Will these sustainable development goals get us into the doughnut (aka a safe and just space for humanity)?

In mid July, the UN’s Open Working Group proposed a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 17 goals and 169 indicators, to be whittled down through negotiations by the UN General Assembly next month, and adopted as official goals in 2015. So now is the perfect time to play spot the difference: the SDGs vs. the doughnut.

This comparison makes sense. The doughnut’s social foundation was crowd-sourced from governments’ social priorities in the run-up to the 2012 Rio + 20 conference. And the doughnut’s environmental ceiling contains the nine planetary boundaries that protect the key Earth-system processes on which humanity’s wellbeing depends, as proposed by Johan Rockström and his fellow Earth-system scientists in 2009. So how do these draft SDGs deliver against the doughnut’s social and planetary boundaries?

The comparison reveals three key points: on priorities, on ambition and on economic growth.

First, on priorities. Taking a big picture perspective, this initial cut of the SDGs has a very doughnutty spirit. Figure 1 maps the proposed SDGs onto the 11 social and 9 environmental dimensions of the doughnut: green rings indicate issues named in the top-tier goals; orange rings indicate those mentioned in the 2nd tier targets (and the numbers identify which goal).

Fig 1. Spot the difference: mapping the proposed SDGs onto the doughnut

 SDGs v donutIt’s clear that every one of the doughnut’s dimensions gets a mention in either the goals or their targets. But the social foundation is more fully and explicitly addressed than the environmental ceiling.

  • Goals 1 to 10 map out the Social Foundation almost word for word (with the sole exception of voice, which only gets a look-in under some scattered targets). Ending poverty and human deprivation is clearly a priority, as well it should be.
  • The SDGs add a new goal to the social foundation, on human settlements. Housing and transport were missing from governments’ top priorities at Rio+20 (and hence from the doughnut) but have now got the attention they deserve.
  • There’s an evident contrast between the near-total coverage of the social foundation in the goals, versus the more patchy coverage of the environmental ceiling. Some environmental priorities are named directly in goals, but most just in the targets, and even then not always explicitly.

Second, on ambition. The doughnut’s boundaries are based on measurable targets for both the social and environmental dimensions. So how do the SDGs compare? Their ambition to end human deprivation by 2030 (ie to get everyone above the social foundation) is focused and clearly defined. But their ambition to address environmental degradation (ie to stay below the environmental ceiling) is more varied and vague.

earth from spaceThe vast majority of social targets have strong ambition, seeking by 2030, to end all forms of poverty, and ensure access “for all” to food, water, sanitation, energy, health care, education, work, housing and more (see Table 1 here Raworth Annex Tables SDG Doughnut). What will success look like? It’s pretty clear: essentially 100% of people will enjoy these rights. Powerful and important stuff.

The environmental targets, by contrast, fall into four clusters, aiming to ‘halt’, ‘restore’, ‘sustain’ and ‘reduce’, and most targets focus on 2020 (see Table 2 here Raworth Annex Tables SDG Doughnut). Some are absolute and time-bound: end overfishing and halt deforestation by 2020. But two key ambitions – to halt biodiversity loss and combat climate change – lack target dates. And for others, the measure of success is unclear. What would it mean to ‘significantly reduce’ nutrient pollution by 2025? To ‘minimize the release of’ hazardous chemicals by 2030? Or to ‘minimize the impacts of’ ocean acidification (by no set date)? The concern among scientists is that the final ambition on targets will now be driven by “political pragmatism, not scientific reality”.

Third, on economic growth. There is a very clear commitment in the proposal to ‘sustained economic growth’. It gets three mentions in the opening paragraphs, and then Goal 8 focuses on promoting ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth’. Is this compatible with getting into the doughnut – and with achieving the rest of the SDGs? Only if economic growth (ie an ever-rising GDP) can be recoupled with poverty reduction and decoupled fromenvironmental degradation. And this is where things get more tricky.

For starters, GDP growth will probably look like an out-of-date economic metric by 2030: smart countries will be steering by a wider dashboard of social and economic success by then, accounting for natural and social wealth stocks as well as monetized flows. So let’s not get hooked on pursuing this goal, and certainly not at the cost of any others.

Making GDP growth ‘inclusive’ by recoupling it with poverty reduction is critical for getting into the doughnut. And Goal 10 – to reduce inequality within and between countries – is a crucial part of getting there. Target 10.1 commits that, by 2030, the incomes of the bottom 40% in each country will grow faster than the national average. Progressive stuff: this target must not get lost in the wash.

What about making GDP growth ‘sustainable’? Here, things get fuzzy. Target 8.4 calls on countries to ‘endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation…with developed countries taking the lead’. Just endeavour?! Let’s be clear. Decoupling can’t be treated as a try-it-if-you-like bonus target. If the aim is to combine ‘sustained economic growth’ with combating climate change, halting deforestation and biodiversity loss, and significantly reducing air, soil and water pollution, then decoupling GDP from resource use is, by definition, absolutely essential – a logical necessity.

And (since the SDGs don’t do it) let’s ask: how much decoupling is needed, in different kinds of countries? It’s the tough question that has stalled the climate negotiations for years. And Figure 2 helps to unpack the key concepts.

Figure 2. GDP growth and resource decoupling: what will it take?GDP and resource decouplingBy 2030, low-income countries need to achieve relative decoupling, backed by international support for energy- and resource-efficient investments – so that their GDP grows faster than their resource use. Upper-middle income countries will need to be on track for absolute decoupling, so that their total resource use starts falling while their GDP grows. And high-income countries that still want a rising GDP will need to achieve sufficient absolute decoupling– strongly reducing their resource use as their GDP grows. Without such decoupling, ‘sustained economic growth’ will push us all right over the environmental ceiling, out of the doughnut, and into an ecological era that is far more hostile to humanity. And if the scale of sufficient absolute decoupling doesn’t look feasible – especially in the high-income countries – then it may be time for them to look long and hard for alternative economic paradigms that do not depend on unlimited GDP growth.

So, will these SDGs get us into the doughnut? They will certainly get us over the social foundation – and that’s well worth celebrating. But they do not face up to what it will take to stay within the environmental ceiling – especially with unlimited GDP growth as the driving economic paradigm.

These Sustainable Development Goals matter. They are humanity’s best chance to envision a shared and lasting prosperity for all. So let’s see what happens in September as the UN General Assembly gets down to negotiating this proposal. And if anyone out there will be at the meeting, please – could you give them doughnuts in the coffee break?…

Republished from Poverty to Power.

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