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Food for Thought, UNFCCC, Planet 51

by Felix Dodds Executive Director, Stakeholder Forum
15th Decmber 2009, UNFCCC in Outreach

I am a sucker for cartoons – I love to buy them for my kids – so I can have a small excuse for watching them. I just had the pleasure of watching Planet 51. It is premised on a wonderful idea: what it would be like if “we” were the aliens arriving on what we thought was an uninhabited planet. Add to that the tasty  ingredient: that the planet seems to be full of of green men, woman and children living in 1950s America... when life was easier and everyone had white picket fences....well not everybody...

I watched the film just after an email from the Global Footprint Network had dropped in my inbox, through on the excellent Climate L list server, managed by IISD. They were saying that there is a widening gap between the human demand on ecological services and what nature is able to produce. They suggested that it would now take: “nearly one and a half Earths to generate all the resources humanity consumes and absorb all our CO2 emissions,”

It now takes approximately 18 months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in one year. Of course the challenges we face are not only climate change, but also: “biodiversity loss, shrinking forests, declining fisheries and freshwater stress.”  

Only last month in Nature a group of scientists looked at nine areas where they feel we need to recognise limits. These are interconnected - so what happens in one impacts on the others.

The nine areas that were studied were: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. 

The scientists have placed numbers that biophysical boundaries should not be pushed beyond. If course the thresholds can be disputed but they suggest that the three that have already been exceeded are:

·         Climate change - Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations not to exceed 350 parts per million; the current concentration is 387 ppm;

·         Biodiversity loss - Biodiversity loss should be no more than ten times the background rates of extinction; currently species loss is between 100 and 1,000 times the natural rate; and,

·         Nitrogen concentration – Reduce the flow of new reactive nitrogen into watercourses and oceans to 25 percent of its current value, or about 35 million tonnes of nitrogen per year.

It was Barbara Ward and  René Dubos who told us in 1972 in their book ‘Only One Earth’ that there were limits. As did the Club of Rome on their book; Limits to Growth again in 1972. Sometimes it seems that we no matter what information the scientists tell us we are unable to take the action until we have reached and exceeded thresholds.

At Rio+20 in 2012 or rather Stockholm+40 we will need to ask what have we done to work within the limits of our planet.

Life in the 1950s was so much simpler but underlying it was the same possibility that we had in our hands the possibility of destroying our planet. For years we lived under the threat of: “Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.).   We are now living under a new M.A.D. – what will be the response of this generation of political leaders?