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Nobel laureates campaign for sustainable development

Posted on behalf of Natasha Gilbert

Humanity’s consumption of natural resources is in danger of turning the Earth into an unsafe place for us to live, a group of 17 Nobel Laureates said today.

At the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability on 16-19 May in Stockholm, Sweden, the Laureates signed a memorandum stating that human activity has now become the major driver of global change, moving the Earth into a new geological era, coined the Anthropocene. Geologists debated the merits of defining a new epoch characterized by human effects on the geological record at a meeting in London on 11 May (see this Nature news story).

World leaders must take urgent and immediate action to avoid “abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems”, the memorandum says. Economic and social development must now go hand in hand with environmental protection, moving away from the “false dichotomy” that places them in opposition, it adds. (The point has also been made in a recent World View column in Nature by Sybil Seitzinger.)

To tackle the issue, the Laureates suggest putting a “sufficiently high price” on carbon and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, directing the funds to scaling up investments in renewable energy instead. In addition, they call on world leaders to develop sustainable agricultural systems using current farm lands and renewable water resources. New indicators to measure welfare, other than Gross Domestic Product, need to be developed to help rethink models of economic development that include natural capital and ecosystem services. “Global sustainability is a precondition for poverty alleviation,” says Johan Rockstrom, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden (see previous stories on the link between conservation and poverty alleviation).

The memorandum also calls for the launch of a major research initiative to better understand global sustainability. “We need a concentrated scientific effort over a period of around 10 years to explore what would happen if humanity pushed the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries,” Will Steffen, director of the Climate Change Institute, at the Australian National University, told Nature.

Gretchen Daily, a biologist at Stanford University, believes developing sustainably is “achievable”. She points to initiatives, such as those of the Chinese government which has spent US$100 billion over the past 10 years on forestry and conservation projects, following severe droughts and floods in 1997 and 1998 caused by deforestation.

“There are lots of independent efforts around the world that together light the way,” she says.

The Laureates handed the memorandum to the United Nations high level panel on global sustainability which is preparing the 2012 UN conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

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    ryan said:

    I wonder if obama showed up. I’m sure he has something credibly groundbreaking theories being a nobel laureate. it’s not like they randomly gave him one for promising to change the world. oh wait…

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