Limits of development: Is there an antagonism between environmentalism and human progress?

All - Sep 21 2018

In 2009, a remarkable paper was published in the scientific journal Nature, titled “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity” , which identified nine “planetary boundaries”, corresponding to nine critical environmental limits which were considered as posing a critical risk on ecosystem equilibrium at a global scale if overpassed. 

These environmental limits include climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus cycle disturbance, freshwater overuse, land use change, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. The authors were able to propose a quantification for seven of these boundaries; and for three of them, limits were overpassed already. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached 387 ppm in 2009, while the sustainable level was at 350 ppm according to the authors (we are above 410 ppm now). Regarding biodiversity loss, the current rate of extinction is 100 to 1000 times higher than the ‘normal extinction rate’ that was prevailing in the last 2 million years. Finally, the amount of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere for human use (for industrial and agricultural purposes) equals 120 million tons per year, far above the proposed boundary of 35 million tons.


Figure 1 - The Planetary Boundaries as illustrated in Nature (Vol 461, p. 472)

In 2018, a new article was published in Nature sustainability that tried to apply these boundaries at a country level. The researchers from the Leeds Sustainability Research Institute and the Mercator Research Institute (MCC) in Berlin aimed at defining a ‘safe and just’ development space for a set of 150 nations, based on basic human needs. The analysis included some of the 2009-article planetary boundaries and proposed extra ones, the ecological footprint notably. Moreover, besides biophysical national boundaries, the researchers included an additional analysis of the country’s social performance, with 10 social thresholds for life satisfaction, healthy life expectancy, nutrition, sanitation, income, access to energy, education, social support, democratic quality, equality and employment. It resulted in meaningful figures, inspired from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economics, comparing visually each country’s performance on both environmental and social sides :

Figure 2 – Comparison of France and Ecuador's Doughnuts, based on O'Neill et al. (2018)

 

These figures are interesting per se; they provide valuable insight into every country’s performance on a set of critical issues. However, the general conclusion is even more interesting: O’Neill and his team write: “no country performs well on both the biophysical and social indicators. In general, the more social thresholds a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it transgresses” (p. 90). Indeed, with the notable exception of Vietnam, all countries are aligned on a rather regular line when environmental performance and social performance are compared on the same graph. Looking at the results in detail, some relationships are worth highlighting: first, social performance is most tightly coupled to CO2 emissions, and least tightly to land use change (which is also an indicator of biodiversity loss). On the other hand, among all social scores, secondary education is the indicator that is the most correlated to a good environmental performance, while employment is the least. Similarly, the 5 social goals out of 10 that have the highest environmental “cost” are democratic quality, equality, social support, secondary education and life satisfaction.

What does this mean? That nations have to choose between a socially poor future or no future at all? This would be far too hasty, and the precept that ‘correlation is not causation’ finds here a clear illustration. No fatality here – we hope. It is by the way important to note that the mobilized indicators, if accurate and beneficial on their own, still present limitations and do not reveal the situation exhaustively. The social indicators, as any social assessment, are limited by the terms of survey, and remain purely relative for some, conversely to the biophysical indicators. Still, the study provides a powerful deduction: that the conciliation of the environmental crisis and the maintenance or expansion of the Western social model will be a challenge. It highlights that this social model has its origins in environmentally unsustainable resource use. The authors conclude: “the ambition of the SDGs has the potential to undermine the Earth-system processes upon which development ultimately depends. But this does not need to be the case. A more hopeful scenario would see the SDGs shift the agenda away from growth towards an economic model where the goal is sustainable and equitable human well-being. However, if all people are to lead a good life within planetary boundaries, then the level of resource use associated with meeting basic needs must be dramatically reduced.”  Nations will have to be innovative to escape the fatality.

Hadrien Lamange, Natural Capital Analyst

 

 

 

 

 

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