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

Goals after 2015

As the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda meets in Liberia, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation has published a new paper of mine on the role that global goals can play after the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. You can download it here.

The paper:

  • Explores what different types of goals can (and cannot) achieve.
  • Sets out options for integrating poverty and sustainable development goals.
  • Clarifies the choices that must be made if the post-2015 development agenda is to end poverty within a generation.

I don’t advocate any of the options in the paper. Instead, the aim is to try and clarify what can be quite a muddy and confusing debate. Why do we need goals? Who should they be for? How can they best be constructed?

This work forms part of CIC’s broader engagement on the post-2015 process. Alex and I have published a series of papers for CIC and the Brookings Institution (1, 2, 3). For me, this goes back to a post on Global Dashboard from 2011, which offered a first sketch of a post-2015 agenda that aimed to end absolute poverty.

Many thanks to the UN Foundation for funding this work.

Open Letter to the Co-Chairs of the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced on Wednesday that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and British Prime Minister David Cameron will head a high-level panel to advise on the post-2015 way forward. Here’s a memo from Alex and I on how the chairs can help ensure the Panel succeeds (pdf version here).

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To:           Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, David Cameron

From:      Alex Evans and David Steven

Date:       10 May 2012

Subject:  The UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda

Congratulations on your appointment as co-chairs of the UN’s new High Level Panel of Eminent Persons to advise on the design of a framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. The Panel has a major opportunity to build a vision for global development over the next generation, at a time when most governments are primarily focused on much shorter term fire-fighting and crisis management.

Your task, however, will not be easy. The Panel will start work after the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) – an event that is likely to be a disappointment at best, and could yet prove an abject failure.

You will have to demonstrate that the Panel can avoid the many mistakes made in the run up to Rio. On the one hand, this means working patiently to rebuild consensus, at a point when the development agenda is showing signs of becoming dangerously polarised. On the other hand, you will also need to inject a sense of urgency into the process, if a new framework is to be in place in time for 2015.

In this memo, we set out eight steps that will help ensure the Panel asks the right questions in the right order, in a way that encourages your fellow leaders to move towards a clear and coherent strategy over the next couple of years.

  1. Beware the curse of the sequel. Most targets are quickly forgotten, but the MDGs have become a ‘universal language’ for international development. They will not be improved without creative thinking, a hard-headed approach, careful political management – and recognition of how much the world has changed since they were agreed. Many have badly underestimated how much work needs to be done. Your first job will be to jolt them out of this complacency.
  2. Focus on the poor first and foremost. Rio +20 will put Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on the international agenda – but the obstacles to such ambitious goals are substantial. Developing countries are right to worry that the poor would be the first casualties of a bitter, and possibly fruitless, fight to agree SDGs. You will need to reassure them by making it clear that you will make recommendations on poverty first – in an interim report – before moving on to consider broader goals.
  3. We have halved poverty. Now let’s end it. Poverty rates are falling at unprecedented rates – a success that you should celebrate – with fewer than 900 million people likely to be living on less than $1.25 a day in 2015, comfortably exceeding the MDGs’ headline target. This provides the world with an historic opportunity to set goals for ‘getting to zero’ on absolute poverty – achievement of which would be a truly epochal shift.
  4. ‘Getting to zero’ will radically change the development mission. Every success in the fight to end poverty makes the remaining task a little harder: the ‘last poor’ will be the hardest to reach. The Panel must challenge development organisations to explain how they will react as the ‘geography of poverty’ shifts to fragile states, or unstable regions of otherwise prosperous countries, where results will not come easily. It should also provide a platform to the g7+, a group which represents some of the world’s most fragile countries, to tell the international community what help they need to build societies able to deliver better lives to their citizens.
  5. But emphasise the opportunities too. Many African countries are beginning to surf a demographic wave, as growing numbers of young people enter the workforce and dependency ratios fall. During the global economic crisis, many of them maintained high growth even as the rest of the world slowed down. Their future looks hopeful – as long as they are connected to global markets, and as long as national institutions are strong enough to generate jobs, and support inclusive and sustainable growth.
  6. Rather than a grand design, aim for a loose family of SDGs. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative has shown the potential for sustainability goals to be developed by a disparate alliance of actors who have the will and the capacity to implement them. Instead of attempting to build a rigid SDG framework, you should explore the potential for building on this foundation, with different partnerships all bringing their own approach to achieving significant improvements in one or more aspects of sustainability.
  7. Provide space for innovation. The world is changing rapidly, but the international system moves at glacial pace. Provocative questions are needed to open up space for new thinking and approaches. What will a post-2015 framework do for the half of the world’s people who will be under 30 in 2015, for instance? What can be done to help the world’s towns and cities provide decent lives for a billion additional residents between 2015 and 2030? How will poverty reduction evolve in a world where we have the name, address and mobile phone number of growing numbers of poor families? And what types of partnership can deliver impact in a world where governments often hold only few of the cards?
  8. Get people arguing about concrete options as soon as possible. The international system is capable of debating vague generalities for the next two years, without ever bringing to the surface important areas of disagreement. Even if, as a Panel, you don’t find the definitive answer for what a post-2015 framework should look like, you will have made a huge contribution if you move quickly to define the choices the world faces, set out the benefits, costs, and risks of each option, and catalyse a genuine global debate.

The goal of ending absolute poverty is within reach for the first time. With skill and luck, you can prise open the space to begin building a new consensus on development that lasts for the long term. You will be at the forefront of helping the world seize these opportunities. We cannot imagine a more significant political legacy. We wish you luck in your endeavour.

Beyond the MDGs – our new Brookings Institution paper

In posts over the last couple of weeks, David and I have been previewing some of the ideas set out in a paper we did for the Brookings Institution in advance of a Chatham House rule seminar held for the US government. The full paper’s now been published, and can be downloaded here. Here’s an excerpt from the summary:

For governments and international organizations, the politics of agreeing an effective post-2015 framework are likely to prove extremely difficult. Deep disagreements are likely to surface between developed, emerging, and developing countries, while continued economic turmoil will distract leaders’ attention from longer-term challenges. Early rhetoric on the SDGs has set the bar for success unfeasibly high, and sustained media criticism can be expected when it proves impossible to deliver against this standard.

Many governments will adopt a low profile, but there is considerable space for a leading country, or group of countries, to act early to ‘shape the debate’ on what should and can be delivered after 2015.

While enthusiasm for the idea of SDGs has so far crowded out discussion of goals focused more specifically on poverty reduction, this agenda may well only play a niche role after Rio+20, given the political obstacles to adoption of a universal, comprehensive and binding set of goals for sustainable development.

The UN’s new Energy for All goals, however, have shown the potential for creative approaches that are developed outside traditional inter-governmental negotiations and that bring together governments, the private sector, and civil society. This may provide a model for the development of a loose family of similar goals.

At the same time, a commitment to end absolute poverty would make an inspiring, and politically attractive, headline target for 2030. Fundamental work is needed to explore the feasibility of this goal, analyzing the ‘geography of poverty’ after 2015 and determining the most effective ways of making a difference to the lives of world’s most vulnerable people.

The immediate priority is to set out in more concrete terms options for the design of post-2015 goals, forcing all key actors to confront the benefits and costs of each option. This can be used to catalyze the formation of a ‘guiding coalition’ with the energy and political will needed to win agreement for the preferred option.

Beyond the Millennium Development Goals

Debate on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 is now underway in earnest. This briefing paper by Alex Evans and David Steven, prepared for a closed session Brookings Institution meeting organised at the request of the US government, sets out an overview of the MDGs and their expected status in 2015; describes the background to, and options for, a post-2015 framework; and discusses the political challenges of agreeing a new framework and sets out considerations for governments and other stakeholders. (April 2012)

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