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Rethinking Growth and Sustainable Development

J. Mijin Cha

Ahead of the 20th UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June, Oxfam has released a discussion paper that presents a model that could help eradicate poverty while at the same time is environmentally sustainable. The paper addresses the very real tension between needing economic growth to bring development to impoverished areas and lift people out of poverty, and needing to decrease resource consumption as we are rapidly reaching our boundaries.

The paper argues that there is a space in which social justice concerns and economic development can co-exist in a manner that brings people out of poverty in an environmentally sustainable way. The visual representation is below.

Figure 1. A safe and just space for humanity to thrive in: a first illustration

Source: Oxfam. The 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative and are based on governments’ priorities for Rio+20. The nine dimensions of the environmental ceiling are based on the planetary boundaries set out by Rockström et al (2009b)

Moving into this sustainable space takes fewer resources than you may think. We’ve highlighted how there are, in fact, enough resources but because consumption levels are so high and resources are distributed so inequitably, we end up with shortages. Oxfam breaks it down further and the results are stark:

  • Just 1 percent of the current global food supply would provide the needed calories for the 13 percent of the population facing hunger
  • Bringing electricity to those that currently lack it could be achieved with less than a 1 per cent increase in global CO2 emissions
  • Ending income poverty for the 21 per cent of the global population who live on less than $1.25 a day would require just 0.2 per cent of global income.

And, most of the resources are consumed by the richest populations:

  • Roughly half of all global carbon emissions are generated by just 11 percent of people
  • 57 per cent of global income is in the hands of just 10 per cent of people
  • A third of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for people in the EU, even though they make up just seven per cent of the world’s population.

Exacerbating these trends is the heavy reliance on GDP and how it assesses growth, and in turn progress, through monetary terms alone. As we’ve pointed out, GDP does not take environmental degradation, income inequality, or a number of other issues that keep people in poverty into account. Yet, it is the dominent measure of growth and progress, even though it is poorly suited to accurately reflect the issues facing economies today. Indeed, GDP is unable to reflect the importance of sustainable development because it focuses solely on growth and development, regardless of whether it is sustainable or not.

The idea of infinite growth at whatever cost is quickly becoming obsolete due to both planetary constraints and the lack of progress for many people, indicating that growth does not equal progress. New metrics are needed to provide a more complete picture of economic and social progress. The Oxfam visualization is a strong start and hopefully indicative of what's to come.