Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Planetary boundaries: Clarifying Interests and Beneficiaries

When I attended the Bonn Civil Society Meeting: Advancing the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Agenda (March 22 – 23, 2013) I was eager to participate in the workshop on ‘Planetary boundaries’ as it is a concept that is receiving substantive global attention. Furthermore I had many questions / clarities to make as I had got negative sentiments on it from other civil society actors in East Africa in relation to its missing action on social issues like poverty reduction. In fact the planetary boundaries concept was accepted into the ‘Zero Draft’ of the Rio+20 conference as an essential element in negotiations toward setting environmentally related goals. However, following heavy scientific criticism, the concept was excluded from the Summit’s final statement in June 2012 (Yale University, 2013)

Why focus on planetary boundaries?

The planetary boundaries concept refers to nine limits to human impact on the life of the planet. When transgressed, these limits will trigger a cascade of ill effects, putting human life and civilization in peril and irreversibly altering the viability of habitats for virtually every species on Earth. By remaining within these limits, life can go forward (The Guardian, 2013).

The Stockholm Resilience Group, a group of academics based at Stockholm University, has quantified the levels at which decline in various processes and systems accelerates precipitously and dangerously: these include climate change, biodiversity loss, bio-geochemical change, ocean acidification, conversion of wilderness to cropland, freshwater consumption and ozone depletion. By understanding the dimensions and the limits of our planet's boundaries, we can begin to 'price in' the environmental costs and the gains of delivering our products and services. 

According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre (2013), among the global regions, Sub Saharan Africa, South & Central Asia regions will suffer high costs in the ‘Business As Usual’ trajectory though all regions will experience significant avoidable costs given global interdependencies. The high costs will be due to poverty, food insecurity, health insecurity, energy poverty, water stress, high fertility rate, temperature stress, drought and sea level rise.

A Critique of the planetary boundaries concept

However according to Yale University, a huge challenge for many environmental metric projects (like planetary boundaries) is defining the goals and targets of the indicators they present. One of the major arguments from scientists is that planetary boundaries, or biophysical thresholds, are set subjectively, and humans, not ecological systems, determine the question, “How much is too much?” Research has shown that there are limits to an ecosystem’s capacity to absorb human impacts, and this understanding must be applied when defining a threshold or target. For example, we can only divert so much river water for irrigation before a river runs dry, and a plant can only take up so much nitrogen before the excess is washed away during a rainstorm.

Another major challenge for planetary boundaries and other environmental metric projects is comparability between the types of issues they present. Scientists argue against the attempts of the planetary boundaries concept to compare local and global issues collectively. Is it adequate to compare a global issue, such as climate change, with more local issues, such as biodiversity, water, land and fertilizer? For a planet-wide standard, this may be a hard argument to win because many of the processes presented in these boundaries are not static around the world, and vulnerability to changes in these processes may vary geographically. But these are problems that should be examined everywhere, and it is important to consider what geographical scope is necessary for adequate comparability and applicability of a given project.

Several concepts of environmental change attempt to integrate costs and benefits into a framework, which ultimately is a decision that must be made with regards to a project’s objectives and metrics (e.g., examining human influence on environmental change or measuring progress toward a policy-defined environmental objective). Many times, changes in the environment with respect to human influence are often seen as negative. The authors at the Breakthrough Institute frame this as a problem with planetary boundaries – which they only measure environmental change as negative, and it is impossible for progression toward these boundaries to be positive. They argue that humans have benefited from many of these changes, and any framework attempting to measure environmental change must acknowledge these trade-offs.

The planetary boundaries framework also addresses ethics within science – arbitrarily setting numbers that “reflect preferred outcomes.” The planetary boundaries concept failed to make an explicit connection between particular outcomes and values. Without clarification of meanings and trade-offs between numbers, these thresholds suggest “what is” or “what ought to be,” therefore hindering the transparency of the project’s ethical commitments.

Planetary boundaries Discussions in Bonn: Recommendations to the Post 2015 development

Having participated in 2 meetings to discuss the ‘planetary boundaries’ concept, we noted that traditional frameworks for development state that poverty is the main ‘problem’ to be addressed. But we noted that a new approach is needed that transforms our international priorities towards a framework that ensures prosperity for All people within the limits of our planets resources. This means looking at equality, wealth and consumption in a new and integrated way.

For example access to and use of natural resources is deeply unequal. We see that extreme wealth as well as extreme poverty need to be addressed in a Post-2015 framework.  We also emphasized the need to look at the structural causes of poverty and inequity which include the concentration of wealth, power and resources in the hands of the few, and challenge this unequal access to resources. The unequal access to resources is determined by social conditions such as gender, age, class, north - south, disability, politics etc. These inequalities play out at local, national and international levels.

Noting that we are ‘living beyond our means’ in terms of our consumption of natural resources, if we do not address our unsustainable use of natural resources we will exacerbate poverty, inequality and future prospects for human development. We therefore agreed with the premise in the Oxfam ‘Doughnut’ report that links planetary boundaries to a social foundation and articulates that “Humanities challenge in the 21st century is to eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all within the means of the planets limited natural resources.”

We noted the structural causes of planetary stress that include exploitation of the global commons (e.g. over exploitation of marine resources), and the exploitation of ‘other peoples’ natural resources (e.g. land grabs) which collectively pushes us beyond planetary boundaries; nations are not accountable for the resources that they use and want to use to achieve their human development plans and long-term societal well-being. Institutions, laws and governance mechanisms that control the flows of resources, money and goods are set up in a way that exploits natural resources and reinforces inequalities, e.g. fiscal policies (for example harmful subsidies) that reinforce the way in which capital is accumulated and distributed and policies that perpetuate existing inequalities (racial, gender, disability, age, class/caste, indigenous etc); Lack of accountability in terms of financial processes and implications of actions - of international corporations and governments;
Non-compliance within a full implemented human rights framework (which includes rights relating to the environment) by different stakeholders and institutions e.g. corporations and governments, Bretton woods institutions etc. Non-compliance and failure to implement existing international obligations; Unequal power and voice that determines access to and use of natural resources at a local level (e.g. land, range lands, water, forests, energy) and at levels spanning from local to international; Competitive conspicuous consumption (e.g. Prada handbags and Ferrari’s), and the values that underpin this behavior, drive collective overuse of natural resources.

Recommendations to the Post 2015 development

The Post 2015 human development goals, in addition to facilitating improvements in human well-being, must also facilitate the sustainable long term use of planetary resources at all levels:
- Regulate all stakeholders including financial institutions, international corporations and thus make them accountable for their unsustainable use of natural resources.
- Develop and enforce accountability mechanisms at all levels such as national level ombudsperson, international courts.
- Conduct resource sufficiency evaluation and reporting at all levels (accountability in terms of biophysical natural resources).
- Include new measures of progress that go beyond GDP and account for natural resource sustainability.
- Incentivize sustainable lifestyles and consumption at the individual, community and national level (e.g. financial incentives for green electricity)
- Strengthen capacity building, technology and financial transfer for achieving sustainable lifestyles around the globe.
- Include in the post 2015 framework monitoring and evaluation of social externalities of environmental interventions (e.g. nuclear power stations, hydro electric dams etc).
- Incorporate sustainability into the political discourse, which in turn will hold governments and other actors to account.
- Include the valuation of natural capital and natural resources in decision-making processes.
- Revise the definition of an inclusive green economy to be genuinely transformative and be driven by the sufficiency as well as efficiency of natural resource use (link back to Rio+20 declaration)

Specifically at the local level, the following recommendations came out:

- Link local realities with national and international and vice versa.
- Support local level decision-making processes that relate to the management, allocation and use of natural resources ensuring accountability and transparency and based on equal participation.
- Develop an indicator in the framework relating to the use of time and value of work in environmental interventions disaggregated by sex.
- Empowering civil society to engage with scientists and other stakeholders, inform people about rights, policies and planetary boundaries, and hold governments and private sector to account.

At the National level: 

- Develop legislative frameworks, mechanisms for ensuring the implementation of existing policies, allocating and reallocating budgets in line with the human rights framework, sustainable development frameworks and equality criteria (e.g. learning from what happens with gender budgets). This is relevant both at a national level and in the delivery of projects and programmes.
- Design and reinforce the implementation of sustainable development policies. Monitor and evaluate any ‘implementation gap’.
- Articulate the resources required to achieve their human development plans and support their long term societal well-being, e.g. ‘national resource accounting’.
- Increase the role for parliaments in holding governments to account.
- Track and monitor the unequal access to natural resources within as well as between countries is a vital issue in relation to this agenda.
- Create an enabling environment for civil society organizations.

And at the International level:
- Encourage the intergovernmental system to periodically conduct international resource sufficiency evaluations, by aggregating national resource evaluations, to gauge global progress towards a sustainable world.
- Encourage the scientific community that are articulating and defining planetary boundaries to engage with all relevant stakeholders including communities at the local level.

The Bonn Civil Society discussions led to this statement to be submitted to the UN High Level Panel on Post 2015 for advocacy work.  However, Individuals and organizations are still invited to express their support for this statement. Please go to: http://www.worldwewant2015.org/node/332177 to read the statement on ‘Planetary Boundaries’ and endorse it.