19 May 2022 – In 1972, the seminal report to The Club of Rome – The Limits to Growth – was the first study to explore the possible impacts of the growing ecological footprint of population growth, human activities and its physical impacts on our finite planet from a systems perspective. The authors warned that if growth trends in population, industrialisation, resource use and pollution continued unabated, we would reach, and then overshoot, the carrying capacity of the Earth at some point during the first decades of the 21st century.
50 years on, we are experiencing the real impact of the encroachment of humanity on these limits through COVID-19, climate change and conflict. The pandemic and now the Russian invasion of the Ukraine have both demonstrated the high degree of interdependence between people around the world and the fragility of our current value chains and geo-political relationships. In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross: ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’.
What we need is systemic policies that address the complexity of our world and joined-up systems to support the ambition for a global green and just future that guarantees greater resilience to future shocks and stresses. The current global system is far from being green, just or resilient. We must aim for not only net-zero carbon emissions, but also zero biodiversity loss, zero inequality, and zero poverty and design systems that truly place a value on people, planet and prosperity together.
The International System Change Compass strives to do just that. Taking the European Green Deal (EGD) framework as point of departure, the report sets how the European transition may positively contribute to a global transition. The ‘Compass’ serves as a stress-testing tool for policymakers working on topics related to the EGD agenda by outlining what global green and equitable pathways may look along 10 principles and 8 economic ecosystems. While decarbonisation and dematerialisation help support the green transition, reshaping international relations and governance is fundamental in building long-term resilience and ensuring a transition that is socially just as well as green. Success of the green and just transition in Europe depends on how the EU includes the rest of the world in this economic shift, ensuring that the circle of care alongside environmental and social indicators are applied when addressing external relations and trade. Reversely, EU diplomacy can play an important role in reshaping international governance systems through radical collaboration and leadership instead of reinforcing historical power imbalances and exclusion.
Yet, existing policy frameworks do not go far enough in addressing these interconnections and implementation at international and EU-levels is halting in the face of urgent crises requiring short-term emergency responses. For example, post-2020 climate actions designed to help meet the Paris Agreement goals focus on reducing emissions and rarely tackle systemic resource efficiency solutions. Likewise, the focus of Europe’s “green” recovery spending has been on climate, not factoring in nature or biodiversity spending needs. Conversations around the energy transition continue to be driven by traditional security concerns rather than building resilience across interconnected systems, including the food-water-energy nexus. We know, as the IPCC report outlines: “vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions, driven by patterns of intersecting socio-economic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalization, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance.” Yet, existing governance frameworks for the global green and socially just transition perpetuate historical, dominant modes of collaboration and partnership, which do not redress historical dependencies and underlying assumptions of.
This needs to change, urgently. The Planetary emergency will linger if we only treat the acute signs of distress – climate change, COVID, conflict – without also addressing the underlying cause – systems failure. It is time to put systems thinking at the heart of international climate governance and diplomacy. The International System Change Compass makes the case for how Europe’s green and just transition could benefit the EU and the global community at large, from improved health and wellbeing to intact ecosystems and resilient relationships.
Ultimately, if we are to value our future, we need to value resilience in societies and nature and understand the perversities in our existing economic, financial and political systems. This means getting the balance right between saving lives and livelihoods, ensuring economic prosperity and living within our planetary boundaries. The war in Ukraine, the lingering effects of COVID, spiking inflation and increased pressure on political liberties are clear signs that Europe needs to alter its course quickly and implement holistic systems thinking at the core of its policy designs. The European Green Deal provides Europe with a starting point – now policymakers need to apply systems thinking to make sure policy solutions are both green and just and their implementation does not have adverse effects on other policy domains or the larger global transition. The International Systems Compass allows us to ask the right questions, unpack key tensions and put in place the core principles necessary to radically transform our economies. If we want to steer this ship in the right direction, it is an all hands-on-deck systemic approach that is needed with bold political leadership at the helm.