An economic case for protecting the planet | Naoko Ishii

Published on Feb 14, 2018

We all share one planet — we breathe the same air, drink the same water and depend on the same oceans, forests and biodiversity. Economist Naoko Ishii is on a mission to protect these shared resources, known as the global commons, that are vital for our survival. In an eye-opening talk about the wellness of the planet, Ishii outlines four economic systems we need to change to safeguard the global commons, making the case for a new kind of social contract with the earth.

Transcript excerpted from:

Good evening, everyone.

I am from Japan, so I’d like to start with a story about Japanese fishing villages. In the past, every fisherman was tempted to catch as many as fish as possible, but if everybody did that, the fish, common shared resource in the community, would disappear. The result would be hardship and poverty for everyone. This happened in some cases, but it did not happen in other cases. In these communities, the fishermen developed a kind of social contract that told each one of them to hold back a bit to prevent overfishing. The fisherman would keep an eye on each other. There would be a penalty if you were caught cheating. But once the benefit of a social contract became clear to everyone, the incentive to cheat dramatically dropped.

We find the same story around the world. This is how villagers in medieval Europe managed pasture and forests. This is how communities in Asia managed water, and this is how indigenous peoples in the Amazon managed wildlife. These communities realized they relied on a finite, shared resource. They developed rules and practices on how to manage those resources, and they changed their behavior so that they could continue to rely on those shared resources tomorrow by not overfishing, not overgrazing, not polluting or depleting water streams today.

This is a story of the commons, and also how to avoid the so-called tragedy of the commons. But this is also a story of an economy that was mainly local, where everybody had a very strong sense of belonging.

Our economies are no longer local. When we moved away from being local, we started to lose our connection to the commons. We carried economic objectives, goals and systems beyond the local, but we did not carry the notion of taking care of the commons.

So our oceans, forests, once very close to us as our local commons, moved very far away from us. So today, we pump millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air, we dump plastics, fertilizers and industrial wasteinto the rivers and oceans, and we cut down forests that absorb CO2. We make the wild biodiversity much more fragile. We seem to have totally forgotten that there is such a thing as global commons: air, water, forests and biodiversity.

Now, it is modern science that reminds us how vital the global commons are. In 2009, a group of scientists proposed how to assess the health of the global commons. They defined nine planetary boundaries vital to our survival, then they measured how far we could go before we cross over the tipping points or thresholdsthat would lead us to the irreversible or even catastrophic change.

This is where we were in the 1950s. We broadly remained within safe operating space, marked by the green line. But look at where we are now. We have crossed four of those boundaries, and we will be crossing others in the future.

How did we end up in this situation? Well, my personal story may tell us something. Five years ago, I was appointed as CEO of the GEF, Global Environment Facility, but I am not a conservationist or an environmental activist. I am an economist, and for the last 30 years, I had worked for public finance in my home country and around the world. I can tell you one thing for sure: during these 30 years, the notion of the global commons never crossed my mind. I didn’t have a single conversation about the global commons with my colleagues.This tells me that the notion of the global commons was not really entering into the big money decisions like state budgets or investment plans.

And I’m wondering, why do we have this sheer ignorance about the global commons, including me, myself?One possible explanation might be that until recently, it didn’t really matter too much. Even if we mess up some part of the environment, we were not fundamentally changing the functions of the earth system. The global commons had still enough capacity to take the punches we gave them. In fact, the fish were still plentiful, the fields for grazing were still vast. Our mistake was to assume that the capacity of the earth for self-repair had no limits. It does have limits. The message from the science is very clear: we humans have become an overwhelming force to determine the future living conditions on earth, and what’s more, we are running out of time. If we don’t act on them, we will be losing the global commons. It’s only our generation who are able to preserve it — preserve the commons as we know them. Now is the time we start managing the global commons as our parents or our grandparents managed their local commons.

The first thing we need to do is to simply recognize that we do have the global commons and they are very, very important. Then we need to build the stewardship of the global commons into all of our thinking, our business, our economy, our policy-making — in all of our actions. We need to recreate the social contract of the fishing villages on the global scale.

But what does it mean in practice? Where to start with? I see there are four key economic systems that fundamentally need to change. First, we need to change our cities. By 2050, two thirds of our population will live in cities. We need green cities. Second, we need to change our energy system. The world economy must sharply decarbonize, essentially in one generation. Third, we need to change our production-consumption system. We need to break away from current take-make-waste consumption patterns. And finally, we need to change our food system, what to eat and how to produce it. And all of those four systems are putting enormous pressure on the global commons, and it’s also very difficult to flip them. They are extremely complex, with many decision-makers, actors involved.

Let’s take the example of the food system. Food production is currently responsible for one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a main user of the world’s water resources. In fact, 70 percent of today’s water is used to grow crops. Vast areas of tropical forest are used for agriculture. This deforestation drives extinction. In fact, we are losing species 1,000 times faster than the natural rate. And on top of all of that bad news, one third of food produced today globally is not eaten. It’s wasted.

But there is the good news, good signs. Coalitions of stakeholders are now coming together to try to transform the food system with one shared goal: how to produce enough healthy food for everyone, at the same time, to try to cut, to sharply reduce, the footprint from the food system on the global commons.

I had an opportunity to fly over the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and I saw with my own eyes the massive deforestation to make room for palm oil plantations. By the way, palm oil is included in thousands of food products we eat every day. The global demand for palm oil is just increasing. In Sumatra, I met smallholder farmers who need to make a day-to-day living from growing oil palm. I met global food companies, financial institutions and local government officials. All of them told me that they can’t make the change by themselves,and only by working together under a kind of new contract, or a new practice, do they have a chance to protect tropical forests. So it’s so encouraging to see, at least for the last few years, this new coalition among these committed actors along the supply chain come together to try to transform the food system. In fact, what they are trying to do is to create a new kind of social contract to manage the global commons.

All changes start at home, at your place and at my place. At GEF, Global Environment Facility, we have now a new strategy, and we put the global commons at its center. I hope we won’t be the only ones. If everybody stays on the sidelines, waiting for others to step in, the global commons will continue to deteriorate, and everybody will be much worse off. We need to save ourselves from the tragedy of the commons.

So, I invite all of you to embrace the global commons. Please do remember that global commons do exist and are waiting for your stewardship.

We all share one planet in common. We breathe the same air, we drink the same water, we depend on the same oceans, forests, and biodiversity. There is no space left on earth for egoism. The global commons must be kept within their safe operating space, and we can only do it together.

Thank you so much.”

Excerpted from:

Naoko Ishii leads the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a public financial institution that provides around US$1 billion every year to help tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems.

Table of Contents

Why you should listen

Since taking the helm at the GEF in 2012, Naoko Ishii, an economist by training, has steered the development and implementation of a new long-term strategy that addresses the underlying drivers of environmental degradation. She has put protecting the global commons — our air, water, biodiversity, forests, land, oceans and a stable climate — at its center.

Previously, Ishii was Deputy Vice Minister of Finance in Japan and has also worked at the World Bank and the IMF. As a sustainable development leader, Ishii strives to be build coalitions that address the “defining moment” that we’re in for the future of the planet. She is a leading advocate on the need to make the environment everybody’s business, and she believes safeguarding the global commons is, quite simply, the wisest investment we can make.

Ishii has been profiled for her pioneering work on cities and climate change, and she has highlighted the role of women in driving sustainable change around the world.


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