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Only 10 years left Experts warn of environmental calamity, call for "systemic change" at Tokyo Forum 2020 Online

December 14, 2020

Global experts convene for a high-level special dialogue session of Tokyo Forum 2020 Online on Dec. 3, 2020. UTokyo Executive Vice President Naoko Ishii, seated at bottom right in a Tokyo studio, is joined from overseas by speakers, including (clockwise from top right): Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Director Johan Rockstrom; Vera Songwe, U.N. undersecretary-general and U.N. Economic Commission for Africa executive secretary; Global Optimism Founding Partner Christiana Figueres; World Economic Forum Managing Director Dominic Waughray; and former Unilever CEO Paul Polman.

Humanity has created civilizations and attained the economic prosperity that we enjoy today thanks to the stable and resilient “Earth system” of the last 12,000 years. But experts and scientists are delivering a somber warning that we can no longer continue the way we live and do business, if we want to sustain our prosperity in the latter half of this century. In fact, they say we have only 10 years left to avert an irreversible environmental calamity.

“I want to really nail down the idea that it is over the next 10 years ... that we can influence what is going to happen in the future,” said Christiana Figueres, founding partner of Global Optimism, a group fighting climate change, and former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “The scary thing is that after 2030, it basically doesn’t matter what humans do because ... we will lose total control (over the Earth system).”

Her blunt warning came on the first day of Tokyo Forum 2020 Online, which was held Dec. 3 and 4. Some 30 renowned speakers from around the world, including Japan, South Korea, Africa, Europe and the United States, with academic, business, policymaking and environmental backgrounds took part in this international symposium.

Human history has reached a make-or-break point. Human activity has been putting huge pressure on our planet since the mid-20th century, eroding stability and resilience of the Earth system seriously. As indicated by ongoing extreme climate events and zoonoses like COVID-19, the tipping point for the Earth to stop supporting our prosperity forever is just around the corner from now, say experts.

UTokyo President Makoto Gonokami

Given this sense of urgency, the Tokyo Forum was held under the theme of “Global Commons Stewardship in the Anthropocene,” to show that it is important to understand that our lives are supported by a stable and resilient Earth system, and our climate, forests, land, water and oceans are the very foundation of our development, that is our Global Commons. Since the mid-20th century, our economic system has pushed the carrying capacity of the Earth system to its breaking point. Climate change and biodiversity loss are symptoms of a collision of two systems: the economic system and the Earth system. Geologists are saying that we have entered the Anthropocene, the era of humans, which follows the geologic epoch of the last 12,000 years, known as the Holocene.

“Humans are the first species which has started to alter the function of the Earth system,” said University of Tokyo President Makoto Gonokami in kicking off the symposium, which was co-sponsored by UTokyo and South Korea’s Chey Institute for Advanced Studies. “To tackle those challenges, we need a systemic transformation of our current economic model so that our prosperity is sustained within the boundaries of our Earth system, our Global Commons.”

There have been many attempts to address this crucial issue at the global level. They include the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change and the private sector’s use of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors to evaluate progress in terms of achieving sustainability.

But in reality, the world has not worked together sufficiently to tackle the challenge, prioritizing national or business interests instead.

“What we need is humanity together, not any country first,” Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University in the U.S. said in his keynote address. “This is a Global Commons challenge ... . We need governance and social harmony; we need to be guided by knowledge and by science in order to face challenges.”

Finding missing pieces

Naoko Ishii, UTokyo executive vice president and director of the Center for Global Commons (CGC), a new institution launched at UTokyo in August 2020, served as content producer for this year’s forum. Ishii said the aim of the symposium was to recognize the scale and speed of the changes to address our unprecedented crisis, and to identify “missing pieces” to realize pathways to protect the Global Commons. The symposium provided an opportunity to lay out several tools to fill the missing pieces, such as scenario modeling, the Global Commons Stewardship Index, and building coalitions of multiple stakeholders to transform systems.

Chey Tae-Won, chairman of SK Group

Although the challenge to identify and practice these pathways is a daunting one, many of the participating experts said there is hope, especially in the financial and business sectors.

“Eco-friendly business practice, social value creation and trust-earning governance are now imperative for (business) survival,” said Chey Tae-Won, chairman of South Korea’s SK Group (which founded the Chey Institute). “In reality, today’s investment standard is already forcing changes in corporate behavior. Today’s stakeholders and investors fully understand that companies’ ESG performance has an ultimate impact on long-term success.”

Figueres also mentioned activities by the financial sector as a positive sign that we may be moving toward attaining sustainable development. She said many investment firms have excluded coal as an asset from their portfolios and are increasingly cautious about including oil and gas stocks. “There are 18 central banks, including the central bank of China, that are currently doing climate stress tests to (their) economy,” Figueres said, noting that this shows that the financial sector has begun to understand the danger humanity now faces.

Reducing the pressure on the Earth system also presents opportunities for the business sector, said Paul Polman, honorary chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and former CEO of global consumer goods giant Unilever. “Now, the Sustainable Development Goals need business,” Polman said. “I’ve looked at the 17 goals and 169 targets (of SDGs), and 85% of them require business, without any doubt. I also believe that business needs the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Political initiatives needed

But this challenge cannot be met by any company alone, Polman said. It will require efforts by entire industries to change their practices, he said, and a serious effort by governments to create the right framework to protect the Global Commons.

The experts taking part in the forum welcomed recent pledges by world leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. Suga and Kim have said their countries will go carbon neutral by 2050. Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged that China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, will go carbon neutral by 2060. And U.S. President-elect Joe Biden plans to steer the United States to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a reversal of the policy of outgoing President Donald Trump.

Naoko Ishii, UTokyo executive vice president and director of the Center for Global Commons

But Ishii was not overly optimistic. “It is great that close to 70% of GHGs (greenhouse gases) are now covered by countries which are committed to become carbon neutral by midcentury. The question for us is, do we really know how to get there?” she said. “How can we do things differently tomorrow, as a consumer, an investor and a business? That is a missing piece for us, to ensure those commitments are realized to the real pathways forward.”

Ishii said that’s where the CGC comes in. Its aim is to create an integrated framework for all stakeholders on the Earth to steward the Global Commons, which includes scenario pathways to achieve sustainable development within ”planetary boundaries,” including climate and biodiversity, by midcentury, as well as the indexes to guide policymakers and businesses towards the respective stewardship targets. By transforming the socioeconomic systems along such pathways guided by indexes, she said, humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

The pilot version of the Global Commons Stewardship Index (GCSi) debuted at the forum on Dec. 4. It is a part of the Global Commons Stewardship Project, a joint undertaking by CGC, sustainability consultancy SYSTEMIQ, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the World Resources Institute. Forum participants hailed GCSi as a potentially effective tool to guide policymaking by quantitatively measuring country-level efforts to steward the Global Commons.

Regional, global cooperation essential

Sachs, meanwhile, welcomed the recent agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, a free trade agreement among 15 Asia-Pacific nations that account for almost a third of the world’s gross domestic product. “Partnership is very important, because those 15 countries together constitute about a quarter of humanity and one of the great regions of technological advancement, to enable us to have the tools for stewardship of the Global Commons,” he said.

Transregional cooperation is also a must, stressed Vera Songwe, U.N. undersecretary-general and executive secretary of the organization’s Economic Commission for Africa. For example, she said, Africa can sell its unused carbon emission allowances to Asia to achieve net-zero emissions in both regions. Songwe said that can create jobs in Africa, grow its economy, solve health problems stemming from poor cooking gases and stop deforestation.

“Can we come together, see whether we can de-risk, whether we can bring some blended financing to Africa, for new investments in energy, for new investment in roads?” Songwe said. “We need high-speed trains — Asia does them very well — so it’s win-win: We bring the investments from Asia, we create jobs on the continent and we’re moving to net zero at the same time, and also managing the debt sustainability conversation because the costs of borrowing in countries like Japan are quite low.”

Tokyo Forum 2020 Online brought together about 30 distinguished experts from around the world.

On a global scale, 2021 will be a critical year in terms of addressing the Global Commons challenge. Participants expressed hope for breakthroughs at several key meetings: the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon; the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China; the U.N. Food Systems Summit in New York; and the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC in Glasgow, U.K. Global initiatives are particularly important at a time when the average global temperature has already risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius from the preindustrial level, and while the Paris Agreement is calling on nations to make efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees in 2030, according to forum participants.

The panel sessions touched on the COVID-19 crisis, caused by an animal disease transmitted to humans arising from a collision between nature and human activities, which has revealed the weakness and fragility of our society and economy, while it also presents an opportunity to realign our pathway to a sustainable socioeconomic system.

Also discussed were food systems, which present a major threat to the Earth system.

“We need a massive transformation ... because our food systems have already created very large strains on our environment, on our economy, on our soil and on our water,” Fan Shenggen, former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said during the panel discussion. “Unless we do something, we’ll experience the tipping point where we aren’t able to go back. So, we have to work together (at multiple levels).” Agnes Kalibata, special envoy for the U.N. Food Systems Summit, emphasized the needs of inclusiveness and invited audience members to share their ideas.

The session on the global cyber commons featured a discussion of how the widespread, interconnected role of digital technology is facilitating innovative input in the effort to protect the Global Commons. It was also noted that there are still challenges in this domain, such as the transparency of data and barriers to universal access and usage of data, in addition to adverse effects on the environment due to the use of massive amounts of energy.

In a nutshell, the speakers at the Tokyo Forum agreed that we have to change the way we live and to understand that protecting the Global Commons is crucial if we want to sustain a thriving, yet resilient, economy that can support the human population and nature at the same time. “That shift in mindset is what is going to allow us to do what we need to do over the next 10 years,” Figueres said.

This year’s Tokyo Forum follows last year’s inaugural event. Under the theme of “Shaping the Future,” UTokyo and the Chey Institute plan to hold the Tokyo Forum annually for at least 10 years to stimulate discussions on the best ideas for shaping the world and humanity, as the world continues to face complex challenges.

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