Top Scientists Urge End to Policy Shortcomings to Tackle Social and Environmental Crises


New joint paper calls on leaders at Rio+20 to change how the wealth of nations is measured, and work with society and private sector to place nature at the core of social and economic development plans.

Nairobi, Kenya — Leading international environmental scientists urged today governments to replace gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of wealth, end damaging subsidies, and transform systems of governance to set humanity on a new path to a better future — or risk climate, biodiversity and poverty crises that will spawn greater problems worldwide.

These are among the messages from a new paper by 20 past winners of the Blue Planet Prize — often called the Nobel Prize for the environment.

"Governments should recognise the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic activitity and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital — built, financial, natural, human and social capital, i.e. a measure of wealth that integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions," the paper argues. "Green taxes and the elimination of subsidies should ensure that the natural resources needed to directly protect poor people are available rather than via subsidies that often only benefit the better off."

Bob Watson, the UK's chief scientific advisor on environmental issues and a winner of the prize in 2010, presented the paper to government ministers from around the world at the UN Environment Programme's governing council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya on 20 February.

Co-authors include James Hansen of NASA, Emil Salim, former environment minister of Indonesia, Susan Solomon of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, José Goldemberg, who was Brazil's Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and Dr. Will Turner of Conservation International. CI received the Blue Planet Prize in 1997 for "protecting the Earth's biological diversity through research into ways to conserve ecosystems while improving the lives of local peoples".

The paper urges governments to:

  • Replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, built, human and social capital — and how they intersect.
  • Eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture that create environmental and social costs, which currently go unpaid.
  • Tackle overconsumption, and address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible to all.
  • Transform decision making processes to empower marginalised groups, and integrate economic, social and environmental policies instead of having them compete.
  • Conserve and value biodiversity and ecosystem services, and create markets for them that can form the basis of green economies.
  • Invest in knowledge — both in creating and in sharing it — through research and training that will enable governments, business, and society at large to understand and move towards a sustainable future.

"These are unprecedented, daunting challenges we face. But they are also solvable. Our awareness of how climate change, poverty, and security issues arise from environmental degradation has never been greater," said CI's Vice President for Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Dr. Will Turner. "Nature is our greatest asset. We will succeed by recognizing the communities and businesses that have already coupled growth or poverty alleviation with nature conservation, and scale these results to the globe through not just top-down governance but people, institutions, and the private sector at all levels."

The paper comes ahead of the Rio+20 conference in June this year — when world leaders have an opportunity to set human development on a new, more sustainable path.

CI's lead for Rio+20 and Vice President of International Policy, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, said: "Rio+20 will be an unique opportunity for governments and civil society to limit unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, which are destroying the environment. Nature is the foundation of human well-being, particularly in developing countries, so world leaders must commit to long-term actions that will place nature at the center of development plans."

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The paper by the Blue Planet laureates will challenge governments and society as a whole to act to limit human-induced climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in order to ensure food, water energy and human security. I would like to thank Professor Watson and colleagues for eloquently articulating their vision on how key development challenges can be addressed, emphasizing solutions; the policies, technologies and behaviour changes required to grow green economies, generate jobs and lift people out of poverty without pushing the world through planetary boundaries."

The Blue Planet Prize laureates who contributed to the paper are:

  • Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Lord (Robert) May of Oxford, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and President of Royal Society of London
  • Professor Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University
  • Professor Harold Mooney, Stanford University
  • Dr. Gordon Hisashi Sato, President, Manzanar Project Corporation
  • Professor José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil and Brazil's interim Secretary of Environment during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992
  • Dr. Emil Salim, former Environment Minister of the Republic of Indonesia
  • Dr. Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development
  • Mr Bunker Roy, Founder of Barefoot College
  • Dr. Syukuro Manabe, Senior Scientist, Princeton University
  • Dr. Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director-General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature
  • Dr. Simon Stuart, Chair of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature
  • Professor Karl-Henrik Robèrt, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Founder of The Natural Step
  • Dr. James Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  • Lord (Nicholas) Stern of Brentford, Professor, The London of Economics
  • Dr. Amory Lovins, Chair and Chief Scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute
  • Dr. Gene Likens, Director of the Carey Institute of Ecosystem Studies
  • Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Director-General of the World Health Organization, now Special Envoy on Climate Change for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
  • Dr. James Lovelock, independent scientist and proponent of the Gaia Hypothesis
  • Dr. Will Turner, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach, Conservation International


DOWNLOAD: Read the full paper, "Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act" (PDF)

To request interviews or more information, contact:

Patricia Yakabe Malentaqui (Conservation International)

Tetsuro Yasuda (The Asahi Glass Foundation)

Shereen Zorba (UNEP)

Mike Shanahan (IIED)

Note to editors:

About the Blue Planet Prize — In 1992, the year of the Rio Earth Summit, the Asahi Glass Foundation established the Blue Planet Prize, an award presented to individuals or organizations worldwide in recognition of outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems.

The Prize is offered in the hopes of encouraging efforts to bring about the healing of the Earth's fragile environment. A full list of its past winners is online here.

The award's name was inspired by the remark "the Earth was blue," uttered by the first human in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, upon viewing our planet. The Blue Planet Prize was so named in the hopes that our blue planet will be a shared asset capable of sustaining human life far into the future.
2012 is the 20th anniversary of the Blue Planet Prize. The Asahi Glass Foundation wishes to mark this anniversary with a fresh start in its efforts to help build an environmentally friendly society.

About Conservation International (CI)
— Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the long term well-being of people. Founded in 1987 and marking its 25th anniversary in 2012, CI has headquarters in the Washington DC area, and 900 employees working in nearly 30 countries on four continents, plus 1,000+ partners around the world. For more information, please visit or on Facebook or Twitter.

Download CI's contribution to the Blue Planet Prize Paper: