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A Magna Carta for the Earth?

06/05/2015 09:59 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016
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The international discussions under way in the course of this vital year -- including July's Finance for Development Meeting in Addis Ababa, the agreement of a new set of universal Sustainable Development Goals at the UN in September and the climate-change summit in Paris at the end of 2015 -- represent a remarkable and unprecedented opportunity to establish what might be called a "Magna Carta for the earth" for our times.

At a time of great fragility and uncertainty, compounded by ever-growing appalling conflict and humanitarian tragedy, I am more concerned than ever before that our collective demands on the earth are outstripping what our planet can sustainably supply, and that if we are to avoid further unpleasant consequences, we will need to make fundamental changes to how we approach growth and development.

The Magna Carta -- the 800th anniversary of whose signing in England we celebrate this year -- established some of the central principles of human rights and individual liberty that hold today. Such a totemic document has proved extraordinarily valuable over the years and, in the same vein, I cannot help wondering if the Sustainable Development Goals and the climate agreement in 2015 could form the basis for a similarly long-standing contract for the earth and humanity's relationship to it.

There is, after all, an immense amount at stake, and that is why the focus of this year's OECD Forum on these issues could not be more welcome. While there is much complexity and many potential focal points for action, four points of focus strike me as being potentially transformative.

The first relates to the urgent need to reduce and reorient existing fossil-fuel subsidies. I have been struck by the emphasis that the OECD has itself placed on this subject, and by the ever-growing international impetus behind shifting from "perverse" subsidy regimes to more environmentally, socially and economically helpful ones.

Meaningful and systematic fossil-fuel subsidy reform would surely make a very considerable contribution to reducing emissions while bringing many other benefits, too, for example through cleaner air and the improved health and well-being that would ensue. If taken forward in tandem with new carbon-pricing measures, the positive effects could be profound.

Secondly, it seems to me that new economic tools and a broader economic understanding are urgently needed to help sustain the ecosystems and biodiversity that we rely upon for nearly every aspect of our welfare. A number of studies, including a global initiative called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB, have compellingly demonstrated the true economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems. They demonstrate convincingly how, if this value were to be properly internalised into our decision-making, we would radically alter the economic calculus of our activities in favour of the protection, conservation and sustainable use of the natural capital that in turn sustains us, and upon which we depend.

The global meetings in 2015, not least of all the Finance for Development meeting in July in Addis Ababa, offer golden opportunities to make decisive progress in this area, and I can only pray that the efforts under way in a number of countries and companies to account more fully and in an integrated way for "natural capital" will continue to deliver results and be widely replicated.

Thirdly, it seems to me that as much emphasis as possible should be given to what is being increasingly referred to as the circular economy. This economic system, based on restoration and intelligent use, is a potentially transformative concept that could lead us toward a vastly more secure, sustainable and resilient global economy. It strikes me as worthy of support at the highest levels. Whether as a means of combating the proliferation of plastic debris in the world's oceans, capturing nutrients or preventing the waste of scarce minerals in defunct consumer goods, the benefits would be wide-ranging and have local, national and international benefits. It is my fervent hope that more OECD member countries and their companies might take up this idea, make it their own and innovate to make it a reality, including through developing such circular-economic indicators for the OECD Better Life Index.

Fourthly, and finally, I would like to address the issue of infrastructure in cities. Given the enormous anticipated growth in the built environment over the next 10 years, it seems to me to be essential that we recognise the unsustainable burden that this will place upon our natural ecosystems, perhaps particularly with regard to water, but also upon human and social systems if we fail to transform the planning and design of urban development and break the conventional mould of "business as usual." In view of the trillions of dollars that will be spent, it is essential to ensure that this investment addresses not only the fundamental systemic relationships between cities and the natural environment, but also that it is designed to improve human well-being and human communities.

In conclusion, if we are to make the transition to true sustainability in time to avoid the worst environmental effects of current business-as-usual economic growth, we must act quickly to reorient the world's ever-growing economy onto a sustainable, long-term and resilient path. No one group or sector can make this transition alone and each set of actors has a vital role to play, whether governments, sovereign wealth funds, academics, journalists, institutional investors, financial regulators, banks, companies, mayors, civil society or citizens.

But the question remains, will we act? Will we just go on and on compromising the future of our children and grandchildren for the sake of business as usual, or will we finally recognise that 2015 presents us with a wonderful opportunity -- perhaps our last of this kind -- in which to change the paradigm? I can only wish you well at the OECD Forum and greatly hope that you can make progress in addressing the questions that history will undoubtedly judge as the most pressing of our age.

Visit Prince Charles's website at www.princeofwales.gov.uk

For more on the Magna Carta, visit the British Library website at www.bl.uk/magna-carta

This blog post is part of a series produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in conjunction with the OECD Forum 2015. The Forum takes place alongside the main annual OECD Ministerial Meeting (June 3-4, 2015) and provides the possibility for all stakeholders within society to discuss policies and ideas with Ministers from governments worldwide, and with each other. For more information about the OECD Forum 2015, read here.