Public Engagement for the Global Goals with a Special Focus on Sustainable Oceans: Highlights from Johan Rockstrom Keynote speech

By Tamara Luisce

On April 19, 2017, the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), Global Environment Outreach Centre (GEOC) and the Embassy of Sweden held an International Symposium titled Public Engagement for the Global Goals with a Special Focus on Sustainable Oceans with HRH Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden (Sustainable Development Goals Advocate) as special guest of honour. The keynote speaker for this event was Dr. Johan Rockstrom, Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre. The audience in this event, hosted at the UNU headquarters in Tokyo, were academics and researchers from different universities and research institutes, public servants, students, NGO representatives and even Princess Takamado of Japan.

Rockstrom began his speech by reminding the audience that in terms of consumption and human activity, we had been until recently a small world on a large planet. Yet, we are now a large world on a small planet and our only chance to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is through sustainable development. He continued by saying that business as usual would take to a 5°C would be a disaster point for all countries and economies that we do not want to reach. We now have hundreds of years of evidence to understand the patterns caused in the ecosystem by human activity. He continued by saying that in 1955 we have been witnessing the greatest acceleration of industrial development of planet earth and can now talk about humans being the greatest drivers of change on earth.

In terms of oceans, Rockstrom continued by saying that resilience is high in the oceans despite temperature warming, acidification and overfishing. He explained that it is precisely this resilience has made the world so slow in acting. Oceans absorb 95% of the temperature rise of the planet. In theory, if oceans were to release the additional energy that they have absorbed, temperature rise would increase by 33°C, which would be an uninhabitable world. Despite being so resilient, in some areas, the PH in the ocean has gone down 30% and this has dramatically affected biodiversity.

Rockstrom continued by explaining how the desired state of the world is the Holocene, the geological epoch that we are moving away from. Predictability characterizes the Holocene; the risk of failure in agriculture reduced and enabled the development of human beings. He reminded the audience of the concept of Anthropocene, the epoch in which we currently lived in which the atmospheric, hydrologic, geologic and biospheric and other earth system processes are heavily altered by humans. In 50 years, we have tipped from 10,000 years of Holocene to the Anthropocene. Lastly, a key point that was mentioned was that planet Earth responds with surprises. The rapid bleaching of the coral reefs is an example of this unpredictability.

Rockstrom mentioned three key principles for success. First, oceans are everyone’s responsibility. Second, we are all in this together. Third, we need strong and resilient ecosystems. A key point that he mentioned was that economies must understand that they are all interdependent.

The presentation concluded with an introduction to a new journal article by Rockstrom and his team titled ‘a roadmap for Rapid Decarbonization.’ This very interesting paper champions a fossil free economy by midcentury by shifting foods systems from emitters to sink and by implementing a global carbon law. According to Rockstrom, the Paris Agreement will not be successful without this law. In addition, following a global carbon law would double renewable energy capacity every 5.4 years. Nevertheless, he mentioned that the world with move to 100% renewable energy by following the exponential growth that we have today business as usual.

After finishing his speech, Rockstrom had a few minutes to answer questions from the audience. A key question was whether Rockstrom could recommend new international institutional mechanisms to succeed with the Paris Agreement. Rockstrom answered that the world has very little time and ability to create new institutions. Instead the world must work with what is currently in place which is the UN, the SDGs and the existing global trade agreements. In addition, he mentioned that the SDGs are a world security issue that should be brought to the Security Council.