Ending poverty need not be at the expense of the environment

Published: 13th February 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 recognize 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 Center 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.

Infographic: the safe and just space for humanity, inside the 'doughnut'.

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 900 million 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.

Join the discussion: Can we live inside the doughnut? Why the world needs planetary and social boundaries

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.
Kate Raworth
Senior Researcher, Oxfam

Notes to editors

  1. Download the report: A safe and just space for humanity – can we live within the doughnut? (pdf, 1MB)
  2. Read the blog: Can we live inside the doughnut? Why the world needs planetary and social boundaries
  3. The nine planetary boundaries critical for keeping the earth in a stable state according to Rockström et al of the Stockholm Resilience Center are climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosol depletion and ozone depletion. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7263/full/461472a.html
  4. This Oxfam discussion paper bases its 11 social foundations on governments’ social priorities for Rio+20: food security, income, water and sanitation, health care, education, energy, gender equality, social equity, voice, jobs and resilience.

Contact information

Tricia O'Rourke, Media Officer - GROW Campaign
Oxfam International
Tel: +44 1865 339157  (Mon, Tues & Thurs)
Mob: +44 7876 397915 (Wed & Fri)