“We are on a crash course,” says Leo Van Broeck, engineer, architect and keynote speaker to the panel on ‘City leadership in a global climate crisis’ organised by Eurocities at the upcoming Brussels Urban Summit.
I wish I could write that we, humans, are on the right track, that we’re doing everything right, that soon, we won’t have to talk about what we should do anymore, but we can revel in congratulating ourselves for what we did. We’ve been good. Our intelligence and innovations have saved us all.
Even while I’m writing it, I feel like I’m jotting down the pitch of another mediocre sci-fi series, and I don’t want us to kid ourselves. As Van Broeck puts it, “Not speaking up today is even worse, and I would feel very guilty. These are the last, maybe five or ten years, where we have a chance to change everything.” And the road is long ahead, and we may have picked up an incomplete map.
The planet we deserve
Leo Van Broeck is not one to mince words, and the reality he describes speaks for itself. “We are at total ecosystem collapse on a planetary scale because we do more than what the planet and nature can stand,” he summarises.
Then he continues by listing a few problems that got us here: overpopulation, excessive land use, carbon emissions, waste, overfishing of the oceans, overexploitation of species, etc.
For example, one of the areas we’re doing worse in is biodiversity because of excessive land use. “We have aggressively conquered almost 85% of the fertile land surface,” says Van Broeck, leaving less than 15% of untouched natural, fertile soil.
The few remaining vertebrates in nature account for only 3% of the vertebrate carbon weight, compared to 32% for humankind directly and 65% for our cattle and domestic animals. And if everyone would live like a Belgian, we would need four planets.
An intelligent species takes care of its offspring. We are preparing hell for our grandchildren.
“We don’t have much time left to reinvent ourselves,” urges Van Broeck. “We are not an intelligent species. An intelligent species takes care of its offspring. We are preparing hell for our grandchildren.”
Cognitive dissonance, or how we tell ourselves stories
We are taking steps to avoid the worse, right? Van Broeck disagrees. He sees a cognitive dissonance between politicians’ discourse and the effects of their decisions and our actions as a species.
For example, he states that “resilience is a lie” and explains it with a metaphor. It’s like a case of domestic violence where we are beating Mother Nature. Nature is visibly bruised, yet the social worker on the matter says they will make Mother Nature a little bit more resilient against our misbehaviour.
“This is a falsification of reality, just as ‘preserving’ biodiversity, because you cannot preserve what’s almost non-existent anymore. We have to create it back,” insists Van Broeck.
you cannot preserve what’s almost non-existent anymore. We have to create it back
Economists and politicians talk about our planet like a wedding planner who, because he believes in eternal growth, organises 100,000 people parties in a beautiful little castle that fits 100 people. “How blind can we be? We don’t want to understand the problem,” stresses Van Broeck. “Even people who are concerned about ecology are missing the point.”
The why is more important than what
Most of the global discourse is around climate change and carbon reduction, and even here, we’re too slow as last March’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report reads, “The pace and scale of what has been done so far, and current plans, are insufficient to tackle climate change.”
The point we’re missing for Van Broeck is that why we take the measures we choose is even more important than the measures themselves. “Climate change is only a small part of the problem, and it’s creating misunderstandings that a carbon-neutral society will save nature,” says Van Broeck. “The underlying goals, visions and ethics that steer our behaviour and our economy are more important than everyone getting an electric car.”
The underlying goals, visions and ethics that steer our behaviour and our economy are more important than everyone getting an electric car.
He explains that we would reach the ‘good old temperatures’ of 50 years ago in 1,000 or 1,500 years. “That’s the repair horizon of climate change,” he insists. “Yet, politicians are still talking about economic growth. It is even one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.”
So far, for example, innovations and scientific research allowed us to almost double the food production per hectare every decade. But, Van Broeck points out, instead of taking the opportunity to give at least 40-50% of the agricultural surface back to nature, this benefit was exploited to maximise profit for the few.
“Our economic model and the growth dream are the main problems,” spells out Van Broeck. “If we continue using innovation for the maximisation of profit of a minority of shareholders, the planet is still going to pieces.”
Are we doomed?
While the motive for such a vehement reality check is some healthy fear, that’s not all Van Broeck will bring to the discussion on 15 June. “We can avoid the hellish results that we are on the course to reach in 20 to 40 years from now,” he says.
We have to behave better in our planetary house. We have to shrink.
For Van Broeck, sustainability and carbon neutrality can only be reached if we reduce land use and commit to an economy that only grows qualitatively. “We go for less but better. We go for value creation,” summarises Van Broeck.
He would like to see the creation of a sharing economy, where shares go to everyone so there is less inequality in ownership. And he would welcome the subscription to a circular doughnut economy that respects the planetary boundaries and offers a minimum living standard that people are willing to accept.
This, he explains, would create a paradise planet for 2-3 billion people in 300-400 years. “It will be bad for a couple of centuries,” Van Broeck admits, and politicians have not been willing to accept these numbers. However, Van Broeck insists, “We have to behave better in our planetary house. We have to shrink.”
Paradise in 300 years, better living now
This doesn’t mean that some changes won’t be immediately beneficial. For example, removing the unnecessary mineral surfaces in the city and greening them will make them more liveable very fast. Or reducing by 20-30% our meat consumption would be enough to give some land back to nature, and through rewilding, we can bring back species that are on the brink of extinction. “If we hurry now, we can quickly achieve some results that go a long way towards the goal of a paradise Earth,” says Van Broeck.
No city, no country can start radical action on its own. We have to create a world full of solidarity.
And cities can be crucial players in pushing for what is needed. “Cities are important by themselves,” says Van Broeck, highlighting that they combat sprawling and are the solution for land use related to housing. He exemplifies that building a sustainable house in the middle of nowhere will still have the ecological footprint of a thermally non-insulated simple-glass 19th-century two-facade house in the city.
Cities are also already working on implementing solutions related to greening, food systems transformation, energy efficiency and transport. But as Van Broeck puts it: “No city, no country can start radical action on its own. We have to create a world full of solidarity.”
“The problem is between our ears, and the solution is sitting next to us in the auditorium,” adds Van Broeck. “It’s collaborating on all scales, from your house to the planet and all the levels in between.”
This session will discuss the urgency to act and demonstrate local leadership in ambitions towards climate neutrality. Invited mayors will debate how to significantly speed up the societal transformation needed to mitigate a climate disaster for future generations and what radical solutions to prioritise. The debate will include input from cities around the world and Europe.