In June of 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to consider sustainable development. In June this year they will re-convene in Rio to consider Rio+20, the 20th anniversary of that event and also the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) that was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The objective of the upcoming conference is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and address new and emerging challenges.

Two themes will be the subject of focus; first, a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and, second, the institutional framework for sustainable development. Weighty matters indeed and worthy of our interest.

A great deal of preparatory work is underway as befits the importance of the event and various stakeholders have prepared draft discussion papers for consideration. One such paper that we have seen has been developed by Oxfam, the highly respected UK-based charitable institution. It is entitled A Safe and Just Space for Humanity - can we live within the doughnut?

Simply put, the paper examines the question: Can we eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all within the planet’s limited natural resources?

This is a large question and one of the difficulties with something of this order is getting one’s arms around it. The paper does this in an engaging way by the use of the image of a doughnut (better yet a bagel for New Yorkers). The bagel is defined by an inner and an outer ring. In this cleverly constructed image the inner ring of the bagel is defined by what is described as the ‘social foundation’ and the outer by the ‘environmental ceiling.’ The space in between the rings, the bagel, represents the safe and just space for humanity.

The inner ring, the social foundation, effectively defines the open area in the center of the bagel and it contains what may be described as the dimensions of human deprivation. They are given as 11 in number and include access to water, food, jobs, education and other things like gender equality and social equity. One can readily appreciate that to the extent that an element of humanity falls below the ‘social foundation’ ring into the bagel’s center one is outside the safe space.

The same situation applies with the outer ring, the ‘environmental ring.’ Outside the bagel are 9 dimensions which include climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and land use change. To the extent that one encroaches beyond the outer ring one has moved beyond the safe space.

Given that there are approximately 1 billion people that are under- or mal-nourished and some 1.4 billion live on less that $1.25 per day it is clear that there are far too many of us living below the level of the ‘social foundation.’ On the other side of the bagel we seem to have broached the environmental ceiling at least in the areas of climate change, nitrogen use and biodiversity loss.

In view of the fact that the world’s population is expected to grow to 9 from its present 7 billion odd by 2050 coupled with an expanding global ‘middle class’ we have our work cut out to develop a modus vivendi with the planet and one another.

This is far from a lost cause. The discussion paper notes that eradicating poverty need not put stress on the outer bagel ring. Providing the additional food needed by the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply. Bringing electricity to the 19% of the world’s population that does not have it would increase global CO2 emissions by less than 1%. Ending income poverty for the 21% of the population who live on less than $1.25 per day would require just 0.2% of global income.

In terms of the outer ring the paper states that the biggest source of planetary stress comes from the excessive resource consumption by the world’s wealthiest 10%. Specifically, 50% of carbon emissions come from the production of goods and services for 11% of the global population. 57% of global income is in the hands of 10% of the population and 33% of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for the European Union, a mere 7% of the population.

Looked at in this way it is easy to see that, from a practical point of view, it ought to be possible to rein in the excesses and provide a sustainable standard of living for all within the so-called limits of the safe space. As we may well appreciate the solution will lie in the political realm and therein lies the rub. As we know from our domestic politics it is seemingly near impossible to get agreement on matters like tax reform and deficit reduction. Scale that up and we can readily appreciate what the conference delegates will have to deal with in June.

Chris Wood