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Alex Pfaff

In a global report out today, “The Living Planet 2020,” Duke environmental economist Alex Pfaff is among a group of experts documenting extreme environmental losses and highlighting the critical lessons from past policy failures.

The report suggests that society faces a potential disaster but still has the opportunity to flatten, and even reverse, losses of nature’s contributions. Such gains will require urgent implementation of effective conservation, alongside global shifts in what is consumed and how it is produced. The importance of such changes connects with COVID-19, as the pandemic “…has provided a stark reminder of how nature and humans are intertwined,” say the authors in the introduction.

Pfaff’s synthesis work for the recent intergovernmental assessment by IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) is one basis for Chapter 2 of this new report, in particular concerning the choices that drive environmental loss and those that could reduce loss. In IPBES’ Global Assessment, scientists said that without changes in approach a million species of plants and animals could become extinct due to climate change, many within our lifetimes. The Living Planet report builds on that assessment (see a recent summary published in Science).

Key threats

The Living Planet’s Chapter 2 identifies and illustrates key factors that threaten the environment and natural resources, calling out in particular land uses and marine exploitation. All this follows from basic human needs and consequent activities, Pfaff said, yet there are possibilities to shift behaviors and slow or even reverse environmental degradation.

“Little by little, people recognize that we are destroying our own nest – even though recognition itself is complicated by physical and social separations between groups, including countries. If they do, sometimes they have connected local actions with regional to global consequences and decided to change course. We can do much more of that. However, as for any serious change, that runs against the urge to do what is easy. Large shifts require understanding and persistence,” Pfaff said.

Unfortunately, many such past calls for action have fallen short of actually changing behaviors. Pfaff’s research examines when interventions have helped − as well as the many reasons why often they have not, despite the best intentions. In a recent op-ed in The Hill, he described five main hurdles that have tended to come betwixt the desire to take action and actual benefits.

“It is critical to understand when we have and have not managed to make a difference for the environment,” Pfaff emphasizes. “We have limited attention span and financial resources for pursuing these critical issues, given so many other challenges. We have to be smart − not just take the easy route and then ‘check the box’,” he says. “It’s important to address the incentives and motivations of all key parties in order for real change to happen.”

For example, the Montreal Protocol to fix the ozone hole took into account the incentives of the firms that produced the damaging products, as well as the limited resources of poorer countries.

Pfaff stresses that shifting ingrained habits does not have to be complex, just thorough and persistent. One obvious if uncommon step is to include environmental consequences within the early planning stages for economic development projects, such as investments in roads: Which routes and complementary protections minimize harm to nature while advancing the economy?

“It is intellectually shocking − if unfortunately not politically surprising − that multiple agencies representing the distinct interests of the environment and development rarely come together to jointly maximize both agendas from the outset,” Pfaff said. “Instead of smart integrated policy planning, the result is often late and small environmental tweaks at the implementation stage.”

“The Living Planet” report provides a clear picture of the trends. Now, says Pfaff, smart actions are needed – with the seriousness to focus on actually changing outcomes.

“Throughout the world, we have more knowledge than ever. Now we need to take responsibility for using it wisely enough to have consequences,” Pfaff said. “Adding a few more ‘good intentions’ to the pile simply is not the same as making sure our actions really count.”

The Living Planet 2020 Report

WWF. 2020. Living Planet Report 2020. Bending the curve of biodiversity loss. Almond, R.E.A., Grooten M. and Petersen, T. (Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. Full report.

Pfaff, A., Robalino, J., Lima, E., Sandoval, C., and Herrera, L. D. (2014). Governance, location and avoided deforestation from protected areas: Greater restrictions can have lower impact, due to differences in location. World Development 55:7-20. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.01.011.


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