“A purchase order from the future”

11 May 2021

“Despite the fact that we’ve known the Earth’s resources are limited since 1972, it wasn’t until 2015 that we got an international agreement that acknowledges the fact that our resources are limited,” says Katherine Richardson, Professor and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre, University of Copenhagen.

The Sustainable Development Goals map out this framework, to give an idea of what we might want to do with all of the Earth’s resources.

However, as Richardson outlines in this keynote address from the Eurocities Environment Forum 2021, we are failing to respect the Earth’s planetary boundaries. In short, we’re using too many resources.

All of our actions come at a cost to the global environmental commons, according to Richardson, and we should reorientate to focus on climate and biodiversity – the two planetary boundaries on which everything else relies.

“The amount of CO2 that’s emitted per GDP has decreased by about 40% since the middle of the last century, and yet we’re still in a mell of a hiss [sic] with respect to climate. The situation is much worse than it was fifty years ago, so technology alone can’t do it. It has to be technology, combined with our behaviour, and we can use economic and government tools in order to get the match to work,” she explains.

So, how much of the Earth’s resources can we use, while still remaining in a safe planetary place, and what does this mean for cities?

In areas as diverse as waste management, good building practices and public procurement, the actions taken by cities have consequences far outside of their territories, which is why Richardson suggests, “one of the things I think cities need to do is a little more focus on systems thinking.” For Richardson, while cities do a lot of things right already, they could go a step further: rather than choosing visually pleasing vegetation as a flood prevention measure, think about biodiversity for example.

It’s obvious, says Richardson that business as usual just can’t cut it, which is why sustainable development needs to be the joint responsibility of cities, businesses, people, governments – basically of everyone. “Sustainable development is not a nice to have, it’s a need to have,” she says.

Watch and listen here:


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer