World leaders: here’s the compass you’ll need in Rio

This guest post is by Kate Raworth, senior researcher at Oxfam. The ideas in this post are also explored in a collection of writings about the Earth Summit, Rio+20: where it should lead, published by Green Alliance and the RSPB.

Security is up, there’s a buzz in the halls. World leaders are now at the Rio+20 conference (well, at least the ones who bothered to turn up).

But I get the feeling that they packed their suitcases badly for this trip. Too many are weighed down with the baggage of short term national self interest.  Was there no room in their bags for future generations, no space in their entourage for the world’s poorest people?

Worst, they’ve forgotten to bring one essential piece of equipment and I’m not talking about a swimsuit. More than anything, they each need a compass to guide us all on this oh-so-bumpy journey through the 21st century. So let’s issue them with one:

A compass for the 21st century: between social and planetary boundaries

Source: Oxfam

“How does this work?” you’re asking. Don’t worry, you’ll master it pretty quickly. Let’s start with the outer ring.

In 2009, Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre brought together some of the world’s leading earth system scientists to come up with the concept of planetary boundaries. They identified nine natural processes,  like the freshwater cycle, climate regulation, and the nitrogen cycle, which are critical for keeping the planet in the stable state of the Holocene that has allowed civilizations to arise and thrive over the past 10,000 years.

Under too much pressure from human activity, any one of these processes could be pushed into abrupt and potentially irreversible change. To avoid that, the scientists proposed a set of boundaries below each of their danger zones (such as a limit of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous climate change)  and they called the area within the boundaries ‘a safe operating space for humanity’.

A simple, powerful idea
It’s a fantastically powerful idea: where mainstream economics famously failed to recognise that the economy operates within environmental limits, natural scientists have stepped in to do it instead, in a simple, visual way that we can all understand. Of course the science is still evolving, but the mere recognition that there are ecological boundaries to be avoided is a paradigm breakthrough.

And yet something essential is still missing. This ‘safe operating space’ may serve to protect the environment, but it speaks little to the lives of millions of people living in extreme poverty. So how about adding the concept of social boundaries to the picture?

Just as there is an environmental ceiling of resource use, above which lies unacceptable environmental degradation, so too there is a social foundation of resource use, below which lie unacceptable human deprivation, such as hunger, ill-health, income poverty and energy poverty.

Between the social foundation and the environmental ceiling lies a space – shaped like a doughnut – which is both a safe and just space for humanity. Economic development that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable would help to bring humanity into this space.

The earth system scientists stuck their necks out and estimated that humanity has already crossed at least three of the nine planetary boundaries, for climate change, nitrogen use, and biodiversity loss. So I stuck my neck out and estimated that we are also falling far below the social foundation on all dimensions that have data.

Around 13 per cent of the world’s population is undernourished, 19 per cent lives without access to electricity and 21 per cent lives on less than $1.25 a day. Humanity is falling outside the boundaries on both sides of the doughnut: it’s a sign of just how deeply unequal and unsustainable the current path of development is.

The good news – we can do it
But the most striking story here is the good news: ending poverty need not be a source of stress on planetary boundaries. Bringing electricity to the 19 per cent of the world’s population (1.3 billion people) who live without it could be achieved for less than a one per cent increase in global CO2 emissions. And the additional calories needed by the 13 per cent of the world’s population facing hunger (850 million people) equals just three per cent of the global food supply. That’s nothing, compared to the 30 per cent of food that gets lost or wasted in the supply chain.

What’s the biggest source of planetary boundary stress today? The excessive consumption levels of the world’s wealthiest people, and the production patterns of the companies producing the goods and services that they buy. Just 11 per cent of the global population generate around 50 per cent of global carbon emissions, and the richest ten per cent of people in the world hold 57 per cent of global income.

It’s wealth, not poverty, that’s putting this planet under pressure.

So, world leaders, with this compass in hand, you can make all the difference. Simply commit to bringing humanity into the safe and just space between social and planetary boundaries. Agree on a vision for this century in which every person has the resources needed to meet their human rights, while keeping our collective resource use within the means of this one planet.

Do this, and you will turn Rio+20 into the turning point we so desperately need.

Take a four minute video tour of Oxfam’s doughnut.

Kate Raworth’s new blog Doughnut Economics explores the implications of implications planetary and social boundaries for rethinking economics and equity.

Follow her on Twitter @KateRaworth

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