The Great Transition To A New Relationship With The Planet

01/09/2016 14:32 | Updated 01 September 2016

The dinosaurs didn't see the asteroid coming 65 million years ago. There was nothing they could do to stop the mass extinction then. But this time, it's at the hand of humans and, in the end, it's likely to trigger our own demise too.

We depend on biodiversity of animal and plant life on our planet for survival, whether it's pollinating our crops, supplying clean water, providing seafood, stabilizing our climate or any of the many products and services nature offers. In just a few decades, we have rapidly accelerated the destructive, wasteful and unsustainable use of our natural resources. We have pushed ocean ecosystems to the brink of collapse, halved wildlife populations and we are driving species to extinction at up to a thousand times the natural rate.

Our oceans, rivers and forests are struggling to cope with our growing pressure upon them and then add climate change -- and suddenly you have a great big asteroid hurtling towards us. Growing scientific evidence tells us that we are surpassing the boundaries of what the planet can cope with, including the limits of its regenerative capacity.

This era -- our time -- has been named the Anthropocene, the 'Age of Humans', where for the first time humans rather than nature are driving change.

We are living at a time where human activity is putting the Earth's life support systems, like the air we breathe, at grave risk. And yet it's not too late because change has already begun. We now know --skeptics and interest groups aside -- that the science is definitive and awareness for the need to alter our development model has never been greater. The issue is crystal clear: we have to decouple human development from environmental degradation. Without that, it will be impossible to build a prosperous and equitable future for ourselves in a ransacked and degraded environment.

This knowledge and awareness is beginning to drive change. While 2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 is on course to beat that record, there is also good news. Global carbon dioxide emissions have stabilized over the last two years, China's coal consumption is decreasing for the first time and investment in renewable energy has surpassed that of fossil fuels. Furthermore, there is the Paris Climate agreement that although not perfect, is for the first time uniting the world, including all major emitters, to aim to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Despite alarming declines in wildlife populations, there is also progress. While the killing of rhinos and elephants is still rampant in Africa, the US and more notably China, are moving towards banning their domestic ivory trade and Nepal has achieved four years of zero poaching of rhinos since 2011.

Equally important, in 2015 we also recognized that previously separate social, economic and environmental agendas must be interlinked and are in fact one. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a development framework where economy, social issues and the environment come together for the first time are uniting governments, businesses and society to join forces to think and act differently.

Momentum is on our side. It is possible. We can do it. In fact, you could argue that we have already entered the "Great Transition" toward a sustainable future.

For too long we have been told that conserving the environment removes economic opportunities for people. But that's wrong. Protecting natural areas and ecosystems does not have to be anti-development. We are not going to develop a just and prosperous future, nor defeat poverty and improve health, if we don't protect and wisely use the foundation of our well-being - nature.

To change our self-destructive course we need a dramatic and fast transformation. Consumption and production needs to become sustainable and responsible. Financial flows need to focus on development that respects the integrity of natural systems. With accurate science, integrated and inclusive planning, it is possible for humanity to move from wasteful vandals to responsible managers and stewards of our planet and its resources.

This month the environmental community will come together at International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) World Conservation Congress to chart an ambitious course to reverse our destructive trajectory and create plans for embracing the opportunities that will allow the change required.

WWF has recently been through a deep reflection on how we need to think and act differently about the challenges and opportunities of our time. WWF will do this through: powerful, unconventional alliances which embrace environmental and development issues concurrently; boosting innovation and embracing disruption; and by directing our focus on systemic change in key sectors which are today's drivers of environmental degradation, but could become the solutions, namely financial flows, markets, production, consumption and governance.

Like any major transition, it's going to be tough and complex. But progress is already tangible. The speed and the scale of this transition is key, and will define success or failure for people and the planet. This is a perhaps a daunting task, but what an unmissable opportunity for this generation to address perhaps the biggest challenge of our civilization and build a new relationship with the planet - where humans and nature can prosper in harmony.

This post is part of a series on the World Conservation Congress taking place this week. Held every four years, it brings together about 6,000 people, including heads of state, government officials, business leaders, representatives from indigenous groups, scientists, academics, influencers, educators, artists and NGOs, from all over the world to discuss and decide on solutions to the world's most pressing environmental challenges. To read all the posts in this series click here.