Educating For The Environment – Serralves

Over two days, from 1-2 November, the Planetary Boundaries Initiative participated in a recent conference hosted by the Serralves Foundation, in Porto.

In commemoration of its 25th anniversary the Serralves Foundation brought together an array of academics and scientists all of whom addressed planetary boundaries in the context of governance of the global commons.

The main theme of the conference was that the earth system, as described by planetary boundaries science, should be considered a global common and protected in law on that basis and for the common good. The purpose of the conference was to support more education of the interdependence of the earth system and the construction of governance systems to help avoid the earth system tipping into an undesirable state for the future safe development of humanity. Its sponsors claimed that ‘ At the global scale, the harmonizing of the interests of the entire humankind, including those of future generations, with the individual interests of each nation, implies the construction of an organisational concept to define this new Global Common. Defining the boundaries of the Earth system capable of supporting human life and avoiding the risk of catastrophic environmental changes will allow for the creation of a model for collective management of this common asset.’

Currently international law does not recognise the existence of the Earth system and therefore nations have no state responsibility for ensuring that the earth system remains in a state of equilibrium or resilience.

The earth system cannot be divided among countries through the traditional mechanism of State sovereignty. The earth system is inter-dependent and acts as the foundation of life as we know it, Paulo Magalhaěs (Coordinator, Earth Condominium and Curator of the Conference) told the conference.

Professor Will Steffen (Director, Australia National University Climate Change Institute) provided scientific evidence of how human activity was causing the earth to move into a new geological state, one which he terms the anthropocene. Steffen said that there was good evidence to suggest that humans thrived in the current geological earth system, the holocene. This state provided the best conditions for humans to further develop on an equitable basis and therefore one in which there was the greatest hope for tackling human poverty and inequality.

In his opinion determining whether humans should remain in the holocene state is a value judgement, not a scientific one, and therefore one in which we should expect policy and law to be considered.

Over the past 10,000 years human civilisations have transformed the planet but we have developed in climate conditions most favourable to human societies. As such the climate has not strayed much from 2 degrees centergrade over this period. But from the 1950’s the science show a great acceleration in human’s impact on the earth’s climate system. On current projections as things stand we could see humans having to adapt to climate conditions of between 4-6 degrees centergrade. ‘We just don’t know whether humans can survive in these conditions, ‘ Steffen told the conference. To this extent, the planetary boundaries science was fundamentally precautionary in its approach to the future development of humankind.

An interesting perspective was brought to the conference by ex Secretary General for UNICEF, Kul Gautam, who made a clear connection between the health and well being of the poor and the state of the environment. He considered there was an urgent need for strong international leadership to protect the Earth’s system and that the UN was best placed to provide the world with such leadership.

One way in which he considered that the earth’s system might be better protected and in a systematic way was through the introduction of a UN institution. He suggested that the Trustee Council of the UN, a body originally established for the management of subject states by colonial powers, but never disbanded, was a good existing model to take up the challenge. He suggested a new mandate and the amendment of Chapters 12 and 13 of the UN Charter to about such a change.

Several other contributors also added significantly to the debate with ideas for a new treaty to govern planetary boundaries and a discussion regarding the role played by indicators and metrics in order to measure whether a State fell within a relevant boundary. An engaging talk by Alessandro Galli, Director, Mediterranean Programme, Global Footprint Network, explained how the global footprint tool was used to measure a country’s resource use.

An impassioned speech by Polly Higgins set out how the environment would be better protected through the introduction of an international law of ecocide and Catherine Pearce Director of Future Justice, World Future Council provided information on their current campaign for a Future’s Ombudsperson.

The two days were well supported by the Portuguese government with a closing message from Jorge Moreira Da Silva, Minister of Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy.

Deborah Tripley

Director, Planetary Boundaries Initiative


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