Oxfam’s Sarah Best: The Challenge for Rio

From our Rio+20 pamphlet published earlier this month ahead of the Conference, Oxfam GB's Sarah Best set out the challenge for Rio and introduces 'doughnut economics' - living within the Earth's planetary and social boundaries. You can read Oxfam GB's response to the summit here.

The human race is living beyondits means. The lifestyles and choices made by the wealthiest threaten all our future security and prosperity, while a billion people go to bed hungry every night. And without action, this crisis will only intensify. As the population continues to rise, Rio+20 is about how we will achieve prosperity and security and well-being for nine billion people, in a world of finite resources and environmental limits. Summit themes don’t come more important than that.


We cannot continue to live as we are now. This is true for the poorest people – the 13% of the global population who are undernourished, or the 30% without access to essential medicines. They must be able to develop out of poverty and live better. They need to be able to consume more of the world’s resources. But to do that we need to work out how we in the developed world can consume less. Many of the ways we live today are increasing inequality, creating greater poverty and using up the earth’s limited natural resources – including the fertile land, stable climate and fresh water on which we all rely.

At the centre of all this is food. The planet can support enough food production to feed us all today, but still but one billion go hungry every night. Last year Oxfam GB along with the 15 other Oxfams around the world launched a global campaign, GROW, to highlight the broken food system and work with others to fix it. The campaign has focused on some of the key injustices which keep people poor, use up the world’s resources unsustainably, and ultimately prevent people from being able to eat enough food. In particular, issues like the increasing use of biofuels, “landgrabs”, un-transparent, volatile trading in food commodity markets and climate change – which is hitting the poorest first and hardest, despite their having done the least to contribute to its causes. At the root of many of these issues is an unequal demand for resources. If we are to cease “grabbing” land, burning food for fuel, and prizing an immediate financial return over sustainable food prices and changing the climate we need to address consumption and resource use in the West – decoupling these from growth.

Can Rio+20 deliver on this ambitious agenda? The 1992 Rio Summit was a milestone that delivered new treaties on climate change and biodiversity as well as a global action plan on sustainable development (Agenda 21). Twenty years on, the challenges are greater than ever. But, worryingly, little has emerged in the last 4 months of negotiations that will deliver anywhere near the scale of action we need.

It is not too late: with political leadership from UK and others, we can get agreements that help re-orientate the global economy towards the needs of the poorest, whilst respecting environmental limits. For Oxfam, there are three priorities for Rio:

• First, a strong commitment that binds all countries to work towards a single set of global goals for post 2015 period (when the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals expires), aimed at ending poverty and inequality, and realising human rights, whilst respecting the earth’s environmental limits.

• Second, on sustainable food and farming, we need new commitments for more and better investment and support in small-scale farmers and producers, particularly women. This is in order to increase productivity, help them cope with a changing climate, and regenerate the living systems – like healthy air, water, land and soils – on which our food security depends.

• Third, we need fair and lasting energy solutions that cut greenhouse gas pollution globally and put the last fast by delivering energy to the millions without access to it. And we need renewed commitments to tackle climate change globally in ways that are fair for all countries.

Outside formal negotiations, Rio+20 can inspire action and conversations at home in the UK, which we can all join in with. Front and centre must be ideas to change our concept of human progress, and think through the implications for what we call growth in the rich world – and development in poorer countries.

Achieving sustainable development for nine billion people has to be high on the list of humanity’s great uncharted journeys. To help find a way through, Oxfam’s Kate Raworth has suggested a global “compass” – a framework to help policy makers at Rio and beyond ask the right questions. A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? [http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/a-safeand-just-space-for-humanity-can-welive-within-the-doughnut-210490]

This new visual framework brings together existing ideas of planetary boundaries (a set of nine Earth-system processes like freshwater use, climate regulation, and the nitrogen cycle that are critical for keeping this planet in the stable state) together with social foundations, below which lies unacceptable human deprivation.

Falling far below the social foundation

These social floors suggested in this framework are based on the eleven issues raised by governments in their submissions to Rio, so provide a good indicator of the emerging 21st Century consensus on unacceptable depravation. They incorporate levels of income poverty, use of natural resources such as water and energy as well as measurements such as social equity.

Just as earth scientists have estimated that we have already dangerously transgressed three of the planetary boundaries, Kate shows that we are falling below the social foundation for at least eight of the social floors (drawing on some indicative, widely-used metrics).

Between the planetary ceiling and these social foundation lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which is the safe and just space for humanity to thrive in. The 21st century’s unprecedented journey is to move into that space from both sides: to eradicate poverty and inequity for all, within the means of the planet’s limited resources.

In framing the debate in such a way, in asking the question “how can we live within the doughnut”, some conclusions emerge that Rio must tackle:

Firstly: The overriding priority must be to raise people above these basic social floors. It is the rich, not the poor who are stressing the planet and so this can be done without transgressing planetary boundaries. Providing the additional calories needed by the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just one percent of the current global food supply and bringing electricity to the 19% of people who currently lack it could be achieved with a less than one percent increase in global CO2 emissions.

Secondly: A blinkered focus on GDP growth has failed to end deprivation and to sustain natural resources. 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. At the G20 meeting in Mexico countries will be talking about sustainable, inclusive growth, and discussions about new measures of planetary and social well-being ‘beyond GDP’ are in the frame for Rio+20. In many cases, we know what policies, regulations and investment shifts needed – but we’ve yet to see these adopted in the transformative way needed in any country or region.

So what should actually happen at Rio? A front-runner idea, first proposed by Colombia but now attracting broader support, including from the UK, is for Rio to kick-start a process to agree Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – new global goals that orientate us towards human development and ecological preservation.

With the timeframe of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) due to expire in 2015, and with the recognition that they have not done enough to focus attention on key issues such as equity, or environmental sustainability, new global goals are needed. Leaders at Rio should issue a strong commitment that binds all countries to work towards them.

It’s vital to give this initiative the right start, with the right vision, scale of ambition and – crucially – an inclusive, joined-up process for defining and agreeing the goals. With reports in the UK suggesting that the Prime Minister will chair a panel to advise the UN secretary general on the future of the MDGs, the UK clearly has an instrumental role to play here.

For a start, there needs to be a single process, bringing together thinking on SDGs and MDGs. There also needs strong southern ownership. The MDGs were criticized for being primarily conceived by countries of the global north that have often used them to set aid priorities and to measure the performance of governments in the global south. As a result, the MDGs failed to tackle the deeper structural causes of poverty. Just as critically, southern civil society felt a lack of ownership of the goals, which weakened the pressure for action and accountability at national level – so essential to securing lasting change. A more inclusive process means Southern co-leadership of any UN panels set up and financial support for civil society in the south to help them carry out their own independent reflection and mobilisation on this – not simply an invitation to participate in UN consultations.

It’s also important at the outset – at Rio – to establish that these goals (whatever they end up being called) must be genuinely global and apply to all countries, not just poor countries. The next set of global goals must have poverty eradication at the front and center, but they must also address inequality and exclusion, and re-orientate economic development to stay within critical natural resource thresholds.

Ambitious goals for richer countries which require them to tackle their resource use and consumption footprint are vital. If countries such as the UK can show leadership at Rio by signaling their commitment to take on such goals this could help reassure developing countries that this is not just another set of obligations on the South – but instead the exciting prospect of setting a truly shared global agenda.

There are some concrete wins and important processes to be gained from Rio if we raise the level of ambition – whether it’s around new goals for beyond 2015, or specific commitments that deliver food security and sustainable energy for all.

The UK is going to have to continue to show political leadership to get a good outcome at Rio, particularly engaging with countries that could really make the difference such as India and Brazil.

Aside from multilateral action, Rio is most important as a wake-up call for national governments. The national actions that it could trigger could be transformative: The Kyoto Protocol (adopted at the climate talks in Kyoto in 1997) is the key reason many countries have made a major effort to reduce carbon emissions and to invest in renewable energy. And the G8 in Gleneagles was a critical factor in securing an additional £19 billion in spending on development from 2005-10.

Rio has to be a call to action. If it can frame the right debate – if it can ask the right questions – national governments can start to make the radical changes needed to ensure a bright future for us, and our planet.

Sarah Best is Policy Advisor: Low Carbon Development at Oxfam GB 

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