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Growth within the limits
Interview to Andres Wijkman
di Diego Tavazzi

In questo articolo parliamo di:
Natura in bancarotta
Perché rispettare i confini del pianeta

di Wijkman Anders, Rockström Johan
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Identified and presented in 2009, the planetary boundaries have immediately become a fundamental element in the most advanced proposals in terms of sustainability. We asked Anders Wijkman, author with Johan Rockstrom of Natura in bancarotta Club of Rome's Report, to illustrate the relationship between the theory of planetary boundaries, development and social justice and economic systems.

I’d like to start from the 2009 paper, “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”, in which for the first time the planetary boundaries were inviduated and defined. The concept of planetary boundaries has gone through many severe critiques: do you think it needs some correction?

The PB has received on balance a remarkable international support. But of course there are critiques: These come essentially in 2 strands:
The 1st is a fundamental critique, that states that there is no scientific evidence for global scale tipping points among all nine planetary boundaries. This is true. The theoretical framing of PBs does not require that all PB processes manifest planetary scale thresholds. On the contrary, the PB framework asks the question which environmental processes that regulate the current Holocene state of the planet. This include processes with global tipping points (such as climate, oceans and ozone layer), but also the biosphere systems that function as sinks and sources of GHGs, which do not show evidence as of yet of planetary scale tipping points.
 The 2nd critique is that the PB framework is not relevant for policy. This is an odd critique. The PB framework was never designed primarily to be adapted to policy. It was a challenge to Earth System science. That it has received so much interest in policy and business, lies probably in the recognition of the inherent importance of the message it carries. There is, no doubt, a need to downscale planetary boundaries from global to regional to national scale, and several research initiatives have and are exploring this
A 3rd critique is that the PB framework misses out on fairness/equity, just because it focuses on setting the biophysical boundaries on Earth without addressing poverty, equity, hunger, etc. This is a frustrating misunderstanding, as the conclusion is that the PB framework places an explicit focus on the ethical rights of poor communities to development (right of access to the remaining ecological space on Earth). Efforts by e.g, Kate Raworth (a strong supporter of the PB framework) to combine the original PB ceiling with a social floor, to create the PB “doughnut”, is a very important advancement.

What are the most credible proposal to improve (or to overcome) the current economic and financial system?
This is a very challenging question, almost impossible to respond to in a few words. What comes to mind is a combination of policy failures, including lack of political will, and serious shortcomings in the neo-classical economic framework. Most economists agree that external costs - like pollution and degradation of ecosystems and biodiversity - should be internalized and reflected in market prices. In most areas politicians refuse to do so; what is worse, in many areas - like fossil fuels, fisheries, forestry, transportation etc - they do subsidize environmentally harmful practices. In addition the economic model used almost all over the world has many shortcomings - such as not assigning a value to nature, the belief that all types of capital are easy to substitute - but we cannot “eat money” - the way discounting of future values is happening, the belief that conventional growth can and must go on forever etc.
With regard to the financial system it has gone totally out of control. It does not support the real economy the way it should and it does not give priority to long-term sustainability.
So, in essence, we need a fundamental reform of both the economic and financial systems. The main thing to have economists understand is that the economic system is a subsystem of the natural system and not the other way around! But we are far away from that.

What are the countries that are performing better in the green economic sector? And, much more important, why?

I see very few examples of that. But a few countries stick out. Denmark when it comes to energy efficiency. Germany when it comes to renewable energy. Costa Rica when it comes to protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. China is an example of horrific pollution levels, but at the same time they are really trying - at least in policy documents - to address the problems the big way.

I’d like to finish with a very “difficult” question: according to you, are there reasons for optimism?
Yes, simply because there are so many opportunities to do things in a more intelligent way. We have all the knowledge we need. But people don´t respond to facts alone. We have to develop a story, a narrative, that is attractive. Maybe we can get some help from behavioral scientists or from neuro-scientists?!


Anders Wijkman is senior advisor at Stockholm Environment Institute and co-president of the Club of Rome.