Feature Story

Taming Bigfoot

October 24, 2016

Urban population is expected to grow by 700 million each decade until 2060.

Welcome to the Anthropocene, an era built on centuries of economic growth. In the 50 years before this new age, the human economic footprint grew faster in terms of GDP than at any time in recorded history. By the year 2100, it could grow to Bigfoot proportions, possibly 1,000 times the size it was in 1900.

This rapid growth has been a sign of markets working, leading to broader prosperity and falling real commodity prices despite a 25-fold increase in demand. Poverty levels dropped, demand in emerging markets skyrocketed and the global middle class is likely to double or even triple by 2030.

These economic advances have been built on a key characteristic of the old geologic era, the Holocene: stability. For 10,000 years, patterns of temperature, precipitation and seasonality stayed essentially the same, with global temperatures varying less than a degree. This “Goldilocks” pattern – not too hot or cold – encouraged society to grow. But we have taken the stability of our global environmental systems for granted – just as we have the global environmental commons that sustain them.

Economic growth has reached a scale that puts the global commons under immense pressure from such threats as climate change, pollution, extinction, habitat loss, overuse and over-extraction. Unlike in functioning economic markets, no clear market signals or rules and regulations exist to manage the global environmental commons. And current traditional approaches to securing them have fallen far too short.

The resulting Bigfoot-size impact of cumulative human economic and industrial activities severely strains the commons. So what can be done when doing more of the same is clearly not enough?

Four revolutionary shifts in social and economic life are needed to tame Bigfoot-style economic impacts and safeguard the global commons.

First, as the global population shifts quickly from rural to urban, transforming the world’s cities from congested, disorganised and sprawling to compact, connected and coordinated ones are critical. The magnitude of the shift can be mind-boggling: in 1900, only 3% of people lived in cities; now 55% do. Urban population is expected to grow by 700 million each decade until 2060, while 3 billion people are expected to join the global middle class, almost all of them in urban areas.

Congestion and sprawl are expensive. In the United States alone, urban sprawl costs an estimated $1 trillion annually. In many emerging economies, the spread of cities pushes infrastructure to the breaking point, making for longer commutes and the use of scarce resources to build roads, which worsens quality of life and the environment.

Designing cities for people instead of cars can shrink environmental pressures and make businesses more productive, saving $3 trillion in urban infrastructure investment worldwide over the next 15 years.

Second, we need to re-think food and agriculture. Food production already takes up 37% of the world’s landmass (excluding Antarctica), and accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals and 24% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even as population and appetite grow, agriculture is exhausting cropland, with 10m hectares abandoned each year due to soil degradation.

By 2050, we will need 60-70% more food calories for an estimated 9.7 billion people, many of them with middle-class tastes for resource-intensive products like beef and dairy. We must make cropland, livestock and aquaculture more productive while minimising food loss and waste and shifting diets to less resource costly foods.

Third, decarbonising energy systems can help us decouple global greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth. Global energy use has increased roughly 13-fold since 1900. To create energy access for all, energy use will probably need to increase by another 50% by 2040. Under current patterns this will create a 34% rise in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions when they actually need to be falling by at least the same amount.

The good news is 70% of the energy infrastructure needed to meet this growing demand has yet to be built, providing immense opportunity for investment in energy efficiency and clean energy sources.

Fourth, we need to transition from linear approaches to production, design, use and disposal of materials to circular economic models that can make us more resource productive and efficient across the economy.

We must minimise waste by keeping resources and products – and their value – circulating in the economy as long as possible. This means discovering how to loop our production, consumption and waste management processes, improve designs and make use of waste outputs from one system as inputs for others.

Revolutions aren’t easy, but they are possible. However, the shifts we need – in policies, behaviours and business – to “tip” our economic and social systems worldwide are not happening at the speed and scale required.

We must identify potential paths of influence that can catalyse revolutionary changes and learn from examples of positive tipping points. And we must develop strategies to bring them together with the disruptive power of information technology and multi-stakeholder cooperation that are already driving profound, far-reaching convulsions in our wider models of government, business and society.

A diverse group of first movers from business, international organisations, think tanks and civil society met in Washington DC this month to do just that. The dialogue on the global commons – led by the Global Environment Facility and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, with World Resources Institute’s full and active support – proved to be an exciting first step towards agreeing on such strategies. 

The task ahead is immense. But existing tipping points – like the radical improvement of economic policies in 100 countries between 1985 and 2000 or the spread of bike sharing from zero to 850 cities in less than 10 years – along with technological advancements and emerging practices offer unprecedented hope for the economic and environmental action we need.

By Andrew Steer, president and CEO, World Resources Institute