UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Spotlight on Professor Robert Costanza

20 October 2021

Meet Professor Robert Costanza who will join the IGP in January as Professor of Ecological Economics. Here, ahead of COP26 he talks about his projects to tackle the climate emergency, misconceptions around climate change and actions we can take for a safer future. 

We cannot deal with climate change as a problem that is solvable without transforming our economies and societies to ones with a new vision of prosperity and sustainable wellbeing. 

The IGP is delighted to announce that, beginning in January, 2022, Robert Costanza will join the team and take up the position of Professor of Ecological Economics. 

Professor Costanza’s transdisciplinary research integrates the study of humans and the rest of nature to address research, policy and management issues at multiple time and space scales, from small watersheds to the global system. His specialties include: transdisciplinary integration, systems ecology, ecological economics, ecosystem services, landscape ecology, integrated socio-ecological modeling, ecological design, energy analysis, environmental policy, social traps and addictions, incentive structures, and institutions.

Here, he talks about his projects to tackle the climate emergency, misconceptions around climate change and actions we can take for a safer future. 

How is a new conversation about prosperity relevant to our response to climate change?

The planet we live on in the current Anthropocene epoch is a complex, highly interconnected system. We cannot deal with climate change as a problem that is solvable without transforming our economies and societies to ones with a new vision of prosperity and sustainable wellbeing. We need to recognize that prosperity is about more than GDP growth. Having a new conversation about real prosperity and building a broad consensus about what contributes to sustainable wellbeing and how to measure it is key to solving climate change and inequality and poverty and achieving all the other SDGs in an integrated way. The future of humanity and the rest of nature depends on it.

How do your current projects tackle the climate emergency?

In addition to rapid emission reductions and shifting to renewables, we need to invest in “nature based solutions” to sequester carbon. We have been estimating the benefits and costs of these solutions, including: protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, modelling regenerative agriculture, and increasing protected areas. In addition to sequestering carbon, these solutions provide a host of other ecosystem services that we attempt to estimate and value. One recent example is our study of the global value of coastal wetlands for storm protection (Costanza, et al. 2021. Global Environmental Change 70:102328). We estimated that globally coastal wetlands avoid $450 billion/yr. in damages and save 4,600 lives/yr. Coastal wetlands are also some of the most effective systems for sequestering carbon and they provide on average $135,000/ha/yr. in other ecosystem services beyond storm protection. Raising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms due to climate change make these wetlands even more important and valuable.

What promising areas do you think are currently undervalued in the climate conversation?

One of the major reasons that progress on climate has been so slow is that we are in a very real sense “addicted” to the current “growth at all costs” economic paradigm. We have been exploring what therapies have been shown to work at overcoming addictions at the individual scale and how these therapies might be scaled up to the societal scale. The worst thing you can say to an addict is: “you are doing the wrong thing and you have to stop”. This usually elicits denial. But this is exactly the approach we are taking at the societal scale. One therapy that is effective at the individual scale is “motivational interviewing” which engages addicts in a positive discussion of their life goals that can then motivate behavior change. At the societal scale, an analogous therapy starts with building a shared vision of our societal goals. How to do that is a promising and currently underexplored and undervalued area for research and application. It will require a truly transdisciplinary effort engaging the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. We cannot predict the future, but with effective and innovative transdisciplinary cooperation, we can co-create it.

Is there a misconception about climate change you want to address?

The biggest misconception about climate change is that solving it will involve ongoing sacrifice to the economy. Quite the contrary, not solving climate change is the biggest sacrifice of our sustainable wellbeing. But our societal addiction to “growth at all costs” blinds some of us to the benefits of overcoming the addiction. Addicts resist change but making it clear that a better life and a better world is possible and achievable can overcome the misconception that change will only involve sacrifice.

What policies do you think are ‘low-hanging fruit’ for tackling climate change?

Picking some low hanging fruit is fine, but an overemphasis on this strategy can mislead us into thinking that small tweaks to the system can solve the problem. We need a fundamental transformation of our economic system to one which places the wellbeing of humans and the rest of nature as the overarching goal. The low-hanging fruit of a poisoned tree is not worth picking.

If global conferences like COP have not yet made enough progress, and ethical consumption is too little, what other actions can people take to improve our chances of a safe future?

Ultimately, we need to build a truly shared vision of a low carbon, equitable, prosperous, and ecologically sustainable world. Building this shared vision should be the essence of democratic governance – governance that has the wellbeing of all the people at its heart, rather than the vested interests that control many governments. The vested interest currently most responsible for our lack of progress on reducing carbon emissions is the fossil fuel industry. We can elect politicians who will remove the massive subsidies to fossil fuels. We can support divestment from fossil fuel companies. movements. We can support class action lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. We can support the transition of fossil fuel industry workers to renewable energy jobs. We can “claim the sky” (http://claimthesky.org/) and demand that the atmosphere be treated as a public trust for the benefit of all current and future generations.

For more on what Professor Costanza has been working on, listen to The RegenNarration Podcast on Ecological Economics