To meet basic human needs universally across the globe without tipping the Earth system outside of environmental limits will require a redistribution of resources and a transformation of society, a new study finds.
Published in Nature Sustainability, Griffith University joined an international team of scientists from the Earth Commission and Future Earth, who assessed the potential trade-offs between achieving social and environmental goals by investigating the impacts on the Earth system of all people escaping poverty and achieving a dignified life given today’s global inequalities.
“Redistribution and improvements to water, food, infrastructure and energy provisioning systems are key to ensuring universal access to basic needs while staying within Earth’s limits,” said co-author Dr Ben Stewart-Koster, a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute and a Research Scientist for the Earth Commission.
“The study estimated what the additional pressures on the Earth system would have been in 2018, if adequate minimum access to food, water, energy and infrastructure was achieved, allowing all people to lead a dignified life and escape poverty.
“The added pressure on the Earth’s natural systems came in the form of an increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 26%, while nutrient pollution, water and land use only increased by 2-5%.”
The research shows that using contemporary technology and approaches to production, the minimum requirements for a dignified life while ensuring Earth system stability, cannot be met without reallocating resources, risks and responsibilities; i.e. without redistribution and transformation.
Lead author, Crelis Rammelt, Environmental Geography and Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Earth Commission expert said, “many people assume that meeting the needs of the poorest is possible without major redistributions and transformations in society.”
“We show that, with 2018 levels of inequalities, technologies and behaviours, providing dignified lives for the poor would have led to further crossing of Earth system boundaries, especially for climate.”
The additional pressures as a consequence of the poorest third of humanity achieving adequate resource access, equalled those caused by the wealthiest 1-4%, providing clear scientific evidence that in order to achieve societal and environmental goals, it is the wealthy, those who appropriate the bulk of Earth’s resources and ecosystems, who need to undergo transformative change.
This new research comes ahead of an associated Earth Commission report due out in early 2023 that will outline a range of ‘Earth System Boundaries’ (ESBs) to safeguard a stable and resilient planet and underpin science-based targets for businesses, cities and governments.
“Rather than asking poor countries of the world to tighten their belts or make do without, as some in the North often tend to suggest, the emphasis should be on promoting ideals of global distributive justice and systematic transformations that will enhance wealth and opportunities for the poor,” said co-author Chukwumerije Okereke from the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Nigeria and Earth Commission expert.
The authors link the ‘Great Acceleration’, the rapid increases in human-driven environmental impacts, with a ‘Great Inequality’.
“While it becomes clear that the poor are not causing the climate problem, it’s also clear that we need to solve climate, to solve inequity,” said co-author Johan Rockström, Co-Chair of the Earth Commission and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
“Climate impacts are hitting harder on those who lack the resources to cope with them, both internationally and within countries. When it comes to taking action, those who have more means to reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions also have a greater responsibility to do so.”