A reply to Jeff Sachs and Johan Rockstrom on fair shares and planetary boundaries

Dear Jeff Sachs, Johan Rockstrom, Marcus Ohman and Guido Schmidt-Traub,

I’m a long-standing admirer of your work, especially Johan’s pioneering research on planetary boundaries and Jeff’s critical contributions to connecting the dots between environment and development. But I’m struggling a bit with a couple of aspects of your recent paper on Sustainable Development and Planetary Boundaries, and wondered if I could ask you a few quick questions for clarification.

First, some background. Back in November last year, I published a think piece on how sustainability issues, and especially planetary boundaries, might fit in to the post-2015 development agenda. Like you, I argued that it was essential that the successor framework to the MDGs should explicitly recognise the centrality of planetary boundaries – and the consequent need for future growth and development to take place in a fundamentally different way.

I also argued that the only way to start making this agenda real is to recognise explicitly that “no developing country will assent to goals on natural resource limits without explicit assurances about fair shares to environmental space, and protection of their right to develop”. In practice:

“at regional and global level … emphasis on fair shares within environmental limits would reframe equity discussions around how to share out entitlements or assets rather than – as now – burdens. This would nudge policy discussions towards clearer recognition of the need to protect fair shares of finite environmental space for developing countries and poor people – and of the need for all countries to bring (and then keep) their own consumption levels within their fair shares, or else pay others a fair price for the right to use some of their entitlement”.

As you will recognise, my argument is based on the principle of “contraction and convergence”, an idea first developed in the context of global climate policy by the London-based Global Commons Institute. In essence, C&C argues that global greenhouse gas emissions must contract to within sustainable limits; and, at the same time, that countries’ entitlements to emit carbon should converge to equal per capita shares of the atmosphere, for reasons of both justice and realpolitik.

So I was interested to see that your paper explicitly mentions C&C at the outset – summarising it as a policy whereby “rich countries need to substantially reduce their standard of living, and developing countries can grow until they converge at the lower income of high-income countries [at which point] economic growth would need to stop.”

This, you argue, is one of “three unattractive alternatives” for reconciling economic growth and planetary boundaries – the other two being for the rich world to “kick away the ladder” and keep poor countries poor; or for all of us to head over the environmental precipice together. Like the ‘kick away the ladder’ scenario, you suggest, C&C appears “politically impossible in HICs, MICs and LICs alike”, given that

“Developing countries around the world want to achieve economic progress, end extreme poverty in all its forms, and achieve higher per capita incomes. These aspirations are right and cannot be compromised on. An agenda that posits barriers to growth will not be supported by politicians and people around the world. Likewise, it seems impossible that politicians in rich countries would ever agree to drastically lower the standard of living. And why would developing countries agree to  stop economic growth at a level of income that is below the income enjoyed by rich countries today?”

However, this is where I started to get confused by your paper.

First of all, I’m unsure as to whom you have been reading to give you the impression that contraction and convergence was ever about ending growth, or about trying to equalise per capita income; certainly the Global Commons Institute, which as noted above applies C&C to the much more specific context of the need to cap and then find a way to share out global emissions, argues no such thing.

To be sure, the underlying logic of C&C can in principle be applied to other international level planetary boundaries besides carbon – as for example I did in my paper on post-2015 and sustainability. However, this remains a very far cry from calling for it to be applied to growth or income.

(Indeed, in a paper I wrote for Oxfam and WWF in 2011 on Scarcity, Fair Shares and Development, I argued explicitly that campaigners should resist the temptation to jump into the limits to growth argument, and should instead maintain a clear distinction between limits to growth on one hand – where the jury is still out – and limits to key resources and ecosystem services on the other hand, where the basis for action is already evident.)

In fact, I have yet to come across any paper that argues that the idea of contraction and convergence is about limiting and equalising per capita incomes – and would see any paper that does argue this point as being based on either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation. I wonder if you could clarify where you got the impression that C&C was about this?

The second question I’d like to put to you is about the ‘Sustainable Development Trajectory’ that you posit as the desirable alternative to the “three unattractive options” that you identify at the beginning of your paper.

In your first recommendation, you argue that:

“The science of planetary boundaries makes clear that are on an unsustainable trajectory. The world must reject the three baseline scenarios outlined in Section I (kick away the ladder, contract and converge, business as usual) and strive to achieve the Sustainable Development Trajectory.”

In your second recommendation, you then argue that (emphasis added):

“Achieving the Sustainable Development Trajectory will require an unprecedented effort by all countries – rich and poor – that will only be possible under a shared global framework for sustainable development. Such a global framework must have the following global features:

a) Provide an ethical foundation based on the principle of convergence and the “right to development”

As far as I can tell, what you are calling for here is more or less what I would understand by the logic of contraction and convergence: namely, explicit recognition that: (a) global problems need global solutions; (b) global consumption levels of key resources and environmental services must be brought within sustainable use limits; and (c) for reasons of both practicality and ethics, this has to be coupled with respect for the right to develop, and fair shares within finite environmental space.

So I wonder whether you would:

1) be happy to agree that the definition of C&C used in your paper is based on a misunderstanding – or, alternatively, point me towards the source for your definition?

2) concur that the logic of C&C as its advocates understand it (i.e. as defined above) is actually indispensable in reaching a viable synthesis of environment and development objectives at point when we risk overshooting planetary boundaries?

3) acknowledge that in cases where multilateral approaches based on quantified targets and timetables are needed – in the case of climate change, most obviously and urgently – then, by extension, the application of C&C must also be quantified, through the definition of (i) a global carbon budget and (ii) entitlements for all countries that are determined on the basis of convergence to equal per capita levels by some agreed date?

I should wrap up by saying again that I’m a huge admirer of your work, and agree very much with where I think you’re coming from – but since we all clearly agree on the crucial importance of the issues we’re discussing and their relevance to the post-2015 agenda, and since I think you may have got the wrong impression about contraction and convergence, I thought it would be helpful to write this note up to try to clarify.

Warm regards,

Alex Evans

Syria: why not a no-fly zone?

Enthusiasm for foreign intereventions from the sky seems to ebb and flow as the years go by. Back during the Kosovo intervention, Clinton and Blair were widely criticised for thinking that an intervention based on aerial bombing would allow them to get away without deploying boots on the ground. (In the event, Milosevic did blink first by accepting the terms of an international peace plan before NATO had to deploy ground troops – although the arrival of KFOR followed shortly afterwards.)

A few years later,  widespread calls from advocacy groups for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur were met with scepticism in government, given the size of the country and the fact that halting Sudanese government air missions (especially “barrel bombing” from Antonov transport aircraft) clearly wasn’t going to halt the more fundamental problem of janjaweed attacks on the ground.

By the time of the Libyan civil war in 2011, no-fly zones seemed to be back in vogue, with France, Britain, the US, Canada and other countries undertaking numerous sorties over the country, as well as imposing a naval blockade, under UN SCR 1973.

Now, the world has been wringing its hands over the continually worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria for more than two years. Demands for action by the west are understandably mounting – yet it’s surprising that almost all the debate about possible interventions has focused on arming the rebels, with much less discussion of a no-fly zone.

I’m instinctively wary of non-specific demands that “something must be done” (see Max Hastings in the FT today for a good presentation of this view). But given that so much of the Syrian government’s advantage – and capacity to inflict atrocities – stems from its air superiority, a no-fly zone looks like a such an obvious option that it seems odd (at least to my inexpert eye) that it hasn’t been more widely discussed.

Still, this may finally be changing: Senate Armed Forces Committee Chair Carl Levin came out in favour of the idea last month, and rumours suggest that the Administration is thinking about it too – all the more so if it takes a decision to go in to the country to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.

Have NGOs gone soft on the Government?

“Non-Governmental Organisation” is a foolproof reminder to us of the one thing we are not: the Government. “Remember, we don’t work for them.” We must ward off the temptations of “access” just as Frodo must resist the temptations of the ring. If you work for an NGO and you never hear that the Government is angry with you, you should be angry with yourself.

So Richard Darlington’s challenge in a  recent well-argued piece in the New Statesman, asking whether NGOs have gone soft on the Government, is a vital one, and needs to be asked during every Government.

Well, have we? No.

Where we’ve been disappointed by government action, we have been very very frank. In response to the Welfare Uprating Bill, for example, that will effectively cut benefits for low-income families in the UK, we called the changes “Dickensian, cold-hearted and wrong-headed”.  We’ve demanded a clamp down on tax havens, and the cancellation of millionaires’ tax cuts. When the Government launched a legal action to prevent a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, we accused them of “rank hypocrisy”.  We can do tough.

We can also do happy. The recent 0.7% aid victory was a real one. It will help 16 million kids get to school. It makes Britain the first G8 country to meet the international promise on aid, and resonated around the world, with, for example, Canadian MPs asking questions demanding their government follow suit. It is a tribute, to people in this government, in the previous government, but most of all to the British public, that this has been achieved. We don’t do champagne at Oxfam, but we did celebrate with a home made “0.7” cake and a big thank you to all our supporters. And we did say well done.

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I’m no fan of politicians, but I have seen for myself that the decisions politicians make can for people in poverty mean the difference between life and death.  And that sometimes they make the right ones. When they do, we say so.

At the G8 this year the UK government, as hosts, can ensure leaders tackle seriously the key root causes of poverty, including land grabbing and tax dodging.  If they deliver real results ,we’ll give praise where praise is due. If they let the world down, we will let the world know.

That warm feeling is us holding their feet to the fire.

Boston and the new rules of media

Full marks to Buzzfeed for identifying the key point amid today’s information blizzard from Boston (and for keeping their heads while all around them are losing theirs):

Yesterday, the conspiracy nuts at Infowars and the proud tabloid hacks at the New York Post, the amateur sleuths on Reddit and and the top-notch journalists at CNN shared something: They each failed to understand their new roles in a radically changed news environment.

The traditional journalists ignored the reality that their audiences were swimming in information, good and bad, and weren’t waiting for anyone’s permission to share it. The Redditors didn’t realize that as many people were looking at their wild, superficially compelling speculations as at John King’s. (The leader of Reddit’s bombing investigation told BuzzFeed yesterday, in complete seriousness: “Things shouldn’t be going any further than this forum and the FBI.”)

The shift here is, basically, from the media having one major responsibility — finding, vetting, and sharing new information — to having another one: guiding an audience that has already been exposed to much more.

The job of a news organization — and of a citizen — has changed with frightening speed in a world where information is everywhere; where the tip line is public; where the distinction between source, subject, and publisher has blurred; and where, crucially, questionable reports and anonymous postings are part of the fabric of that story.

A pogrom against bankers?

What an appalling quote from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph:

Let us all agree that top bankers behaved very badly. Let us agree too with Vince Cable that the fraternity operated like a cartel, rewarded far beyond ability or worth to society.

That said, the global crisis would have occurred even if bankers had been saints. The roots lie in the “China effect”, the world “savings glut”, and the whole way that globalisation has worked for 20 years.

The rising powers of Asia and the oil bloc accumulated $10 trillion of reserves, flooding bond markets with money. Japan put $1 trillion into play through the carry trade. Central banks in the West played their part by running negative real interest rates. They set the price of credit too low, especially in Club Med and Ireland.

All this combined into one colossal bubble. Bankers were the agents, not the cause. The witchhunt against them gathering force in this country has a nasty edge, and it has the character of a pogrom in much of Europe. We should be careful.

At a lunch in the City of London a couple of years ago, I was astounded to learn that many of those present felt that bankers were, indeed, the primary victims of the financial crisis – harried by a citizenry that had been happy to live off their taxes in the good times. This pushes the self-pity to an astounding level though.


A pogrom is a violent mob attack generally against Jews, and often condoned by the forces of law, characterized by killings and/or destruction of homes and properties, businesses, and religious centers.


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