Is the world of policy and science responding to the latest advancements in science that we’ve entered the Anthropocene; that we can no longer exclude catastrophic tipping points; that we need a transition to a world within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries?
That’s the core question in this lecture, focusing first of all on the major global policy development within the United Nations of transforming the current Millennium Development Goals into the Sustainable Development Goals, which emerges out of the latest Earth summit in 2012. The big question is, what’s happening across the world in terms of how we address this?
And I’d like to start first, unfortunately just reminding us, of how are the current discussions on this area predominantly flavoured. Well, there seems to be three conventional choices to our future, which is debated in all the negotiation; from climate change, to biodiversity, desertification, chemicals, trade; and the first perception is that the rich nations, the rich minority in the world, largely the industrial countries, have had this fantastic journey of wealth and economic growth occurring at the expense of the Earth system. And now we’re waking up to the science, and the rich world is telling the poor world that, “Sorry guys, the party is over. You came too late. We’re pushing you off the ladder, and now we all have to chew the sour pill, and simply lock ourselves into a much, much less attractive future in terms of economic growth.” This is clearly causing a lot of the friction in many of the negotiations in, for example, on climate change.
The second approach seems to be that, “Well, things are going really bad. We all need to contract and converge, and this will be painful. It’s a burden-sharing pathway. Even the language in the negotiations uses this term.” Moving towards sustainability is a burden. In fact to the extent that many politicians say that, “Well, now that we have economic problems, we can not afford to take on this burden of taking care of the environment or the climate system,” which clearly violates everything that science is telling us.
And the third one is to say, “Well, let’s simply put the head in the sand, cross our fingers. Tipping points, probably something that hopefully cannot be correct,” and just move along and hope for the best.
So these seem to be the current conventional options, and I would argue, and many of my colleagues, and certainly Jeff Sachs at the Earth Institute, that this is, neither of these, are nor attractive, nor the pathway for the future. Instead the future lies in redefining sustainable development as a trajectory for growth and human well-being within a stable Earth system. And this is profoundly new opportunity, and a new way to address the pathways to the future.
Now, are we seeing anything like this fourth realm in the area of policy, and I would argue that yes, we are. Science is increasingly connecting between the Earth system science and the policy domain by putting forward analyses, such as this one, which indicates clearly how we could envisage a transition towards a sustainable development paradigm where the economy serves society within a safe operating space, where we can even define global sustainable development goals.
Here suggesting six broad goals on livelihoods, on sustainable food security, on sustainable water, on universal access to clean energy, on healthy and productive ecosystems, and on transparent and efficient governance on urban societies, and that we can actually today, from science in dialogue with different stakeholders of society, define science-based global planetary boundaries, which would be the outer component of this circle. Inside we can have very, very aspirational social goals, such as ending poverty. And inside that we can put in place the economic instruments that will provide the incentives to steer markets, innovations towards these goals. What you see here is a big change. It means that the planet defines the boundaries within which we can develop.
Now the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the knowledge platform in the world set up by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon to support the implementation of the SDGs, has suggested a set of Sustainable Development Goals entirely in line with planetary boundary thinking.
Yes, ending poverty. Yes, securing economic growth. But look at goal two: achieving development within planetary boundaries. Truly setting humanity on a pace where people and planet operate together.
Now, this has been fed in to the open working group of the United Nations, the general assembly collation of nations working on designing the new Sustainable Development Goals. And this is the latest outcome of that work, which has been shared with all nations in July 2014. And so far the general assembly is suggesting 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
A large number one could argue, and lets not dwell whether these are too few or too many, but just to single them out in terms of different categories. And what you see here is that of those 17, 13 in fact are social-economic aspirational goals to secure a world where all citizens have a good development and lifestyle for the future.
So you have, for example, goals of ending poverty; ending hunger; ensuring health; inclusive and equitable educational access, etc. They are aspirational, and very ambitious, and very concrete.
Four of the goals define planetary boundaries. There’s one on water, one on oceans, one on ecosystems, and one biodiversity. And this is actually a great, great advancement compared to the Millennium Development Goals, which had only social goals, and quite abstract rhetoric statement on environmental sustainability on its seventh goal.
So this is an example of how the world is gradually moving towards a paradigm of development within planetary boundaries. Now the question is: are though, these 17 goals matching up to the science?
And here unfortunately I would argue that the answer is so far no. And just to give you a stark example of how this looks like. Here I’ve just taken a few examples of the social goals and the targets that are set up. And look at these targets: ending poverty, the target is for example, very concrete; by 2030 to eradicate extreme poverty for all people in the world living less, or eradicate all people living less than $1.25 US per day.
For hunger, very concrete goals on exact number of people that will be lifted out of hunger by 2030. And so it goes for essentially all the social goals. Very quantified, aspirational targets that can be monitored, that can be evaluated, and that the world can be kept accountable to.
Let’s now look at the sister goals on planetary boundaries. Here we have all four of them, and I’ve taken the most concrete targets under these goals. And if you read carefully, you’ll see there’s nothing like a quantification. There’s no attempt to set quantified science-based targets. Good language, but not putting us on a trajectory that we need, because we all know that what we measure is actually what gets operationalized and taken seriously.
So this is one of the gaps where science has an opportunity, and where we need to truly need to put more effort in terms of matching the targets on planetary boundaries type goals with quantifications, just as the social goals.
Another challenging issue is actually the narrative. To recognize, and this is illustrated in this graph, that among the 17 goals for Sustainable Development Goals, they’re not playing the same role in terms of serving humanity. I believe that now is the time to take the planetary boundary thinking seriously and acknowledge that the goals setting global and environmental resilience in place, shown here as the floor for human development, forms actually a prerequisite, the basic conditions on oceans, ecosystems, climate, nitrogen, phosphorous, to enable us to achieve the social goals.
So to put it very simple, there is no possibility for us to eradicate poverty, to eradicate hunger, unless we meet the global sustainability goals on climate, oceans, and ecosystems. And this hierarchy, where the Earth system is a prerequisite to reach our social goals, is something that has to be recognized, because today the discussion is still on the pillars that there is trade-offs and contradictions between environment and development. Of course there are challenges, but we need to seek the synergies and realize that there is no negotiation with the Earth system. The planet cannot be negotiated with.
Efforts have been made and this illustration is from a recent analysis by Kate Raworth, who development the Doughnut Model of social-equity within planetary boundaries, trying to see: are the current Sustainable Development Goals meeting up with the planetary boundaries framework? And that analysis shows quite neatly that yes, in fact, there are basically opportunities to match up all the boundaries. So even though there are only goals stated for oceans, water, ecosystems, and climate, there is text under the food security goal regarding nitrogen and phosphorous, there is text under the industrial development with regards to chemical and aerosols, so we have an opportunity now to set quantifications for all the goals within the UN framework that we are today seeing being developed.
The challenge is to get science-based quantifications right. And as shown by Kate’s analysis here on the social floor, essentially we have everything we need in place with regards to equity, with regards to education, hunger, poverty, etc. So this quite an exciting opportunity to take the analysis to a new level.