Ending poverty need not be at the expense of the environment: Oxfam report

A new Oxfam report says that human deprivation and environmental degradation must be tackled together because humanity’s two major operating boundaries – “social boundaries” like hunger, inequality and ill-health and the “planetary or environmental boundaries” like climate change and biodiversity loss - are inextricably linked.

February 13, 2012

Ending poverty need put no additional stress on the planet’s natural resources, according to a new report published today by international agency Oxfam.

According to the paper’s author Kate Raworth, human deprivation and environmental degradation must be tackled together as humanity’s two major operating boundaries – “social boundaries” like hunger, inequality and ill-health and the “planetary or environmental boundaries” like climate change and biodiversity loss - are inextricably linked.

“By seeing the whole we can understand that solving food, energy and income poverty could be achieved with almost no impact on our planetary boundaries. Any vision of sustainable development must recognise that eradicating poverty and social injustice is inextricably linked to ecological stability and renewal,” said Raworth.

Oxfam has published the discussion paper “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity – Can We Live Within The Doughnut?” as a contribution to the debate in the run-up to the UN conference on sustainable development (Rio+20) in June. The paper suggests a new way of approaching economic development within environmental and social limits. Oxfam discussion papers are intended to encourage public debate but do not represent Oxfam policy.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre originally published the concept of nine planetary boundaries, beyond which lies unacceptable environmental degradation. To these, Raworth has added the concept of social boundaries, below which lies unacceptable human deprivation. 

Together, the two sets of boundaries create an area - shaped like a doughnut - that defines an environmentally safe and socially just space for humanity to thrive in.   This simple visual framework brings together the social, environmental and economic priorities that underpin inclusive and sustainable development.

The 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative and are based on priorities set out by governments for Rio+20. The nine dimensions of the environmental ceiling are based on Rockström et al, Stockholm Resilience Centre (2009). Image: Oxfam
The 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative and are based on priorities set out by governments for Rio+20. The nine dimensions of the environmental ceiling are based on Rockström et al, Stockholm Resilience Centre (2009). Image: Oxfam
 
Data shows that we are far from living “within the doughnut”. Raworth estimates that humanity is falling far below the social foundation on at least eight of the 11 social boundaries. Nearly 900m people face hunger, 1.4 billion live on less than $1.25 per day, and 2.7 billion have no access to clean cooking facilities. 
 
At the same time, the environmental ceiling has already been crossed for at least three of the nine planetary boundaries, on climate change, biodiversity loss and nitrogen use.
 
The paper suggests that economic development must aim to bring humanity into the safe and just space, ending deprivation and keeping within safe use of the earth’s limited resources.  Traditional growth policies have largely failed to deliver on both accounts: far too few benefits of GDP growth have gone to people living in poverty, and far too much of GDP’s rise has been at the cost of degrading natural resources.
 
“For too long environmental, social and economic concerns have been handled as separate issues but the rising global challenges of climate change, financial crises, food price volatility and commodity price increases show that these issues are unavoidably interconnected and must be tackled together,” said Raworth. 
 
The paper shows that ending poverty need not be a source of stress on planetary boundaries. 
  • Food: Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 percent of the world’s population facing hunger would require just one percent of the current global food supply.
  • Energy: Bringing electricity to the 19 percent of people who currently lack it could be achieved with a less than one percent increase in global CO2 emissions. 
  • Income: Ending income poverty for the 21 percent of people who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 percent of global income.
The paper says that the real source of stress on these planetary boundaries is the excessive resource use by roughly the richest 10 percent of people in the world, backed up by the aspirations of a rapidly growing global middle class seeking to emulate those unsustainable lifestyles.
 
The discussion paper has been produced as part of Oxfam’s Grow campaign which is committed to creating a better future, ensuring food security and prosperity for all in a resource-constrained world.
 
 
For more information please contact:
Juliet O’Neill
Oxfam Canada media officer
613.240.3047