Europe cannot build healthy societies and vibrant economies on a degraded and diminished ‘natural capital’ as this ecological debt would ultimately lead to its demise, writes Demetres Karavellas.
Demetres Karavellas is the CEO of WWF Greece.
In its Living Planet Report released just last week, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) paints a rather grim picture on the future of life on Earth. Global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have already declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. The projection for the close of this decade is even more haunting. By 2020, global wildlife could drop to a 67% level of decline as a result of human activities.
At the same time, there are important developments in the international policy arena that may offer room for optimism. After many years of political inertia and heel-dragging, the Paris Agreement that just came into force, commits countries to meaningful climate action – not a moment too soon with record high greenhouse gas concentrations creating what scientists are calling a ‘new era of climate change reality’. Still, on an optimistic note, the UN sustainable development goals adopted in 2015, provide an agenda for putting development on a more sustainable path and restoring the balance between man’s footprint on the planet and the ability of natural systems to exist in a healthy state.
So can humanity win the race against time and finally begin to reverse the negative environmental trends of the past decades? I would certainly like to hope so. But as a seasoned conservationist, frustrated by the slow pace of positive change and the prevalent and annoying ‘business as usual’ mentality, in looking for solutions, I am continuously reminded of one of Albert Einstein’s famous quotes – “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Now is the time for change. Now is the time that we need to totally rethink how we produce, consume, measure success and indeed value the natural environment and its relation to our own well-being.
In a discussion paper released this week, WWF Greece presents a new concept that aims to transform debt into a force for good. According to The Economist, global sovereign debt presently accounts for roughly 60 trillion dollars. Imagine a situation where at least part of this massive amount of money is transformed into funding for sustainable development and nature conversation, using the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for action. Could this be a win-win situation worth pursuing? We believe so and we propose to kick off this novel approach with the case of Greece.
This is the basic idea: Substantial debt relief is approved for Greece on the basis of an environmental agreement and clear conditionalities that foresee measures for nature conservation, green economy and job creation. This is much bigger than Greece. Such a scheme of sustainable debt relief would bring Europe together in a collective effort to conserve European natural heritage and promote a model for green economic development that benefits people’s lives and creates more opportunities for future generations.
Compared to many of its European counterparts, Greece is certainly not an affluent country. In terms of biodiversity and natural resources however, this country hosts species, habitats and natural features that render it one of the richest on the continent. In terms of its economy, Greece is certainly in dire financial straits. Its debt stands at 177% of its GDP and is clearly not sustainable. Austerity measures agreed through three different economic adjustment programmes and implemented over the last 6 years have left society in a tragic state with unemployment soaring at 23.4% from 12.6% in September 2010, and the percentage of households making ends meet with great difficulty doubling since 2007, by far the highest in the EU. The environment has also paid the price of the economic crisis, with a clear trend towards environmental deregulation and a loss of much of the country’s environmental acquis over the last six years. People have suffered. The environment has suffered. Τhe economy is none the better. Change is long overdue.
Europe finds itself in troubling times, unfortunately on many fronts. Whatever the future, one thing is clear. We cannot build healthy societies and vibrant economies on a degraded and diminished ‘natural capital’ – ultimately, this ecological debt will lead to our demise. There is still time to reverse the trends. There is still time to put Greece and Europe on a sustainable path. I say we give it a try.