Agenda 2030 Graduate School blog

Lund University Agenda 2030 Graduate School is a global, cutting-edge research school and collaboration platform for issues related to societal challenges, sustainability and the 2030 Agenda. The 17 PhD students from all faculties at Lund University enrolled with the Agenda 2030 Graduate School relate their specific research topics to the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog the PhD students of the Graduate School discuss topical research and societal issues related to the 2030 Agenda.

The tricky issue of sustainability and human wellbeing

Billboard signs of global goals on skyscrapers. Photo.
UN Photo: Manuel Elias

Posted on 7 January 2020 by Tanya Andersson Nystedt

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

Sustainability is a concept central to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  It is defined as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This definition covers two concepts – 1) that of need, which implies minimum levels as well as 2) limitations, which implies maximum levels. To date, most of the work on the SDGs have focused almost exclusively on the meeting of minimum requirements and needs and almost not at all on any upper limits, except when dealing with ecological concerns, and then to a very limited extent, in the form of emission caps or the phasing out of fossil fuels, for example.

So far, the mainstream discourse imagines that human development will be able to limit ecological damage without addressing the broader social and economic structures; that infinite economic growth is possible in a world with finite resources. This has been called “sustainable development” or “green growth” in which it is imagined the increase in material and energy use that has accompanied GDP growth can somehow be decoupled through increases in efficiency and effectiveness of production processes and a transition to renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this optimism. Research shows that while so-called green growth may bring gains in efficiency and effectiveness, these benefits are negated by increases in production and consumption. As a result, improvements in  efficiency and effectiveness actually increase resource and energy use. This is called the rebound effect. In fact, no country has achieved sustained decoupling of GDP growth from increased ecological footprints. It would seem that the continued global focus on GDP growth as a goal is inconsistent with saving our planet from catastrophic climate change.

What does this mean for human wellbeing?

That GDP is a problematic indicator to measure wellbeing is well known. However, it is widely accepted as the means to achieving improvements in human wellbeing and funding welfare, including adequate housing, water and sanitation, education, employment, health and welfare services. GDP is also central to the SDGs, even having its own goal (Goal 8) and contributing to all the others. What happens to human wellbeing without the conception of everlasting GDP growth? Most of the focus in the traditional development discourse has been about raising the levels of the poorest and most vulnerable – of meeting minimum criteria for human survival and wellbeing – of “leaving no one behind”. In a world with infinite GDP growth, improving the lives of the poorest has not required a trade-off; more for some has not meant that there is less for everyone else. Instead of having to “divide the pie,” we conceived of an ever-growing pie.

But this conception does not seem to reflect the reality in which we live. As such the “fairytales of eternal economic growth” as described by Greta Thunberg seem to be exactly that: a fairytale. In a world of limited resources, sustainability requires that we look beyond provision of minimum levels of those worst off to also address maximum levels of those best off. In order to ensure adequate resources to meet both the needs of current and future generations we do require a trade-off, and this trade-off implies redistribution – from the rich to the poor, from the global North to the global South, from the haves to the have nots. There is no country today that meets the welfare needs of its populations while living within the earth’s planetary boundaries  and this is clearly not sustainable, however we choose to look at it.

This reality, this approach to sustainability which takes into account absolute planetary limits, is not reflected in the very technical approach to sustainability and climate change being pursued at the moment. And even this depoliticised, technocratic approach seems to be more than the current global order can handle (for example, the outcome of the COP 25 in Madrid), despite the imminent existential threat of catastrophic climate change. Is the economic and social transformation required by this conception of sustainability even possible under the current social and economic power structures? And if not, are our current aspirations “good enough”? 

January 7, 2020

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