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.