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Experts call for change to sustainable development thinking
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16:18, April 21, 2008

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Experts attending Resilience 2008 conference in Stockholm on April 14-17 believe that climate change and the subsequent effects are far more serious than the current UN predictions. They call for high-level political changes on both national and international level.

"The pace of climate change seems to have been underestimated by researchers to date. This is compounded by the growing risk of critical threshold effects in the world's glaciers, forests, soils and seas, which can exacerbate the climate effect. Deep-rooted and overall social, economic and ecological changes are needed. We really need to strengthen the resilience of the world's societies and ecosystems", says Brian Walker, Director of the international network of scientists Resilience Alliance.

The research community see signs that global environmental changes are seriously threatening the well-being of human societies. Climate change, deforestation, soil destruction, declining freshwater resources, loss of biological diversity and depletion of the world's oceans are acting together in such a way that researchers cannot rule out catastrophic threshold effects, which risk fundamentally altering the living conditions on Earth within a few decades.

"The world is finding itself in a completely new situation. The environmental question has become a development question. Comprehensive changes must occur in politics and administration so that globalisation and growth work together instead of undermining the biosphere", says Carl Folke, Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.

In a year and a half from now, a new global climate agreement will be launched in Copenhagen. This agreement will have to contain binding commitments for the countries of the world which are so ambitious that the planet as a whole can avoid a level of warming that exceeds 2 degrees Celsius. This target has been set, in accordance with UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations, so as to stabilise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 450 ppm. In order to achieve this, the IPCC claims that global emissions of greenhouse gases must be at least halved by 2050. For the industrialised countries this involves a 30 percent decrease by 2020 and 80-90 percent by 2050.

One of the world's leading climate researchers, Dr James Hansen at NASA, now believes that restricting the concentration of greenhouse gases to 450 ppm is not enough and that we must aim for 350 ppm. This is because new research shows that a doubling of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere risks leading to a 6 degree increase in temperature, not a 3 degree increase as previously thought. A 6 degree increase in temperature would fundamentally affect the conditions for life on Earth and would be no less than a global disaster. Unfortunately other research shows that we are already rapidly approaching a doubling compared with the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.

"A recent report from the EU Commission warns that millions of climate refugees will migrate from Africa to Europe in the near future if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate. Our opportunity to avoid such a situation – within the framework of democratic decision-making – is now", says Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.

During the past 150 years, ecosystems have absorbed around half the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human society – as a gigantic free service to society. However, research now shows that the ability of the seas to buffer mankind's climate debt is declining and that forests, soils and wetlands risk collapsing under the pressure of human exploitation and temperature increase and suddenly changing their role from absorbing greenhouse gases to releasing them, says Brian Walker.

"We consider the situation to be so serious and the time to the end of 2009 so short that stricter directives are needed for the Copenhagen process. It would be disastrous to force through, under extreme time pressure, an agreement that binds the world up to 2020 and that then proves to aim far below the required target. World leaders, under the leadership of the UN, must instead accept the new risk position for uncontrolled climate change and, with this as the basis, establish a new global climate target and an accelerated timetable for achieving this", says Bo Ekman, Chairman of the Tällberg Foundation and also representative from the business.

However, the key to a solution in the climate question is, not simply a matter of decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases. It is equally a matter of building up the resistance and development potential, the resilience, of the world's ecosystems so that these continue to provide society with ecosystem services such as production of food and fibres, uptake of carbon dioxide and protection against various natural disasters, which form the basis for our welfare and protection against the climate threat.
The market economy has provided prosperity, but it has failed in the effects of production and consumption on climate and the environment are not cared enough. That we now understand the problem is half the solution the researchers believe. The other half lies in the knowledge and innovative ability that mankind possesses and has demonstrated over history.

The full understanding of resilience provides people some hope that if people are careful enough and protect our ecological system by developing in a smart way and improve resilience in many ways, we may be able to adapt the challenge of the climate change, says Carl Folke.

But the precondition is that all the countries must try their best to reduce the emission of CO2 to the atmosphere and at the same time use all the resources in a smart way. For example, if people in Africa can make full use of their rain water, then the water quantity might be substantially enlarged. And the food production need can be satisfied in some ways, but it needs innovative ideas and practices, says Johan Rockstrom.

Participants also call for cooperation and destroying the barriers between countries, organizations and different cultures.

By Xuefei Chen People's Daily Online correspondent in Stockholm.

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