to decrease, there is a high degree of consumption inequality between and within countries. Realising distributional equity is equally important to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and to create fair solutions to address the overexploitation of natural resources. For some parts of the world, consumption should actually increase, while being decreased in high-income countries. Only fair and just solutions will create momentum for global action to reduce our (global) footprint.

Next year, at COP15 of the CBD, the world will conclude the negotiation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, a global agenda for nature and people for the next decade. The aim of this framework should be to halt and reverse nature loss so that we have more and healthier nature by 2030. It is clear that direct conservation actions are essential but they cannot achieve this alone: the framework must also include ambitious and comprehensive actions to address the footprint of production and consumption as a key driver of biodiversity loss.

It is essential that the global biodiversity framework contains clear action-based targets for the next decade for the key economic sectors that drive overproduction and consumption, and their national and trans-national supply chains. These sectors include food and agriculture, forestry, fisheries, infrastructure, tourism, energy and mining, and manufacturing and processing. For example, halving food waste and post-harvest loss along the entire value chain, halving the global footprint of diets, shifting to a lower share of animal calories in high meat consuming countries, halving the use of biocides and preventing other forms of pollution such as plastic and mercury emissions from coal combustion and gold mining, and the elimination of all illegal fisheries are some of the many targets that will need to be embraced and implemented.

Measurability of actions and outcomes nationally is key as well to improve accountability and transparency, and there is much data already to draw from. For example, the area of forest under Forest Stewardship Council-certified management, Forest Specialist Index, area of land under organic production, the Ocean Health index, the Wild Bird index for farmland birds are all indicators that will help ensure progress is monitored nationally and adding-up globally. Where gaps exist within the data, they should be addressed with urgency, but this should not be a primary reason to defer action.

These actions must collectively add up to achieve halving the footprint of production and consumption in the next 10 years, while at the same time addressing distributional inequities. The negotiation of the framework is a unique opportunity to transform the drivers of nature loss, away from harming nature towards supporting the conservation and restoration of nature. This transformation is urgently needed, if only to limit risks of more and irreversible damage (e.g. species extinction, new pandemics) and higher restoration costs.

The current draft of the global biodiversity framework is a small step in the right direction, for example with the inclusion of a target on sustainable supply chains. However, the proposal is far from adequately addressing footprint issues that are driving the loss of nature. If that doesn’t change, implementing the framework will in the end be like pushing water uphill with a rake: incapable of addressing the current biodiversity crisis.

A nature-positive world, that safeguards human and planetary health, is within our grasp. Leaders can and must build on the ambition shown at the UN Summit on Biodiversity, and through implementing the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, to set nature on the path to recovery this decade. Determination, and action, are urgently needed.

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