Sustainable development goals: Earth scientists respond to the doughnut

Kate Raworth

Blog post by Kate Raworth

Oxfam Great Britain, Senior Researcher
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Some initial thoughts on yesterday’s post on doughnut economics from Mark Stafford Smith and Will Steffen. Mark (left) is Science Director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and is Co-chair of the upcoming Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge towards Solutions conference in London, March 2012. Will Steffen (right) is Executive Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, and Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He is a co-author of the original paper on nine planetary boundaries.

The original ‘planetary boundaries’ concept focused on biophysical factors. There was some internal logic to this – it aimed to identify the conditions under which we couldn’t expect the planet to continue supporting us, regardless of how we care to organize ourselves as a human race.

But of course, as soon as you ask practical questions about how we might manage our interaction with these boundaries, social and economic issues come into the picture. Hence the idea of linking a biophysical ceiling with a social foundation is a great one, and the image of a doughnut containing the safe and just space for humanity is a great visualization of this.

And visualizations are genuinely important, because people need to grasp an issue intuitively before they can really act on it. One route for action that Kate mentions is through establishing a set of global ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) that are currently proposed as part of what comes after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

So, how would we move from these great insights to some SDGs?

Social and environmental outcomes: synergies and trade-offs

The key point is that many of the social and environmental boundaries interact profoundly, and we cannot go on talking of sustainable development but acting on development and sustainability separately.

These interactions can be positive or negative.

Positive and synergistic interactions represent key opportunities: for example, clean energy can replace smoky cooking fuels, and not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric pollution, but also improve the health of the poor and provide more time for women and children to gain an education. In cases like this, social and environmental outcomes can be delivered together, and potentially at a much lesser cost than if they were tackled separately.

Of course other interactions represent challenging trade-offs: we know that if world poverty is tackled by simply bringing everyone up to the level of GDP enjoyed by today’s richest using today’s technologies, then our environment would be devastated. However, as Kate points out, major improvements in equity can be gained with relatively little additional consumption if appropriately targeted, and our attention is focused on appropriate measures of well-being and levels of equity.

In short, whether the interactions are negative or positive, if the social and environmental aspects are tackled in consort, we are likely to handle their interactions much more efficiently and effectively than if we try to do them independently.

So a challenge for the doughnut is, how to depict the interactions that really matter across the safe and just operating space?

Dissecting Sustainable Development Goals

A practical way to develop Sustainable Development Goals is probably to articulate a small number (5 or 6?) high level integrated goals, and then have sub-goals that dissect out the interactions, deliberately separating areas of synergy and trade-off so they can be addressed properly.

The high level goals are ultimately a matter for policy, but they should really link social and environmental outcomes. For example, perhaps equitable and healthy access to low carbon energy – not just any energy, but from low carbon sources that reduce neighborhood pollution. Perhaps food security for all whilst improving ecosystem resources – not food at any environmental cost, but a focus on avoiding waste and devising food production systems that trade off a little ‘efficiency’ for supporting other ecosystem services. Perhaps access to meaningful employment that supports environmental outcomes – here’s one that might be truly synergistic.

Each of these high level goals then needs dissection. For example, food security for all whilst improving ecosystem resources: this could have a synergistic sub-goal that relates to managing the global phosphorus cycle (a planetary boundary concern with big impacts on ecosystem services) in ways that improves the equitable distribution of fertilizers globally (an equity concern). Meanwhile a more challenging sub-goal might deal with the trade-off between high production levels and the use of water resources.

We shouldn’t over-complicate the Sustainable Development Goals, though, because many issues are linked. Improvements in education mostly go along with improvements in health; likewise improvements in managing the nitrogen cycle in farming will often be correlated with improvements in managing phosphorus too. In fact, we wonder whether a focus on managing key planetary boundaries at the same time as really focusing on equitable outcomes across geographies, generations and genders might not get us 80% of the way there, given the other factors that would come in their wake.

Not a simple environmental add-on to the MDGs

Meanwhile, the initial discussion of Sustainable Development Goals in the Rio+20 zero draft makes it sound as if these are a simple environmental add-on to the MDGs. This approach would be a profound failure.

The doughnut concept must be a call to arms, to devise Sustainable Development Goals which truly link the doughnut’s floor and its ceiling. Then these will become the real supportive pillars of sustainable development.

What do you think these integrated pillars should be?