SOFT&GREEN Insights

Interview with Gianfranco Bologna, scientific director of WWF Italia

Soft&Green gives a voice to some of the organisations who have been working with Sofidel for years. This month’s interview is with Gianfranco Bologna, scientific director of WWF Italia

  1. The first question, obvious but necessary, concerns WWF’s work. I’m sure all of our readers know your association, but could you give us a summary of your main activities?

WWF is the leading international organisation focusing on conserving nature. It exists in more than 100 countries with concrete initiatives and projects in the field and more than 5 million supporters. If it hadn’t been for WWF’s constant and timely action in so many areas of the planet, especially those with a remarkable wealth of biodiversity, the current global situation in terms of nature would certainly be much worse than it is now. WWF works in the field through initiatives aimed at demonstrating the practical feasibility of sustainable development by positively managing the complex relationship between natural systems and social systems. In Italy, WWF was born in 1966 and has worked hard since it was founded to preserve Italy’s beautiful natural resources. It began by establishing a system of dedicated protected areas, open to the public for environmental education and sustainability, thus safeguarding the species and environments that are finally being looked after. They have also reversed negative rarefaction trends (see, for example, the wolf and also marsh environments). Above all, WWF, through continuous and pressing action, has constantly looked to make everyone understand that we are nature and we are closely connected with the natural world from which we are born and without which we could not live. We must all understand that the health of natural systems is the first step to guaranteeing our own wellbeing. If we damage nature, we damage ourselves. That is why WWF’s mission across the world is to work so that humanity can live in harmony with nature.

  1. The 2nd August 2017 was the moment in which humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the year: this year it took just 7 months and 2 days. In an interview you said “It is urgent that we immediately implement international agreements and settle our ecological debt”. Could you explain what you meant by this statement?

The Earth Overshoot Day proposed by the Ecological Footprint Network (www.footprintnetwork.org) aims to calculate the “annual budget” of the planet’s regenerative resources compared to our usage. It takes into account ecological footprint, an indicator that calculates our weight on the environment by assessing, above all, the average productivity per hectare of renewable resources (e.g. agriculture, pasture, fisheries and forestry) and not taking into account all the impacts that the human species exercises on natural systems (all solid, liquid and gas waste produced by our economic systems). The results of these calculations provide us with part of the situation, the reality is even worse and all the most advanced studies in the field of Global Sustainability and Earth system science back this up. Today we have extensive scientific documentation that clearly demonstrates how human impact on natural systems is so profound it can be compared or even exceed, particularly over the last 60 years, the effects that up to now could only be caused by the astrophysical forces and geology that shaped and formed the planet in its 4.6 billion years of existence. Scientists are, in fact, discussing the characteristics of a new geological period that is appropriately defined as Anthropocene, due to the human impact on global change. All of this data documents how we have a heavy ecological debt that is, frankly, going to be difficult to repay. A debt that, unlike monetary debts created by the economic and financial mechanisms that we ourselves wanted and that we can get rid of by changing the rules that created them, involves complex natural systems that will be very difficult to replenish.

  1. As secretary general of the Aurelio Peccei Foundation, which represents the Club of Rome in Italy, and curator of the Italian edition of the State of the World report by the Worldwatch Institute, we could say that you have a very broad view of the issues. Where would you place Italy in the global picture?

Unfortunately, the global situation is particularly serious. The human population reached the first billion at the beginning of the 1800s. We started the twentieth century with 1.6 billion and we ended it with 6.1 billion. Today there are 7.5 billion humans on the planet and the average of recent forecasts by the United Nations tells us there will be 9.7 billion people by 2050. It is unthinkable that 7, 9 or 10 billion human beings might all have the same standard of consumption as the Western World. Social inequalities are widening more and more, creating the basis for dramatic conflict explosion. Natural systems are suffering badly. We have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the energy dynamics of the climate system. We have changed the biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous, we have acidified the oceans; we have disturbed and altered our Earth’s soils. We are destroying the biodiversity and richness of life on our planet at an impressive rate, described by scientists as similar to rates of mass extinction (like the last 5 identified by geological and paleontological studies in the last 600 million years. We do not talk about the sixth mass extinction lightly). We have produced substances that cannot be broken down by natural cycles and that encourage waste and pollution (think about the plastic that is now everywhere and that ends up smashed and broken into tiny pieces of plastic in marine food chains). We have founded cities, industries and infrastructure, and created impressive masses of material. You can certainly try ranking the various countries to see who is more “virtuous” when it comes to the environment and many attempts have been made to do so. Normally, the countries that are ranked among the top in this area are some of those in northern Europe. I am thinking of, for example, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Italy struggles a lot in the field of sustainability for a variety of reasons. Primarily for one cultural reason, which, in my opinion, is due to very little sense of the “common good” and awareness that healthy nature = human wellbeing (we must learn that on Earth there is no verb “to throw away”, what we mean by this is simply “moving it over there”, out of my sight). Secondly, for various economic reasons closely linked to the first reason, whereby, paradoxically, choices are always made in favour of “development” that destroys nature (usually when it comes to developing a site, a coast or an area we mean cementing, transforming existing nature into buildings and infrastructure. Rivers are restricted in cities and their surroundings, and then we complain of the human and material damage caused by floods and the effects of climate change). Finally, Italy struggles because we are not able to implement a logical system that looks at development as a whole, instead continuing economic, old-fashioned material growth, which is both obsolete and profoundly unsustainable.

  1. In general we know that the culture of sustainability in our country still has a long way to go: what suggestions can you give us?

Above all culture, culture, culture… behavioural models must be aimed at innovating the culture around sustainability, turning on their heads the economic and social models, which, unfortunately, have led to environmental devastation and increasingly severe social crises.

Behind every revolution (here we are talking about a psychological revolution) there is a promotion of new cultural models. Of all the tasks that await us, we must first understand that we are one with nature, that we come from natural systems, that we are not the centre of the universe, that we are part of everything, and that without nature we have no chance for wellbeing and development. A true revolution in political and economic approaches is fundamental. Nature is not an obstacle to development. It us we who must change the development paradigm so that it does not mean destruction and overhaul, but instead working hard to defend the common good, to protect it, to restructure our “common home”, as Pope Francis reminds us brilliantly, and I say it as a lay person, in his splendid “Laudato Sì”, an integrated ecological perspective (think what a great public achievement environmental redevelopment of Italy’s disadvantaged territory would be, including in employment terms). We have so much to learn in Italy and we need to do it quickly. Positive signals must be encouraged and shared wherever possible.

  1. Finally, how was the collaboration between WWF and Sofidel formed and what is it aiming for?

Since 2008 WWF and Sofidel have been partners in environmental sustainability issues and they work together on some of the more strategic issues in the paper industry.

Within the International Climate Savers programme, the Italian Group has demonstrated strong commitment to the climate (renewable energy use, energy efficiency) and achieved significant CO2 reduction (end goal: -23% by 2020), demonstrating that it is possible to reduce impacts and grow in terms of competitiveness.

Together, we have also worked on the responsibility of the forestry chain to consolidate certified sources, and thus raw materials from managed forests, in a sustainable way.

Finally, Sofidel has committed to conducting various environmental awareness and educational activities alongside WWF in schools.

A success story in Green Economy’s view: the environmental choices made by a market leader can positively influence the chain associated with their activities, by fostering care for the environment amongst partners, suppliers, institutions and end consumers. Sofidel also demonstrates how environmental sustainability and innovation can go hand in hand with opportunities for development and competitiveness, when guided by a vision for a different future for our planet.