Will our government and business leaders act on the triple emergency of climate, nature and poverty, or will business as usual win?

Craig Bennett01 Oct 2019

2020 is a big year for setting the right course for the next decade to make sure life on Earth remains viable in the future. It could just be the time of our lives.

What would life be like in 2030 if restoring nature, stabilising our climate and making strides in human development and poverty reduction were daily priorities for all governments and every business for the decade starting in 2020?

I’m looking forward to 2020. It’s a big year and will test whether our governments and business leaders have the 20:20 vision needed to change how they operate and make future life on Earth viable.

In 2020 governments, businesses and civil society will be attending major global summits on human poverty and development, the state of nature and the changing climate that address the triple emergency. Next year alone the UN General Assembly is addressing biodiversity on the high seas in the spring and focusing on nature in September, and there are major UN conferences on nature in China in October (on the Convention on Biological Diversity) and on climate change in Glasgow, UK in December.

The window is closing but isn’t locked and bolted yet. There are ways out, while we’re still in control. 2020 will test the ability of governments and businesses to lead and to change. In the past they’ve made grand speeches before heading back to their desks to carry on business as usual. But that’s not tenable in 2020 and the decade it heralds.

The evidence is in

2020 matters. It kicks off the decade in which we’ll make our climate safer and start to restore nature. Either that or we’ll lock in climate instability and nature’s irrevocable decline, which are already undermining our ability to produce food and to address human development.

The evidence could not be clearer: the double trouble of climate instability and declining nature is now undermining life for humans.

We’ve had a run of the hottest years ever recorded and increasingly violent storms and weather extremes of heatwaves, flooding and droughts. Oceans are warming too fast for species to adapt in time (they can’t just turn on the cold water tap). The evidence is that land and habitats are being so degraded by harmful practices that they are becoming inhospitable and incapable of supporting species - including humans.

The effects can be seen with our own eyes. On my recent holiday to the east of England, the vulnerability of the low-lying coast to sea level rise was clear. Land is already being lost to the sea and plans are in hand not just to strengthen sea defences, but to use natural habitats to help protect lives and property.

Meanwhile, a friend on the other side of the world tells me how the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s top visitor attraction and natural wonder, is dying before their very eyes. The corals and the countless species they’ve supported for millennia can’t cope with even tiny changes in ocean temperatures and the acidic conditions climate change is causing. Pesticide run-off from the mainland and dumping mining waste at sea don’t help.

close up of coral in the Great Barrier reef

Just two examples, worlds apart but on the same planet we all depend on, and which no space race to Mars can replace.

2020 vision

Climate change is not a new issue. Friends of the Earth has been working on it since the 1980s. In 2008 we secured the world-leading Climate Change Act, requiring the UK government to ratchet down climate emissions, to set us on the path to a cleaner and greener economy and society.

And as far back as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, we championed the join-up between concerns for our environment and action on poverty, hunger and to boost human development.

Now, millions of people are marching in climate strikes to demand that their leaders and the powerful change their direction. Expect more in 2020 because this is not going away.

It’s everyone’s business, especially business

Business has much to answer for. The pursuit of profit from pollution, destruction and exploitation is implicated in the state we’re in.

There are signs that some business leaders know that a business-as-usual approach is running out of road. Their practices are coming under greater scrutiny, not least from public opinion and consumer expectations of brands.

Having begun as a way to boost global business growth with exclusive winter business bashes in Davos, the World Economic Forum now routinely reports that the main risks facing business and society are inaction on climate change, erosion of our natural environment and extreme weather, like swings between floods and drought.

Will the adults in the room please stand up?

It’s easy to be distracted by the antics and inward-looking world view of Trump, Bolsonaro and other “leaders” who dismiss the evidence (and the scientists who give it) and who push simplistic solutions to complex problems.

In 2020 the adults in the room can decide to stand up and be on the right side of history. That should read “adults and children”, because young people worldwide are increasingly the ones speaking truth to power and providing the 20:20 vision.

Human life is on the line, but we do have time in the decade to 2030 to fix this. People are acting and want governments and business to step up in 2020 and change their ways.

Let’s make 2020 the start of a decade of action to make life on earth safer and more secure for everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful. This is the time of our lives.


Climate change