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Naoko Ishii: An economic case for protecting the planet

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We all share one planet -- we breathe the same air, drink the same water and depend on the same oceans, forests and biodiversity. Economist Naoko Ishii is on a mission to protect these shared resources, known as the global commons, that are vital for our survival. In an eye-opening talk about the wellness of the planet, Ishii outlines four economic systems we need to change to safeguard the global commons, making the case for a new kind of social contract with the earth.

- Environmental policy expert
Naoko Ishii leads the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a public financial institution that provides around US$1 billion every year to help tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. Full bio

Good evening, everyone.
00:13
I am from Japan,
00:16
so I'd like to start with a story
about Japanese fishing villages.
00:18
In the past, every fisherman was tempted
to catch as many as fish as possible,
00:24
but if everybody did that,
00:32
the fish, common shared resource
in the community, would disappear.
00:35
The result would be hardship
and poverty for everyone.
00:41
This happened in some cases,
00:47
but it did not happen in other cases.
00:51
In these communities,
00:56
the fishermen developed
a kind of social contract
00:58
that told each one of them
to hold back a bit to prevent overfishing.
01:03
The fisherman would keep
an eye on each other.
01:09
There would be a penalty
if you were caught cheating.
01:13
But once the benefit of a social contract
became clear to everyone,
01:18
the incentive to cheat
dramatically dropped.
01:25
We find the same story around the world.
01:30
This is how villagers in medieval Europe
01:34
managed pasture and forests.
01:38
This is how communities in Asia
managed water,
01:42
and this is how indigenous peoples
in the Amazon managed wildlife.
01:46
These communities realized
they relied on a finite, shared resource.
01:53
They developed rules and practices
on how to manage those resources,
02:01
and they changed their behavior
02:07
so that they could continue
to rely on those shared resources tomorrow
02:09
by not overfishing,
02:16
not overgrazing,
02:19
not polluting or depleting
water streams today.
02:20
This is a story of the commons,
02:26
and also how to avoid
the so-called tragedy of the commons.
02:29
But this is also a story of an economy
02:37
that was mainly local,
02:40
where everybody had
a very strong sense of belonging.
02:43
Our economies are no longer local.
02:49
When we moved away from being local,
02:52
we started to lose
our connection to the commons.
02:55
We carried economic objectives,
goals and systems beyond the local,
03:00
but we did not carry the notion
of taking care of the commons.
03:06
So our oceans, forests,
03:13
once very close to us
as our local commons,
03:17
moved very far away from us.
03:21
So today, we pump millions of tons
of greenhouse gases into the air,
03:25
we dump plastics, fertilizers
and industrial waste
03:33
into the rivers and oceans,
03:38
and we cut down forests that absorb CO2.
03:40
We make the wild biodiversity
much more fragile.
03:45
We seem to have totally forgotten
03:51
that there is such a thing
as global commons:
03:53
air, water, forests and biodiversity.
03:58
Now, it is modern science
04:05
that reminds us how vital
the global commons are.
04:08
In 2009, a group of scientists proposed
04:14
how to assess the health
of the global commons.
04:19
They defined nine planetary boundaries
vital to our survival,
04:23
then they measured how far we could go
04:29
before we cross over
the tipping points or thresholds
04:33
that would lead us to the irreversible
or even catastrophic change.
04:37
This is where we were in the 1950s.
04:45
We broadly remained
within safe operating space,
04:51
marked by the green line.
04:56
But look at where we are now.
05:00
We have crossed four of those boundaries,
05:04
and we will be crossing others
in the future.
05:09
How did we end up in this situation?
05:13
Well, my personal story
may tell us something.
05:17
Five years ago, I was appointed
05:23
as CEO of the GEF,
Global Environment Facility,
05:25
but I am not a conservationist
05:30
or an environmental activist.
05:33
I am an economist,
05:37
and for the last 30 years,
05:39
I had worked for public finance
in my home country and around the world.
05:41
I can tell you one thing for sure:
05:48
during these 30 years,
05:51
the notion of the global commons
never crossed my mind.
05:53
I didn't have a single conversation
about the global commons
05:58
with my colleagues.
06:02
This tells me that the notion
of the global commons
06:05
was not really entering
into the big money decisions
06:09
like state budgets or investment plans.
06:13
And I'm wondering,
why do we have this sheer ignorance
06:18
about the global commons,
06:21
including me, myself?
06:23
One possible explanation might be
06:27
that until recently,
it didn't really matter too much.
06:31
Even if we mess up
some part of the environment,
06:36
we were not fundamentally changing
the functions of the earth system.
06:40
The global commons
had still enough capacity
06:47
to take the punches we gave them.
06:51
In fact, the fish were still plentiful,
06:54
the fields for grazing were still vast.
06:59
Our mistake was to assume
07:04
that the capacity
of the earth for self-repair
07:07
had no limits.
07:10
It does have limits.
07:12
The message from
the science is very clear:
07:15
we humans have become
an overwhelming force
07:19
to determine the future
living conditions on earth,
07:22
and what's more,
we are running out of time.
07:26
If we don't act on them,
07:30
we will be losing the global commons.
07:34
It's only our generation
who are able to preserve it --
07:37
preserve the commons as we know them.
07:40
Now is the time we start managing
the global commons
07:44
as our parents or our grandparents
managed their local commons.
07:49
The first thing we need to do
07:56
is to simply recognize
that we do have the global commons
07:59
and they are very, very important.
08:05
Then we need to build
the stewardship of the global commons
08:09
into all of our thinking,
08:13
our business, our economy,
08:15
our policy-making --
08:17
in all of our actions.
08:19
We need to recreate the social contract
of the fishing villages
08:21
on the global scale.
08:27
But what does it mean in practice?
08:31
Where to start with?
08:34
I see there are four key economic systems
08:37
that fundamentally need to change.
08:41
First, we need to change our cities.
08:44
By 2050, two thirds of our population
will live in cities.
08:48
We need green cities.
08:54
Second, we need to change
our energy system.
08:57
The world economy
must sharply decarbonize,
09:00
essentially in one generation.
09:04
Third, we need to change
our production-consumption system.
09:08
We need to break away from current
take-make-waste consumption patterns.
09:13
And finally, we need
to change our food system,
09:20
what to eat and how to produce it.
09:25
And all of those four systems
09:28
are putting enormous pressure
on the global commons,
09:31
and it's also very difficult to flip them.
09:35
They are extremely complex,
09:38
with many decision-makers,
actors involved.
09:40
Let's take the example of the food system.
09:45
Food production is currently responsible
09:50
for one quarter
of greenhouse gas emissions.
09:54
It is also a main user
of the world's water resources.
09:58
In fact, 70 percent of today's water
is used to grow crops.
10:02
Vast areas of tropical forest
are used for agriculture.
10:09
This deforestation drives extinction.
10:15
In fact, we are losing species
1,000 times faster
10:18
than the natural rate.
10:23
And on top of all of that bad news,
10:26
one third of food produced today globally
10:29
is not eaten.
10:34
It's wasted.
10:35
But there is the good news,
10:39
good signs.
10:42
Coalitions of stakeholders
10:44
are now coming together
to try to transform the food system
10:47
with one shared goal:
10:52
how to produce enough
healthy food for everyone,
10:54
at the same time,
10:59
to try to cut, to sharply reduce,
11:01
the footprint from the food system
on the global commons.
11:04
I had an opportunity
11:10
to fly over the Indonesian
island of Sumatra,
11:12
and I saw with my own eyes
11:17
the massive deforestation
11:19
to make room for palm oil plantations.
11:21
By the way, palm oil is included
in thousands of food products
11:27
we eat every day.
11:31
The global demand for palm oil
is just increasing.
11:33
In Sumatra, I met smallholder farmers
11:38
who need to make a day-to-day living
from growing oil palm.
11:42
I met global food companies,
11:47
financial institutions
11:50
and local government officials.
11:52
All of them told me that they can't
make the change by themselves,
11:56
and only by working together
under a kind of new contract,
12:01
or a new practice,
12:07
do they have a chance
to protect tropical forests.
12:08
So it's so encouraging to see,
at least for the last few years,
12:13
this new coalition among these committed
actors along the supply chain
12:18
come together to try
to transform the food system.
12:24
In fact, what they are trying to do
12:29
is to create a new kind of social contract
to manage the global commons.
12:32
All changes start at home,
12:41
at your place and at my place.
12:45
At GEF, Global Environment Facility,
12:48
we have now a new strategy,
12:52
and we put the global commons
at its center.
12:54
I hope we won't be the only ones.
13:00
If everybody stays on the sidelines,
waiting for others to step in,
13:04
the global commons
will continue to deteriorate,
13:09
and everybody will be much worse off.
13:13
We need to save ourselves
from the tragedy of the commons.
13:18
So, I invite all of you
to embrace the global commons.
13:24
Please do remember
that global commons do exist
13:30
and are waiting for your stewardship.
13:34
We all share one planet in common.
13:38
We breathe the same air,
13:42
we drink the same water,
13:44
we depend on the same oceans,
forests, and biodiversity.
13:46
There is no space
left on earth for egoism.
13:52
The global commons must be kept
within their safe operating space,
13:57
and we can only do it together.
14:02
Thank you so much.
14:08
(Applause)
14:09

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About the speaker:

Naoko Ishii - Environmental policy expert
Naoko Ishii leads the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a public financial institution that provides around US$1 billion every year to help tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems.

Why you should listen

Since taking the helm at the GEF in 2012, Noako Ishii, an economist by training, has steered the development and implementation of a new long-term strategy that addresses the underlying drivers of environmental degradation. She has put protecting the global commons -- our air, water, biodiversity, forests, land, oceans and a stable climate -- at its center.

Previously, Ishii was Deputy Vice Minister of Finance in Japan and has also worked at the World Bank and the IMF. As a sustainable development leader, Ishii strives to be build coalitions that address the "defining moment" that we're in for the future of the planet. She is a leading advocate on the need to make the environment everybody's business, and she believes safeguarding the global commons is, quite simply, the wisest investment we can make.

Ishii has been profiled for her pioneering work on cities and climate change, and she has highlighted the role of women in driving sustainable change around the world.

More profile about the speaker
Naoko Ishii | Speaker | TED.com