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Off the charters

15 January, 2021

What will the next 800 years look like?

As we struggle to see beyond the next few hours of Zoom calls and home-schooling, it’s a tough question. But this week, the Prince of Wales offered a possible answer with his new ‘Terra Carta’ (‘Earth Charter’): a centuries-on follow-up to the Magna Carta of 1215 to help humankind ‘imagine the next 800 years of human progress’, setting out 100 commitments for building a better, more sustainable future.

Putting aside Mary Beard’s complaint that ‘Terra Carta’ doesn’t actually mean anything in Latin, we’re totally behind the charter’s vision. It is right in its assertion that ‘today must be the decisive moment that we make sustainability the growth story of our time’ – and we applaud anything that makes this decisive action happen faster.

Where we’re struggling, however, is with how this charter will bring about the change it demands.

To protect our planet before it’s too late, 2020 needs to be a decade of action, not just acknowledgement. Yet many of the ‘actions’ proposed by the charter feel more like overdue mindset shifts (‘Acknowledge that we need to make health our goal’; ‘Take into account the value of diversity’). Where more concrete targets are included, these often draw on existing initiatives (the UN Sustainable Development Goals; the Science-Based Targets Initiative), leading us to question what the Charter is adding to these existing frameworks. And given the website’s insistence that ‘supporters should have a sound ESG reputation and public credentials’, does the Charter risk simply helping already progressive organisations to pat themselves on the back, without convincing the real non-believers?

The Terra Carta is right to call for change. Whether it can also bring about this change remains to be seen.

By Sarah Howden

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