A new study shows how addressing the biophysical aspects of the planetary boundaries can be compatible with enhancing social equity. Photo: O. Henriksson/Azote

Equity and planetary boundaries

An equitable operating space for humanity

Combining social equity with planetary boundaries is no illusion

Story highlights

  • Re-analysis of planetary boundaries and their relationship to equity published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability
    Analysis
  • Study shows it is possible to address the biophysical aspects of many of the boundaries in ways that is compatible with enhancing social equit
  • It is likely to be in the self-interest of wealthy nations to achieve a more equitable world in terms of incomes and resource use

The planetary boundaries concept has, since its inception in 2009, appeared prominently in discussions on global sustainability. This has also triggered criticism about scant considerations for global equity, where distribution of wealth and well-being is insignificant as long humanity stays withing the boundaries.

This is a misinterpretation along with other misconceptions about the concept.

A recent re-analysis of the boundaries and their relationship to equity published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability tells quite a different story.

Centre researcher Will Steffen, who was among the authors of the original planetary boundaries analysis, is one of the scientists behind the new article. He believes it is indeed possible to address the biophysical aspects of many of these boundaries in ways that is compatible with enhancing social equity.

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"It may well be in the self-interest of wealthy nations to achieve a more spatially equitable world in terms of access to resources and ecosystem services. Combining social equity considerations with the planetary boundaries approach may therefore constitute a necessary, and perhaps even sufficient, condition for achieving global sustainability," writes Steffen and his co-author Mark Stafford-Smith from CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship in Australia.

A Robin Hood strategy
One example is how addressing equity aspects within the phosphorus planetary boundary could lead to 'win- win’ outcomes.

A redistribution of phosphorus from regions with excess to regions with low access would not only lower the risk of nutrient over-enrichment of coastal seas in high phosphorus regions and thus address the planetary boundary. Such a 'Robin Hood strategy' could also reduce eutrophication of lakes, streams and other freshwater systems, which constitutes a local and regional pollution problem in many developed countries.

In addition, such a redistribution of phosphorus could help to improve productivity in agriculture and food security in regions with lack of this essential nutrient.

"In this way we can both address the phosphorus planetary boundary and enhance human well-being in the developing world by transferring of critical nutrients from areas where they are in excess to those where they are most needed," the authors explain.

The new article includes a preliminary list of similar issues for several of the other planetary boundaries, including Land system change, Aerosols, Freshwater, Chemical pollution and Biodiversity. In each case, a strong regional–global linkage is likely, implying that dealing with the regional-level, distributional aspects of each of these planetary boundaries is necessary to stay within the global boundary.

Equality good for individual well-being
Moreover, a growing number of scientific studies at national and sub-national levels have shown that greater equality in income can lead to improved individual and social well-being, including life expectancy, homicide rates, education outcomes and mental illness.

Interestingly, these findings indicate that this is not only beneficial to society as a whole but also for the wealthy themselves. Actually, the wealthy in more equal nations have better social outcomes than the wealthy in more unequal nations. Taking this reasoning one step further, the new article suggests that reducing the difference in per capita resource use between rich and developing countries would be a critical step towards global sustainability that would enhance human well-being in both types of countries.

The authors acknowledge that achieving such a redistribution of resources or ecosystem services in today’s globalised, market-based economy is easier said than done. There are indeed many institutional and governance challenges in taking these steps.

Nonetheless, they identify a range of different economic and political mechanisms that might help to achieve this. These include technology transfer approaches, taxes on resource use in wealthy countries coupled with appropriate investments in developing countries, payments for ecosystem services such as forest protection, or global trust funds.

"Whatever mechanisms are adopted, the fundamental conclusion of our study is that it is likely to be in the self-interest of the wealthy nations to achieve a more spatially equitable world in terms of incomes and resource use," Will Steffen and Mark Stafford Smith conclude.

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citation

Citation

Steffen, W., M.S. Smith. 2013. Planetary boundaries, equity and global sustainability: why wealthy countries could benefit from more equity, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5:403-408, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2013.04.007

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