Nine billion people, able to live well within planetary boundaries: a mantra for business action

Rafael Sardá

30 years have passed since Stephan Schmidheiny and the Business Council for Sustainable Development wrote “Changing Course”, a first future-focused business perspective on economic growth and environmental protection, and one that could be heard loud and clear at the Rio Summit of 1992.

A few years later, this book would inspire the foundation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which operates today as a forum of international companies from a variety of industries. Its objective is to exchange the best possible practices for attaining the goal of Sustainable Development cherished by us all.

If one thing was clear to the WBCSD from the outset, it was that companies would not be able to develop successfully in societies that failed or collapsed, and so the organization was quick to develop its own vision of the world for the year 2050, a vision towards which it would work under the slogan of “9 billion people living well, within the resource limits of the planet”.

Since the turn of the new millennium, the population has grown at an average rate of 1.2% a year

Since then, science has generated sufficient information to show there is an intrinsic link between well-functioning societies and well-functioning ecosystems, in turn dependent on a healthy biodiversity, all of which is essential to our well-being. Nevertheless, human activity continues to have a significant impact on these ecosystems and on climate, which regulates them, and this has led us to consider there is a genuine risk of destabilizing the Earth system, thereby endangering the planet’s habitability.

Since the turn of the new millennium, the population has grown at an average rate of 1.2% a year. The last billion people have arrived in just 12 years, and it would appear that we need sustained economic growth of around 3% per year in order to maintain the status quo or to create the scenarios we pursue; as a result of both the growth in population and the economy, there has been a constant acceleration in many social and environmental indicators and a high degree of connectivity between all of them.

Consequently, the scientific world and the United Nations have sounded the warning that planetary boundaries exist on which human security is dependent, and there is a danger we may cross these, if we are not already doing so at present. On this basis, the WBCSD has adjusted its Vision 2050, incorporating this concept into its original perspective: “Nine billion, able to live well within planetary boundaries”.

We must be aware that not only do we have an impact on the environment that surrounds us, but we are also absolutely dependent on it

The most recent UN plenary sessions at its conferences on climate (UNFCCC-COP26 Glasgow 2021) and biodiversity (UNCOB-COP15 Kunming 2021/2022) have sent out very clear messages about the need to coordinate actions and solutions, one of these being to study nature-based solutions and apply them more effectively.

In Glasgow, in November 2021, progress was made in various key areas for the Paris Agreement; for example, to ensure that the solutions adopted to reverse the climate emergency go hand in hand with the protection of biodiversity (“climate solutions adopted must also co-deliver to Nature”). In line with these conclusions, and in preparation for the second part of the biodiversity conference, its Post2020 movement has prepared another slogan, another call to action: “An Equitable, Carbon-Neutral, Nature-Positive world for 2050”. It is clear to see that the WBCSD slogan and the UN slogan complement each other.

Business, in its broadest sense, cannot remain impassive in the face of these two future commitments. Companies need to engage in reappraisal and adopt a new mantra by reformulating not only their concern for these global issues (“awareness”), but also their actions and responses to these problems (“activation”). We must be aware that not only do we have an impact on the environment that surrounds us, but we are also absolutely dependent on it; without this external environment and the correct functioning of its components, companies will not be able to function. We have entered an era in which human activity has altered certain terrestrial systemic processes, and we must prepare ourselves to address the growing socio-ecological challenges that this brings by applying the appropriate solutions.

We need to draw up a new framework for corporate sustainability

We need to draw up a new framework for corporate sustainability. A new framework which recognizes that we live in established societies and that these societies can only function and avoid collapse if the natural environment functions and is resilient. It is not a matter of establishing the duality between business and nature (“People, Planet and Profit”), but of moving towards the recognition that our business is conducted in nature (“People, Profit, on the Planet”). Some years ago, we wrote this down in a book that we entitled “Business In Nature”, a new conception of corporate sustainability which aimed to “create a significant positive impact in societies as well as increase the resilience of social-ecological systems” wherever work takes place.

Although they come from very different sources, the three slogans we have cited are similar in their socio-ecological perspective of today's reality: The social perspective [-"Nine billion, able to live well"- -"An Equitable"- -"Create a significant positive impact"-] is intrinsically integrated with the more ecological perspective [-"within planetary boundaries"- -"carbon-neutral, nature-positive"- -"increasing the resilience of social-ecological systems"-].

This new mantra sought will have to meet four basic conditions that accompany its development when “walking the talk”:

  1. Extending companies' boundaries of intervention (“Extending the boundaries of intervention”). Companies must transcend traditional corporate boundaries to encompass all phases of the value chain (from extraction and cultivation of resources to the end of the useful life of products). They must internalize the interdependencies with the social-ecological systems in which they act, either based on the pressures exerted or on their needs for ecosystem goods and services. Rethinking the value chain and the life cycle of products and services must be an essential competence for business organizations.
  2. We must focus on environmental effects and not only on the impacts we produce (“Moving from a focus on environmental impacts to a focus on environmental effects”). Firms must not only drastically reduce the impact they have, but also stabilize, or better still, reduce the negative effects they have on the natural world and its ecosystems (atmosphere, freshwater systems, marine systems, forests, etc.), so that the integrity, functionality and resilience of these may be conserved, which is essential for us all to prosper.
  3. There must be innovation in new products, services and business models for the future (“Innovating new products, services, and business models for the future”). We need to decouple prosperity from the material consumption of resources in order to confront the great acceleration of our times. Changes must entail new rules in the markets relating to how resources are extracted and combined along value chains, how value is generated for consumers, and how value is produced for the company. All this must be supplemented by the development of new and sustainable business models within a good circular economy.
  4. Development of collaborative approaches (“Developing collaborative approaches”). Due to the planetary scale of the social-ecological challenges, we must understand that these crises cannot be solved by the efforts of just a few players. It is not a question of optimizing or maximizing outcomes in isolation. The role of companies here lies in being able to influence others and to drive through a broader transformation at industry level. A shift from the dominant focus on competition to an approach that values collaboration between peers and with stakeholders.

Our training processes must be committed to this shared vision and capable of guiding the way. Thirty years have gone by since “Changing Course” and we have not done enough. We must act swiftly and without erring, in order to leave the generations to come that better world which we all want.

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