Pandemic Signals Breaching of Planetary ‘Tipping Point’ by Global Economy

A new study by a top advisor to an EU-backed scientific research programme concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic is a symptom of global industrial civilization’s breach of key planetary boundaries, which are critical to maintaining a safe operating space for human survival on the planet.

The global economy, the study warns, has now entered a volatile new phase of chronic instability which can only be resolved through a transition to a ‘lifeboat economy’. This must involve debt-free financing for the renewable energy transition, nationalisation and winding down of fossil fuel industries, as well as ecological restoration for clean manufacturing and agriculture.

But most of all, we have to roll back the dangerous trajectory of deforestation through a radically different approach to commodities like palm oil to transition to sustainable production. That requires a new global pact on deforestation premised on ensuring that major commodities from beef to soy are produced within planetary boundaries based on consistent global standards.

The new report ‘Deforestation and the Risk of Collapse: Reframing COVID-19 as a Planetary Boundary Effect’, is published in the journal System Change by the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, an independent think tank in the UK which has led the European Commission’s Converge research programme.

Report author Dr Nafeez Ahmed, Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a pandemic. When looked at in the context of a wide-range of scientific data about the escalating human footprint on the planet, the pandemic represents the passing of a major civilizational tipping-point into a dangerous new era of converging ecological emergencies. The COVID-19 crisis is therefore an urgent early warning signal for how this civilization is rapidly eroding the very conditions of its own existence.”

Dr Nafeez Ahmed sits on the Board of Stakeholders of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020-funded MEDEAS research programme, ‘Guiding European Policy toward a low-carbon economy.’ A world-renowned systems theorist and environment journalist, Dr Ahmed is Executive Director of the System Shift Lab, a transdisciplinary network of natural and social scientists working on strategies for system change, and is a Commissioner for Cambridge University Press’ Sustainability Commission on Scaling Sustainable Behaviour Change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed structural fragilities and interdependencies across global systems, his study finds. But at the heart of these fragilities is the increasing dependence of industrial consumption on processes that are accelerating deforestation. That requires both enforcing sustainable practices by producers in the South while curtailing demand in the North.

The probability of a global pandemic was dramatically increased by relentless and unregulated industrial expansion, which has destabilized ecosystems critical for planetary life-support. The same processes are driving other ecological crises which threaten to permanently undermine the health of the global economy.

The report concludes that without a transition to a ‘lifeboat economy’ where markets are “recalibrated” to protect public health and natural systems, humanity faces a heightening risk of cascading breakdowns across interconnected social, economic and political systems.

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