Talk given by Alex Evans to a UK government cross-Whitehall session on the four key multilateral processes culminating in 2015: trade, climate, Sustainable Development Goals, and finance for development. (May 2012)
Briefing paper by Alex Evans and David Steven that explores the outlook for the post-2015 development agenda over the next two years and makes seven recommendations for member states and other champions of a bold, but practical, agreement. Updated in October 2013.
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.
Climate, scarcity and sustainability are among the most important – and politically challenging – elements of the post-2015 development agenda on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals.
While sustainability issues did not feature heavily at the recent London meeting of the new UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which was focused mainly on household level poverty, they are likely to figure much more prominently at the Panel’s second and third meetings – in Monrovia in February and Bali in March – since these meetings will focus on national and global level issues respectively.
Before these meetings, sustainability advocates have some hard thinking to do: on both their policy objectives and their political tactics, in both the Panel and the post-2015 agenda as a whole. To try to contribute to that thought process, here’s a 6 page think piece. It’s deliberately provocative, and also still a working draft – so feedback is very welcome.
Update: The paper’s now been finalised and published as a Center on International Cooperation think piece; many thanks to everyone who commented.
What should sustainability advocates aim for in the post-2015 international development agenda – and how should they go about it?
I just read Mark Lynas’s new book, The God Species, in one sitting. I hardly ever read books in one sitting. So yes, it’s very good. And you should pack it along with the sun cream, shades and flip-flops, even if you’re not a nerd like me (which is, let’s face it, unlikely if you’re reading foreign policy blogs on a day as sunny as this).
I didn’t think it was going to be this good. Not because I don’t rate Mark as a writer – his previous books, High Tide and Six Degrees, are both great – but because the blurb on the back made it sounds less than it was, with its its proclamation that the book is “a radical manifesto that calls for the increased use of controversial but environmentally friendly technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power”.
That sounded a bit underwhelming, given that views like these are rapidly becoming mainstream rather than radical, following the trail blazed by people like Jim Lovelock on nuclear and Gordon Conway on GM. (Even former head of Greenpeace UK Stephen Tindale is pro-nuclear these days – I remember him being so outraged that a 2002 IPPR report of mine should have argued in favour of nuclear that he phoned up my boss to tell him that the Institute’s green credentials were being damaged.)
And besides, if Mark’s book was really just an argument that things like cities, geoengineering, nuclear power and biotech are part of the environmental solution rather than part of the environmental problem, then it wouldn’t be saying anything that hadn’t been said two years previously in futurist Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, Radical Science, and Geoengineering are Necessary.
But actually, Mark’s book has a lot more to say than this – and two new ideas stand out in particular.
One is that The God Species is the first mainstream exposition of the concept of nine planetary boundaries that Johan Rockstrom and others at the Stockholm Resilience Centre first set out in a seminal Nature article back in 2009.
The idea here is that humanity must remain within nine safe and sustainable operating spaces, which in turn are defined by nine key boundaries. These boundaries are biodiversity; climate change; the nitrogen cycle; land use; freshwater; toxics; aerosols (like soot); ocean acidification; and the ozone layer. Rockstrom and co reckon we’re already beyond safe limits on the first three, and not far off most of the others.
Mark knows Rockstrom and his colleagues, and as a participant at some of the earliest conversations on planetary boundaries was ‘present at the creation’ of a defining agenda for the century ahead. More than that, he wrote this book with Rockstrom’s explicit blessing – as he puts it, “to do what the scientists could not: get this scientific knowledge out into the mainstream and demand that people – campaigners, governments, everyone – act on it”.
The book achieves that goal with aplomb, and that’s the first reason why you should read it. If, as seems increasingly likely, next year’s Rio summit focuses in part on the idea of Sustainable Development Goals as a potential replacement for the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015, then expect the nine planetary boundaries to assume centre stage in discussions.
The other thing I like about The God Species is its framing of humans as, well, gods. This is a rich narrative seam, breathtaking in its apparent arrogance. Humans, like gods? Isn’t that sacrilege, heresy, the pride before the Fall?
Mark’s answer to that, in a nutshell, is that it doesn’t do us or the planet any favours to affect a faux-humility about our degree of power, choice and agency over the planet. The question isn’t whether we or not we have a Zeus-like capacity to hurl thunderbolts from our Mount Olympus; clearly, we do. Rather, the question is whether we’re going to start exercising that decision-making power consciously, rather than pretending we don’t have it, all the while sleepwalking closer to the edge. As he argues,
“The Book of Genesis is full of instances of Man being punished for his attempts to become like God. After the woman and the serpent combine forces to taste the forbidden fruit from one tree, in Genesis 3:22 the Lord complains: ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ …”
He continues a moment later,
“With the primacy of science, there seems to be less and less room for the divine. God’s power is now increasingly being exercised by us. We are the creators of life, but we are also its destroyers. On a planetary scale, humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things.”
My one regret about this aspect of the book is that Mark only half develops this theme. He’s clear about how badly things will turn out if humans continue to bury their heads in the sand about their god-like powers – as he says in a quote from Stewart Brand in the introduction, “we are as gods and have to get good at it”. Amen to that, as he says.
But you’re left wondering: what would it look like if we did get good at it?
What the book sort of sets out, but never quite states explicitly, is the notion that not only are humans not guilty of Original Sin; they’re on the verge of growing up as a species, assuming their responsibilities and starting to Create consciously.
Which is quite an interesting prospect, if you think about it. Presumably if we’re operating at that sort of level, then averting planetary catastrophe is just the overture, no, the tuning up of the orchestra before the main symphony gets underway. That’s one way of reading Genesis 1:27, anyway.
One last thought: what is it with Oxford and books about creation myths? Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Mark Lynas – is there something in the water?