This is a big year for the planet. Just look at the United Nations' calendar.
Just last week, the global community saw the launch of the U.N.'s new and ambitious 15-year Sustainable Development Goals. And in December, leaders will be convening at the U.N.'s Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris with the hopes of coming to a worldwide agreement—after more than 20 years in the process—to reverse runaway carbon emissions and minimize climate change.
Humanity has the opportunity this year to take a huge step in transforming our current course for the better.
In the run-up to COP21, more conversations have shifted to the nexus of food, water and energy, and about poverty, climate change and risk. It's become a familiar story and the mid-century projections are well documented. By 2050, the planet faces the challenges of providing for more than 9 billion people, including:
All of this discussion boils down to one word: development.
Sustainable development needs sustainable conservation
When businesses, governments and pundits talk about developing "sustainably," we've tended to provide adequate detail and clarity around the material things we need, and then caveat those needs with the vague recognition that we must do it all "within the boundaries of what nature can provide." It's almost as if the "sustainable" in sustainable development has been an afterthought.
But the new U.N. Sustainable Development goals represent progress in recognizing that the success of the 21st-century development story—increasing economic growth and prosperity while solving poverty, disease, hunger, climate change and inequality—depends in no small part on what people do with the natural world.
Despite the ominous facts and figures, this is a story about opportunity—to be smarter about farming and ranching practices; where and how to set up mining, oil, gas and renewable energy activities; and preserving the services of crucial natural infrastructure as a central part of expanding urban spaces.
And to understand the opportunity, we need to understand the risks. Until now, there hasn't been a great picture of how expected future development will affect nature's future.
A starkly different landscape
A new study from The Nature Conservancy—our Global Development Risk Assessment—now offers that glimpse. It's the most complete look, to date, at the potential impact global growth will have on forests, grasslands and other natural ecosystems that people depend on worldwide.
Bottom line: a full 20 percent, or nearly two billion hectares, of the world's remaining natural lands could be developed by just the middle of this century. That's an area double the size of the United States.