I see people erroneously believe and say that economic interests and environmental interests are in conflict. But new research makes the case that this perception of development vs. conservation is not just unnecessary but actively counterproductive to both ends. Achieving a sustainable tomorrow will be dependent on our ability to secure both thriving human communities and abundant and healthy natural ecosystems.
Protecting nature and providing water, food and energy to a growing world do not have to be either-or propositions. Instead, calls for smart energy, water, air, health and ecosystem initiatives that balance the needs of economic growth and resource conservation equally. Rather than a zero-sum game, these elements are balanced sides of an equation, revealing the path to a future where people and nature thrive together.
The World Health Organization, World Economic Forum and other leading global development organizations now say that air pollution and water scarcity—environmental challenges—are among the biggest dangers to human health and prosperity. And our business-as-usual analysis makes clear what many already fear: that human development based on the same practices we use today will not prepare us for a world with nearly 10 billion people.
To put it simply, if we stay on today’s current path, we risk being trapped in an intensifying cycle of scarcity—our growth opportunities severely capped and our natural landscapes severely degraded. Under this business-as-usual scenario, we can expect global temperature to increase 3.2°C; worsened air pollution affecting 4.9 billion more people; overfishing of 84 percent of fish stocks; and greater water stress affecting 2.75 billion people. Habitat loss continues, leaving less than 50 percent of native grasslands and several types of forests intact.
Achieving a sustainable tomorrow for people and nature is possible with existing and expected technology and consumption, but only with major shifts in production patterns. Making these shifts will require overcoming substantial economic, social and political challenges. In short, it is not likely that the biophysical limits of the planet will determine our future, but rather our willingness to think and act differently by putting economic development and the environment on equal footing as central parts of the same equation.