The Year World Leaders Woke Up on Earth

Environmental concerns featured prominently in the international agenda of 2015.

The first image taken by humans of the whole Earth. Photo credit NASA, from Apollo 8 mission. (Wikimedia Commons)

The year 2015 has been momentous for the environment. As the year ends in the post-COP21 afterglow (or letdown for some) this seems a simple statement of fact. Yet the successful conclusion of this historic event that placed the natural environment at the center of the international agenda was just the grandest example of other significant events. What made this a signal year was the unusual willingness of world leaders, from heads of state to captains of industry, to engage on this agenda.

This attention to the environment by global leaders was demonstrated in a series of events that started in January at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) where the elite gathered in the Alpine heights of Davos, Switzerland. There the 2015 Global Risk report was released, in which “water crises” was named the number one risk out of 28 for its impact in terms of the devastation it can wreak. Not only was this the first time water crises topped the WEF risk survey of 900 global corporate, government and academic leaders, but water was categorized as a “societal risk” rather than “environmental risk,” acknowledging that abundant supplies of clean water are required in all human activities. There is no substitute for water and a major crimp in its flow can ravage society.

Also announced at the WEF was the Planetary Boundaries (PB) update, a refinement of the ambitious project by an international team of scientists that gauges nine Earth systems and their prospective boundaries that if transgressed, could tip the world out of its “safe operating space.” Their paper offers better measurements of the current state of environment has supported human social and economic development. Out of the nine boundaries, four have been crossed including climate change, biodiversity loss, land-type change and a shift in phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. Of these, climate change and biodiversity loss﹘two core boundaries﹘could push the environment into a new state with potentially disastrous consequences. That said, positive paths forward are possible for future development as scientists like coauthor, Johan Rockström, suggest that leaders use the Planetary Boundaries as guardrails to keep on course.

Skip to June as Pope Francis, the ultimate global leader, used his perch to focus the world’s attention on the environment with his encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care For Our Common Home.” The stir over the encyclical clearly showed how the Pope’s international popularity is due not only to his spiritual teachings, but his views on mundane matters, in this case preaching the importance of addressing global climate change and ecological degradation. The release, timed to coincide with a world tour, allowed Pope Francis to galvanize people to face human-caused environmental problems by giving moral, ethical and religious heft to the argument to take just action on sustainability for the sake of the poor and downtrodden.

The encyclical preceded the long-awaited and bitterly contested final rule for the Clean Power Plan in August, the centerpiece of the Obama administrations’ efforts to combat climate change. The plan, designed to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030, was a major achievement in the United States where climate and environmental policy is deeply polarizing. At the same time the plan divided Americans, it proved to a global audience that the US was finally ready to lead on climate change policy – building on the earlier US-China greenhouse gas reduction deal – whereas before its national policy was viewed as a major obstacle.

Buoyed by US climate policy and propelled by the Pope’s moral force for environmental action, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were finalized in September. Picking up from the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs set the global development agenda for the next 15 years and intends to eliminate poverty without hurting the environment. Relying on 17 goals and sub-goals such as zero poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation and clean energy for all, the success of the SDGs largely rests on how nations decide to pursue the goals and the ownership taken in the process.

The most notable of all events was the Paris COP21 climate accord. Impossible to ignore because virtually all countries signed on, there is a sense of urgency from the agreement that unite the always determined grassroots of the climate and environmental movement to the grasstops in the executive suites on the necessity of rapid greenhouse gas emissions cuts to avoid the worst of a warming planet. How the world achieves this paradigm shift is the hard part, but flexibility to shape a plan is left for each nation to develop. In a nod to the import of COP21 to global business, hundreds of companies and their leaders have committed to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead, an unlikely priority for most just a few years ago.

Little more can be added to the millions of words typed in coverage and analysis of COP21, but as an environmental bookend to the year it is “monumental,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban. What makes it so is the buy-in from all stakeholders, even the environmental laggards that are our hesitant global leaders. Yet this acceptance of a healthy environment as a prerequisite for global peace and prosperity is simply the first step and is an assurance of nothing for a sustainable future, particularly in meeting the needs of world’s poor, vulnerable and ignored.

Hard, objective reality has forced global leaders to identify and address their interests in the midst of such challenges as extreme weather events, rampant pollution and scarce water supplies, to name a few. In this bottom line world, impediments to action abound because of diversity of thought and even infighting about how to evaluate environmental problems let alone achieve solutions based on transparency and good governance.

An opportunity now exists to harness this shared recognition and build a more sustainable world because global leaders have awakened and found themselves on Earth — a place inextricably linked to the plight of other people and to nature that surrounds us all. There is no other place to be.