IDC recognition of importance of Planetary Boundary thinking for Sustainability

It was good to see the International Development Committee (IDC) endorsing the need for post-2015 goals to include environmental sustainability as a cross cutting theme in its latest report (UK Parliament International Development Committee – 8th Report Post 2015 Development Goals, 22 January 2013).

Quoting from submissions made by PBI (see Evidence from Planetary Boundaries Initiative on Global Food Security) the report states:

The Planetary Boundaries Initiative, in its written evidence, suggests a number of possible goals based on this concept (environmental limits within which human activities should stay within), such as the following:

‘the goal could be an adequate supply of safe drinking water for all, achieved within the local and regional boundary for freshwater appropriation for each area. According to the recent ‘GEO5’ report (p97) the planetary boundary for human consumptive blue water use—hen used groundwater and surface water is not made available for reuse in the same basin—is estimated to be 4 000 km3 per year, with current consumptive blue water use estimated at approximately 2 600 km3 per year’ (para 37)

The Committee members go on to recommend that sustainability be incorporated into the post-2015 framework and ‘ideally’ to be ‘ included as a component part of a number of the post-2015 goals (para 38)

In our submissions we explain planetary boundaries in the context of food supply and security as one example of how poverty reduction and environmental sustainability are inter-dependent. We highlight the difficulties with the inter-action of policies dealing with one issue without integrating the problems faced by the other. As we note at para 14 of our evidence :

… food supply and security in relation to planetary boundaries shows in a particularly acute form the predicament the planet and its people are currently in. Many policies to increase food production would increase the degree to which the three currently exceeded boundaries will be exceeded in the future : for example, policies involving far more use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, far more extensive use of land for agriculture, or increased carbon emissions.

In recommending the need for incorporation of sustainability as a cross-cutting theme in any set of post-2015 goals the IDC opens the door for a much needed debate on the type of governance needed to achieve both poverty reduction and environmental sustainability over the long term.

As we argue only a new kind of governance system – one that reflects planetary boundary thinking – is likely to protect humanity against the consequences of crossing future earth system thresholds and tilting humanity towards increasingly unstable social and environmental conditions. We need to start now on the necessary thinking on how we can design policies and governance that are ‘fit for purpose’ to prepare for the challenges of the next 30 years. We need laws and policies that ensure that humanity operates within a space bounded on the one side by the planetary boundaries and on the other by a set of human needs, such as the need for adequate nutrition. Oxfam’s Kate Raworth has described this as ‘doughnut economics’ (see her discussion paper A Safe and Just Space for Humanity : Can we live within the doughnut?).

The IDC report underlines its importance by recognising it is a departure from its normal fare, namely scrutinising the work of DFID. As it notes, not only is the debate around post-2015 goals of fundamental importance to the future of international development but the UK is in the superior position of being able to take a leading role with Prime Minister David Cameron as co-chair of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons.

David Cameron has already made several speeches emphasising the important role governance will play in the long term prosperity of the international community – he calls it a ‘golden thread’ running through all of our activities. However, what components go into the ‘golden thread’ is at present less than clear, a point remarked upon by the Committee on several occasions.

In view of the report’s recommendations that sustainability is a component part of a number of post 2015 goals it would seem now more appropriate than ever for the Prime Minister to consider the colour of his thread . Instead, he should be urged to argue for a green thread running through all of the policy proposals. This could help him seize the opportunity he has and leave a lasting legacy from his premiership.


Deborah Tripley

Director, Planetary Boundaries Initiative

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