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September 9th, 2015
Decoupling Can Hasten Arrival of ‘Peak Environmental Impact’ this Century

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A new report from the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, California-based research center, identifies key social and technological trends that can significantly increase the amount of land available for conservation.

Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, released today, reviews processes that ‘decouple’ economic growth from environmental destruction. These include : declining fertility, rising agricultural productivity, urbanization, and energy transitions.

Two decoupling processes – substitution and intensification – play a key role in creating more room for nature. Substitution involves replacing ecosystem goods with technology, such as going from wild to farmed meat, or from wood to modern fuels. Intensification spares nature by more efficiently using land for producing food, wood, and other goods.

According to the authors, Linus Blomqvist, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger, these processes underpin positive trends in global environmental impacts. Global farmland area has flattened out, and the per-capita land requirement for food production has declined by half over just five decades, in spite of richer diets.

Wood consumption has plateaued, and the area of production forest has started to decline. The total per-capita land footprint – including cropland, pasture, production forest, and built-up land – is lower today than it has been for decades, if not centuries.

Continued decoupling could allow the arrival of “peak environmental impact” this century, the report notes, but this prospect requires a set of new conservation priorities.

While important at the local level, conservation efforts focused on protected areas and payments for ecosystem services have proven unable to halt the loss of wildlife and natural habitats on a global scale.

“Protected areas often fail in the face of competing economic demands on land and resources, and when they succeed, they lead to leakage, where resource extraction spreads elsewhere,” said lead author Linus Blomqvist.

Decoupling can be viewed as a way of augmenting local conservation efforts by reducing aggregate demand for land and resources.

Conservation organizations, governments, and private firms can accelerate decoupling by supporting urbanization, agricultural intensification, and the transition to denser, cleaner forms of energy. These efforts require an embrace of controversial technologies such as nuclear power, industrial agriculture, aquaculture, and factory farms.

Blomqvist will present his findings at Resources for the Future in Washington, DC, this week, and at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources in late September.

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