Waiting for our Prince Regent: Reflections from Planet Under Pressure

03 April 2012

Prince regent

A prince regent (or prince-regent) is a prince who rules a monarchy as regent instead of a monarch, e.g., due to the Sovereign's incapacity or absence.

In order to attend last week’s Planet Under Pressure conference, some 3000 participants disembarked at Prince Regent station on the Docklands Light Railway station. Over the course of the conference, the name of this station, which I’d never visited before, got me thinking. In the absence of any sovereign capacity or clear global agreement, it seems the world is looking for a ‘Prince Regent’ to step in and solve the challenges of sustainability.

Planet Under Pressure was a four-day conference which aimed to provide ‘scientific leadership’ ahead of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20. From planetary stewardship and science-based policy, to ecosystems services and global governance, the conference covered an impressive array of topics over 150 different sessions. According to the organisers, one of the conference’s main successes was in fostering links between social and natural scientists. But is that enough?

The ‘State of the Planet Declaration’, agreed at the conference, called for a fundamental reorientation of national and international institutions; for the establishment of sustainable development goals; and for the recognition of the value of global public goods, such as ecosystem services. Such recommendations are commendable, but not exactly surprising.

As the technology policy expert Nigel Cameron reflected in a post-conference blog, there were numerous speeches calling for action, but ‘life in an exhortatory community is depressing and a little tedious’. The challenge is to move beyond motherhood statements and demonstrate the practical value and relevance of these ideas for Rio+20 and beyond.

I was encouraged by the session on ‘Convergent Global Megatrends’, organised by Jim Hall of the Oxford Environmental Change Institute, in which a distinguished panel captured the interconnected challenges of ecosystem assessment (Bob Watson), energy (Chris Llewellyn Smith), water (Pavel Kabat), food (Charles Godfray), climate (Corrine Le Quere) and population (Ed Barry). And weaving them all together as only he can was Sir John Beddington, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. Hearing short talks on these issues in quick succession could have left the audience feeling despondent, but instead there was a positive and practical focus on solutions.

Our understanding of the intimate relationship between food, water, climate, energy, population and eco-systems has increased significantly in the past 8-10 years, in part thanks to John Beddington’s own work in drawing attention the notion of a ‘perfect storm’. Beddington argued that we can predict with reasonable certainty the stark realities of climate change impact, the massive strain of urbanisation and ecosystem decline over the next 15-20 years. The dire consequences of these trends in this relatively short period will force action. The longer we wait, the more adverse the consequences.

We know that the solutions are complex, but the panel did highlight some important interventions. First, by getting the economics metrics right to capture these challenges, beyond simply GDP. Second, through coordination between cities, which could assist in bypassing the vested interests which often slow international agreements. Third, greater involvement and leadership from the private sector was deemed critical, ideally in partnership with governments, universities and NGOs. Fourth, universities need to remove the barriers to interdisciplinary research, and encourage more ‘systems thinkers’ able to assess these complex interdependencies. Finally, we need a sharper focus on values and behaviour change. We know from issues like smoking that these can change over time – the question is how to achieve this in relation to abuse of the planet.

We need to ensure the goodwill and momentum generated by Planet Under Pressure is not lost, as we move beyond exhortations to a more detailed discussion of practical interventions. There is little sign that a Prince Regent will be stepping in to save us anytime soon.

Read about Oxford Martin School academics at Planet Under Pressure

Natalie used to be Head of Policy at the Oxford Martin School. She is now Head of Strategy and Communications at SPRU.