Lessons from the future

As we step back into the world in which we live now, a number of important lessons arise from the foregoing scenarios that can help to provide general policy guidance.

Contrasting yet plausible stories can be told for how the world and its regions will develop in the next 30 years; each has fundamentally different implications for the environment.

Earlier chapters of GEO-3 have outlined important and very specific changes that emerged over the past 30 years, and there is no reason to believe that the next 30 will be any less dynamic. Using scenarios, it is possible to tell strongly contrasting but plausible stories about how the world and its regions might develop in the future. None of the stories requires exotic surprises to materialize and elements of each of the four scenarios can already be discerned in today’s world. In appreciating the scenarios, it is important to realize that, in real life, they are not mutually exclusive. A given region may experience all four or a combination of several at once. And although the scenarios have been presented as fairly uniform across the world, it is clear that not all regions have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience the same developments.

Examining the environmental implications casts a spotlight on the differences across scenarios, regions and issues. These variations have been illustrated in the narratives, the quantitative material and the differing outcomes of particular events or trends.

There can be significant delays between human actions, including policy decisions, and associated impacts on the environment, specifically:

  • much of the environmental change that will occur over the next 30 years has already been set in motion by past and current actions
  • many of the effects of environmentally relevant policies put into place over the next 30 years will not be apparent until long afterwards.

Sustainability First implies the most positive environmental outlook of the four scenarios. Markets First and Security First conjure up much more pessimistic pictures, but for very different reasons. This contrast is reflected in the issues that come most conspicuously to the fore in each scenario. For example, water shortages are generally more of a problem in Markets First, reflecting increasing resource demand, whereas urban pollution and loss of biodiversity are more marked in Security First, reflecting a lack of effective environmental policies. Policy First falls somewhere in between — some of the environmental targets are met, through a mainly top-down approach, whereas it is unrealistic to make significant progress on others without a broader commitment to change.

Social and economic systems can be notoriously slow to change. The basic infrastructure of modern society, including transportation and energy systems, cannot be refashioned rapidly without great expense. Financial and political systems, and basic behaviour patterns also tend to exhibit overpowering inertia. Furthermore, even when social systems change, resulting in reduced pressures on the environment, time lags in natural systems can delay the ultimate response to these changes. Therefore, it is important to consider not only the state of the environment at the end of the time horizon for these scenarios, but also the trends.

Achieving widely agreed environmental and social goals will require dramatic and coordinated action starting now and continuing for a number of years. Steps must include policies based on prevention and adaptation.

This proviso is perhaps most clearly seen in the case of climate change impacts, which differ minimally between the scenarios in most regions over the next 30 years. This is because much of the climatic change expected to occur over the next 30 years is the result of actions that have already been taken. It is not surprising that the issues which stand out as the most difficult to tackle — halting land degradation, preserving biodiversity and ensuring access to freshwater — are all linked to climate change among other factors. The intractable nature of these impacts is also related to the fact that they are driven by fundamental human demands and are not easily amenable to technical fixes.

The environmental implications of the various scenarios illustrate the legacy of the past decades and the level of effort that will be needed to reverse powerful trends. These challenges can only be met with robust and coordinated action at all levels of government and among many different sectors of society. The scenarios also demonstrate that it can take many years for important social and environmental indicators to diverge from one another. Given the likelihood that large numbers of people will continue to be vulnerable to environmental change, even where the scenarios point to eventual achievement of environmental goals, adaptation policies will be needed to complement mitigation policies. Among other reasons, these may be necessary to meet social goals, minimize the transient effects of environmental change, prevent irreversible losses, and maintain the enthusiasm for the necessary social and political will to achieve the long-term goals.

Important linkages exist between different environmental issues and between environmental and broader social issues. It follows that:

  • policy can be made more effective by looking for synergies or ‘co-benefits’
  • care must be taken to avoid conflicts between policies.

The scenarios presented here demonstrate the importance of interlinkages between the environmental, social, economic and political spheres, both within and across regions. The complex interplay between human and natural systems calls for approaches that treat social, economic and environmental concerns in an integrated fashion.

Positive synergies between policies can be maximized. For example, well-designed policies can simultaneously address issues such as climate change, transport, and urban and regional air pollution. Thus, ambitious climate policies could serve as a cornerstone of modern, integrated environmental programmes in many situations.

In other cases, connections imply potential conflicts. The large-scale introduction of modern biofuels in certain regions as a substitute for fossil fuels, a feature of the Policy First scenario, could have adverse implications for biodiversity and agriculture in these areas. Similarly, the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering to improve agricultural productivity could, rather than reducing the demand for agricultural land, lead to a dramatic expansion if organisms are genetically modified to be able to thrive in areas currently unsuitable for widespread crop production or grazing. This outcome would have serious implications for biodiversity and land management.

Reflections on the use of scenarios

For this Global Environment Outlook a scenario approach has been chosen that deliberately emphasizes the possibility of many different futures rather than the probability of any single one. None of the four scenarios that has been presented should be viewed as more or less likely than the others, or as a reference scenario from which the others represent variants. Recent experience and reflections upon issues such as insufficient information (ignorance), the complexity of human and natural systems (surprise), and the ability of humans to choose (volition), suggests that for longer range policy thinking it is not only disingenuous to presume we can know the most likely future, but that it is also detrimental to good policy making because it unnecessarily narrows our vision (Raskin and Kemp-Benedict 2002).

The process also revealed some of the challenges in such a scenario exercise. The choice to begin with global archetypes aided in the effort to create sets of nested global and regional scenarios that were consistent with each other. At the same time, this choice arguably limited the range of scenarios that might have arisen had the regional scenario teams been able to operate more independently. The efforts to combine narrative scenarios with quantitative information coming out of models and other analytical tools also drew attention to the need to use consistent assumptions in the two approaches. The quantitative underpinning certainly helped to stimulate the development of the narrative scenarios and provided both consistency checks and powerful means of depicting the differences between the four scenarios in the different regions. It remains apparent, though, that the existing quantitative tools are limited in their ability to capture the richness of narrative scenarios, particularly where these involve significant departures from the current situation.

The establishment of strong institutions for environmental governance is a prerequisite for almost all other policies.

There is a need to be aware of both the small and the large-scale effects of policies, particularly those related to the introduction of new technologies. On a small scale, stimulating better technology to deliver the same services with less resource use is clearly a robust policy that makes sense in almost any conceivable scenario. If scaled up, however, two possible drawbacks arise. First, the improved efficiency may induce an increased level of activity (such as additional travelling in improved motor vehicles), which outweighs the gains achieved by better technology (in this instance lower fuel consumption or lower pollution emissions per kilometre travelled). Second, new technologies that increase dependence, either on other countries or on the technology itself, can increase vulnerability of regions to disruptions in, or misuse of, these technologies.

Ensuring timely access to accurate information is a robust policy, as it:

  • allows for early warning of environmental problems
  • can stimulate voluntary action by business and industry
  • can support formal and informal marketbased mechanisms that promote good environmental conduct.

A fundamental distinction between the four scenarios lies in the existence and effectiveness of strong institutions for environmental governance. The scenarios represent largely different political attitudes, citizen values and degrees of acceptance of (or action against) inequality. The political will and vision of governments and other authorities determine, above all else, whether environmentally sustainable development comes within reach worldwide. Where strong institutions for environmental governance are absent, as in Security First, or afforded a lower status than other institutions, as in Markets First, improvements in environmental conditions are less likely to occur. As the range of concerns traverses the local to the global, so must these institutions. Furthermore, as all sectors of society are, in some way, both responsible for and impacted by the status of natural and human systems, these institutions must reach across these sectors. Thus, not only formal governments, but also business, NGOs and other elements of civil society must play a role, individually and in partnership, in establishing and maintaining these institutions.

Not all policy instruments are appropriate for all situations.

Ensuring and stimulating timely access to information is crucial not only for keeping abreast of the current state of environmental and social systems and trends in both, but also for coordinating action to address emerging or existing problems. Efforts are required to ensure that key public information remains accessible, and that more flows are established. A fundamental message, from Policy First and Sustainability First in particular, is that information can both encourage voluntary action and increase the effectiveness of other policies. The flow of accurate information can therefore actively support other policies. Conversely, as Security First most notably shows, when economic and political relations polarize, the control of information can be an important instrument of power.

The achievement of environmental goals will require decisive action, will encounter unforeseen eventualities and will not happen overnight. Fortunately or unfortunately, much of the success or failure of this endeavour is in our hands.

It is clear that there are particular policy instruments that are more in accordance with different types of worlds. For example, market-based instruments such as capping and trading systems for curbing pollutants will find a niche in a world that resembles Markets First, whereas ambitious zoning and other spatial planning measures would not go down so well. Similarly, ecolabelling will be suited to a world that resembles Sustainability First, but forcibly restricting access to protected areas would be much less suitable. This same argument implies that the most appropriate choice of policy instruments can vary between different regions or at different times. Careful selection of specific and appropriate policy instruments is clearly very important.

The final lesson from the scenarios presented in this chapter may be one of perspective. The four scenarios show that the future is not something that we should wait for passively. Rather, the choices we have made in the past, those we are currently making and those we will make in the future all strongly influence in which world we will live. There will be many branch points when stakeholders will have the opportunity to turn in one direction or another, whether towards Markets First or towards Policy First, Security First, Sustainability First or another, as yet unimagined, scenario. Being aware of threats, opportunities and the possible outcomes of different choices is a prerequisite to effective policy making.