Change must come

Janez Potočnik, Chair FFA2020, Chairman RISE Foundation

Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

The first two decades of the twenty-first century have not been kind to humanity; from the promise and liberation of the end of the Cold War to the earthquakes disrupting our politics and the rise of the climate crisis, we seem to be at a crossroads. Either we commit ourselves to a serious program of real, visible change, or popular revolt mixed with rising sea levels will claim us. For the first time in the thousands of years of our collective history, we have reached a critical point where our failures can no longer be solved or contained locally. If we allow our failures to continue unchecked, the first hit will be those worst off in the developing world and in indigenous communities. We are still only beginning to fully understand the intercoupling of our social, economic, and environmental problems, and the moment for us to change is right now.

Despite the fact that we are fully aware that we must change, we appear to be more eager to discuss our programs and write long reports than we are in actual, material change. Behind us lies a lost decade, where politicians and businesses missed a crucial opportunity to seriously engage with decarbonizing the economy, delivering a circular economy, and fulfilling the promises made in the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. With every passing year, the urgency of accelerating the pace of change becomes more pressing, and it becomes more socially and economically difficult to make the necessary adjustments. Each nation, from the global South to the stewards of the Arctic, will need to be involved – something that cannot be achieved without serious, well-funded global alliances.
Therefore, we should speed up the pace of change dramatically. Fortunately, we stand at the brink of a shift in leadership around the world; a new European Commission, Council and Commission will very soon begin their work, major elections are either ongoing or coming up fast, and the political engagement seen around the world has been heartening. A rise in participation in European elections, massive youth demonstrations on the climate crisis, and the next generation of politicians taking the helm. The most important question facing them is how they will deliver on sustainability; not just economically, but also socially, and certainly environmentally. What changes will they make, and how far will they be willing to push in order to achieve the radical solutions we now need?

However, I remain optimistic. We are not lost; changes are happening all around us – nature conservation itself is now far broader than we conceived it not that long ago. We have seen it move beyond (national) parks or protected areas; the more we understand of biodiversity, the more we grasp how crucial its variety is. From rooftop beehives in urban centres to field margins on farmland and investment in sustainable forestry, we are changing the face of conservation; no longer distinct from humanity, but all around us at all times. Excellent, well-researched papers on the needed transition exist, and they do not just point to the what and how, but also that vast rewards are there, waiting for those with the courage to act.

It cannot just be up to those in charge to accelerate the changes we need. As citizens and consumers, we all have a role to play; not just in how we approach our own diet, meat consumption and above all waste, but what we demand from those who produce it. Systemic change can happen, but only if we demand it, and literally put our money where our mouth is. More and more of us are choosing a different diet and demanding higher standards in terms of how our food is produced, and whether the welfare of the planet and its people has been respected in that process. We are beginning to demand a rethink of the food system business model, which has relied for too long on squeezing ever lower prices out of a limited group of producers.

Land, soil, and water management, of course, remains at the core of the systemic changes we need and will remain so. Here too, we will need to see a vastly accelerated pace of change. One that must be delivered by those who make their living from it, but not without their support either. Right now, we are seeing a new generation of farmers, conservationists, foresters and many others take over and reconfigure the way food has been produced for two or three generations. Aware of negative consequences like water and air pollution, nitrogen management, and the co-dependency of farming and biodiversity, they are taking hold of their responsibility. Vertical farms, food forests, urban food production; these are only a small fraction of the change that is coming to the way we deliver on a sustainable food system. The job of the decision-makers should be to support those who do not just talk about it, but deliver on their promised change, and to spread their good ideas as wide as they can.

The question remains as to whether the current CAP proposal will be robust enough to deliver real change. Even though the Commission surely prepared it with the best of intentions, it will likely fall short of addressing the challenges linked to climate, biodiversity, and the broader environment. By focussing on incomes support (even if further conditions apply), the current proposal maintains the status quo rather than providing the much-needed boost towards systemic change. If we are to deliver on the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and halt global heating, then surely we must be aware that this is the last financial proposal which can realistically affect the outcomes related to European agriculture.

There is no doubt that the appetite and will to change is growing around the world. Indeed, more and more of us are demanding a systemic shift away from the economic, social and environmental models that have so thoroughly failed to keep up with science and social demands. Furthermore, we cannot make these changes without new partnerships, by reaching beyond your natural ‘allies’ – here too the FFA is acting on its purpose, with a new partnership structure that allows for all sides to develop their own solutions. There is no choice but to change and to do so rapidly. That is why we will dedicate FFA2020 to theme of ‘accelerating change’.
We have eleven years left to transform the world. Eleven years until, according to the 2018 IPCC report, we will go inexorably past 1.5 degrees global warming and enter the age of climate breakdown. That is a short window of time to deliver on the change we need, so all our efforts must now go to accelerating everything, all at once, right now.

Janez Potočnik

Chair FFA2020,

Chairman RISE Foundation


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