Given Half a Chance: Ten Ways to Save the World

By Edward Davey

How to address the world’s environmental challenges and make life better and more peaceful for people, nature, and the planet

A New Blueprint for Humanity

This is a book about how to transform humanity’s relationship with the natural environment and bring about a better future for the world and all its inhabitants in the years to come. My argument is an optimistic one. I believe that it is still possible for the people of the world – all seven billion of us today; and a projected 9 billion by 2050 – to find a way to live a dignified life with a lighter footprint on the ecology and climate of this remarkable planet. Despite all that we have done, it is still possible to restore the earth. But we will need to act with great vision, generosity and collective foresight, summoning the best of human intelligence and the human spirit, if we are to do so. To effect this transformation is the abiding challenge of our times.

We have learnt a great deal in recent decades about the impact we are having on the Earth, whether through climate change, the loss of biodiversity, or different forms of pollution. More people around the world are concerned by these trends, and keen to reverse them, than perhaps ever before in human history. We have also understood with greater clarity than before the potential solutions to the world’s environmental problems. We know what needs to be done to bring about a different, better future. But we have no time to lose.

The challenge is to act now, at scale, with an unprecedented level of commitment, leadership, intelligence and courage, and in a spirit of global partnership and awareness about our shared predicament. In short, we all need to care, and we all need to act, locally and globally: individuals, communities, companies, faith groups, companies and political leaders. There is so much to do, and we can and must do it.

This book seeks to describe some of the key things which need to be done, at both an individual and global level, to put the world on a fundamentally more sustainable path. My intention is to describe many of the positive things that are already being done and to show how they have been done and could be replicated elsewhere.

It focusses on eight core and related issues, over eight chapters: climate change; forests; soils; fresh water; biodiversity; the ocean; cities; and waste. It then concludes with two chapters on what can be done at an individual (Chapter 9) and global level (Chapter 10) to turn things around. Throughout, I try to focus on the solutions to our problems, rather than the problems themselves. My aim is to inspire readers rather than to depress them. So much good work is already being done, right around the world, to address the environmental challenges of our time and to make things better. We need to learn from these approaches and replicate them, at scale, and fast, elsewhere.

By the end of the book, I hope the reader will be left with the conviction that there is still great hope for the world, and so much that we can all do to make things better. There is no time for doom and gloom. All that is needed is for us to act, together and decisively, in the years to come.


2015 was a remarkable year for the world and for the issues discussed in this book. Two notable international agreements were achieved under the auspices of the United Nations: the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, agreed in September of that year, and the Climate Change Agreement signed at COP21 in Paris in December. Together, these two agreements – notwithstanding their imperfections – seemed to represent a potential turning point in the global effort to put the planet on a more sustainable course. Critically, both sets of goals were signed up to unanimously by all the countries of the world – no mean feat, at a time of international division and disagreement in other areas. The two agreements are an important underpinning for the arguments set out in this book.


The Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s successor to the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) which had been brought into being in the year 2000, were intended both to ‘finish the unfinished business’ of the MDGs, and at the same time to set a much fuller and more all-encompassing set of goals for the period of 2016 – 2030. The MDGs had delivered some notable successes, such as in reductions in maternal mortality, and had concentrated the minds of governments, foundations, aid agencies and the UN for 15 years. They had provided a useful benchmark by which governments could be held to account, and the basis of a rallying cry for charities. In 2005, on leaving university, I spent a few months stuffing envelopes and organizing public events for ‘Make Poverty History’, an umbrella campaign for many of the UK NGOs campaigning on global poverty. The purpose was to encourage the UK Government and the world to keep focused on achieving the MDGs. My base was the office of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which had been instrumental in the year 2000’s campaign to ‘drop the debt’. The MDGs were central to the ‘Make Poverty History’ cause and provided a helpful lodestar guiding much international effort throughout that period.

One of the MDGs’ weaknesses, however, had been their relative lack of environmental consideration: only one of the 8 MDGs had an environmental focus (and it was the least challenging and clearly defined of the goals). In the new set of goals, by contrast, considerations of the environment alongside development were given centre stage right from the outset, with thanks to considerable degree to Colombia’s persuasive advocacy at the UN. These goals should surely be, the Colombian delegation to the UN argued, a fuller encapsulation of the world’s ‘sustainable development’ agenda than the MDGs, however worthy, had been. I had seen Paula in full flow as a negotiator as part of the Colombian delegation to the UN’s biodiversity and climate meetings in Japan and Mexico, and she was a force to be reckoned with.

The resulting SDGs were the fruit of several years’ negotiation between the UN’s member states, in consultation with scientists and civil society groups, and the usual inevitable compromises between different groups of countries, perspectives and interests. They were also the first set of goals on which the global public had a major say, with global surveys conducted by the Overseas Development Institute and others, reaching over a million people, giving a sense of people’s priorities and hopes for the SDGs from around the world (with the abundant priority for most people being decent work, access to education and health care).

The final set of 17 goals, agreed and announced in September, are backed up by 169 more specific targets, which in turn are translated in each country’s case to more country-specific targets by national commissions. The SDGs are legally non-binding, but a set of aspirations to which all countries have agreed and by which they will be held to account. They are also, unlike the MDGs, entirely universal in scope, rather than focussed on the developing world. Many of the goals are as pressing or challenging to achieve, if not more so, for the developed rather than the developing world, such as the goals on inequality and sustainable consumption and production. They all have huge implications for the international community and will require great effort if they are to be achieved. The following is a table of the goals in summary form.

Table 1: the SDGs

1. No Poverty - End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2. Zero Hunger - End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

3. Good Health and Well-being - Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

4. Quality Education - Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5. Gender Equality - Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6. Clean Water and Sanitation - Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7. Affordable and Clean Energy - Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and clean energy for all

8. Decent Work and Economic Growth - Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure - Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

10. Reduced Inequalities - Reduce inequality within and among countries

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities - Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12. Responsible Consumption and Production - Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13. Climate Action - Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14. Life Below Water - Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15. Life on Land - Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions - Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17. Partnerships for the Goals - Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

As can be seen, the goals are at once strikingly ambitious, vague, idealistic and wide-ranging. It is a much fuller and more integrated list of global priorities than the original MDGs. It is also worth noting that the SDGs are highly inter-related and mutually dependent: success or failure in meeting one of the goals will have direct consequences for the fulfilment of others. For example, the way in which Goal 8 on ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’ is achieved – on the basis of which economic model – will be central to whether Goal 13 on climate action is achieved or not. Does Goal 8 envisage the world’s economic growth continuing to be built primarily on the back of fossil fuel combustion, or is it understood here that new forms of renewable energy will form the bedrock of our future growth? Can Goal 2 on Zero Hunger be achieved in a way which is consistent with the objectives of Goal 15 on Life on Land – in other words, how do we ensure we feed the people of the world through an agricultural system which builds resilience and does not lead to cutting down the remaining rainforests or further diminishing the soil? How do we make sure that Goals 9 and 12 are aligned, with infrastructure and innovation supporting responsible production and consumption patterns?

While the SDGs may not be especially catchy or memorable (the director Richard Curtis led an effort to raise awareness about the goals in 2015, ‘Project Everyone’, and encouraged the UN to consider whether or not they would be pithy enough to feature on a fridge magnet), they have now been agreed and ratified. All countries of the world will now be measured by their success in attaining the universal yardsticks to which they had signed up in the SDGs between now and 2030. It is a huge achievement, and one which we must do our best to live up to.


The Paris Agreement at COP21, in December 2015, was another notable diplomatic accomplishment. The Paris Negotiations began on 30th November with a high level segment, attended by over 150 world leaders, the biggest ever gathering of heads of state in one room. The idea here was to avoid the situation which occurred at the end of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, when a few Heads of State, including Obama, were left negotiating an agreement in the last few hours, which ended in discord and ignominy.

The French strategy worked: the two weeks of negotiations were emboldened by a clear mandate from the world’s political leaders to act and to get a deal, and culminated in diplomatic and political triumph in Paris, with a strong (if imperfect) agreement to which – as with the SDGs – the whole world signed up. It is a legally binding agreement too, with a commitment to regular stocktakes of countries’ progress towards meeting the emissions reductions commitments that they have made.

Among the many noteworthy aspects of the Paris Agreement is a commitment for the world to do everything possible to keep ‘in sight’ the possibility of a 1.5 degree temperature rise. The re-inclusion of the 1.5 degree goal, alongside the previously agreed 2 degree commitment made at Copenhagen, was a striking victory for a ‘high ambition coalition’ of countries in the negotiations. The emissions reductions targets inherent in the revised target are startlingly ambitious (and will be described in Chapter 1). But the ethical case for the more ambitious target is abundantly clear, as a change of over 1.5 degrees puts small island states, coastal cities, coral reefs and other parts of the world at great risk.

Another dimension of the agreement is its commitment to ‘balance carbon sources and sinks’ globally by mid-century, raising the profile of forests and land use considerably in the global effort to address climate change, as I will explain in Chapters 2 and 3. The text of the accord also contains language on fossil fuel subsidies, long-term deep decarbonisation, funding for adaptation to climate change, and sends a strong and unequivocal signal to the world and to investors that this is the direction of travel for the future.

Many played their part, such that when the conference chair Laurent Fabius brought down the gavel at the end of the negotiations, he was right to make a remark to the effect that one small gavel represented one potentially enormous step for humanity. And so it is that we now live in the era of the Paris Agreement, and it falls to us all to implement it.


These two agreements, then, are the twin bedrocks of how the world committed to a very fundamental change in trajectory in 2015. If both agreements are honoured in full, the world will be assured a much more peaceful, just and sustainable future. And so it is our job to make sure that they are.

This book seeks to demonstrate how, by focusing on inspiring examples of where meaningful action to meet the agreements is already being taken, and showing how these can be scaled up to make a global difference.

We begin with arguably the biggest challenge of them all, climate change.

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