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That Way Lies Prosperity: Sustainability and the Nexus

Feb 7, 2017 | Blog

Dr Adam Hejnowicz, University of York

Sustainable Definitions

Sustainable Development and its relative Sustainability, concepts which have a rich history of appeal and animosity, have nevertheless become the dominant conversation framing environment-development policy in recent decades.

The most recent version of Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2012 reads as follows:

“We also reaffirm the need to achieve sustainable development by: promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, creating greater opportunities for all, reducing inequalities, raising basic standards of living; fostering equitable social development and inclusion; and promoting integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems that support inter alia economic, social and human development while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration and restoration and resilience in the face of new and merging challenges.”

By crafting Sustainable Development in this way emphasis is placed on concerns about the “global economy”, the processes that underpin it and the implications economic behaviour has for social and environmental outcomes, but it also addresses the important dimensions of “social interactions”, “Earth systems” and the problems of “governance”. This reflects quite closely the view of Sustainable Development championed by the development economist Jeffery Sach’s:

“…a way to understand the world as a complex interaction of economic, social, environmental and political systems. Yet it is also a normative or ethical view of the world, a way to define the objectives of a well-functioning society, one that delivers wellbeing for its citizens today and for future generations. The basic point of sustainable development in that normative sense is that it urges us to have a holistic vision of what a good society should be.”

It is quite obvious then that Sustainable Development and Sustainability are not simple constructs, but in fact are complex, multi-dimensional concepts representing the influences of multiple political and philosophical viewpoints, discourses, disciplines and sectors.

In what follows we briefly cover the many facets of Sustainable Development/Sustainability, its links with nexus issues and the path to prosperity.

Environment and Sustainability

The accumulating evidence clearly indicates that human activities are adversely affecting planetary systems: exceeding fundamental biophysical thresholds often referred to as “planetary boundaries”, changing climatic conditions and seriously undermining the long-term sustainability of human societies. This is occurring at such an unprecedented speed and scale that some believe we have entered a new human-induced geological era, the so-called “Anthropocene”: characterized by regime shifts in bio-geophysical systems and the potential exit from our Holocene conditions.

The drivers of these system level changes include climate change, land-use conversion, pollution, invasive species introductions and disruption of biogeochemical cycling propagated by human material consumption. In the Modern-era, causality suggests that it is the consumption patterns, resource demands and trade policies of largely developed capitalist economies that bear the largest responsibility for destabilizing the functional capacity of ecosystems; many of which are located in least-developed and middle income countries, leading to the widespread erosion of ecosystem health in those regions. The consequences can be severe. By the year 2000, for example, 75% of global terrestrial habitats had been significantly transformed (to some extent) by human activity, and according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 60% of the ecosystem services evaluated were suffering from degradation or overexploitation.

In 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity signed-up to a new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020). This Strategic Plan included the Aichi 2020 Targets. Targets designed to focus on halting biodiversity loss in a manner coupled to human-wellbeing. Progress towards achieving these targets has, in general, been relatively slow for a variety of economic, political, social and environmental reasons, in addition, to a lack of joined-up thinking regarding how to meet multiple targets simultaneously. Yet, the importance of the Aichi 2020 Targets does not reside simply in their benefits for biodiversity, ecosystem services and natural resources if achieved, but also their capacity to achieve the Post-2015 sustainable development settlement.

Social and Economic Sustainability

The drive for Sustainable Development as we noted earlier is not simply an issue revolving around environmental transformation. It is also about the significant upheaval in the lived-experiences of people and society facing considerable social, economic and political inequalities exacerbated by the burdens of uneven development within and across nations which affects all aspects of human-wellbeing, including: income, health, education, poverty, governance, and livelihoods. Significant global improvements in life expectancy, health, sanitation, gains against infectious disease, universal primary education and wealth have been achieved in the last two decades. Yet despite these impressive gains 850 million people still suffer from hunger; 740 million lack access to clean drinking water; 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation; 383 million live on less than US$1.25/day and almost half of humanity resides in degraded coastal areas.

Social inclusion (e.g. issues that concern prosperity, discrimination, equality and social mobility) is a growing problem. Across the world, there are great divisions between and within societies: Gini coefficients indicate widespread income inequalities within and between rich nations as well as between rich and poor nations. The significance of these income inequalities is that they cut across core human rights, such as the right to life and good health, as well as across ethnic groups – they lay bare the cracks in society. Virtually 75% of the world’s population now lives in societies where the distribution of income is more unequal than it was just two decades ago. The insidious nature of income inequality means that it associates and feeds into other forms of inequality such as health but also gender, education and identity as well as affecting long-term economic growth.

Conflict and Sustainability

Conflict and political instability are global geopolitical issues that actively undermine the goals of Sustainable Development, frequently having detrimental impacts on the social and economic development as well as the natural resource bases of the poorest nations. For instance, inter- and intra-state conflict can be damaging to biodiversity as a consequence of altering natural resource use behaviours and consumption patterns. Conflicts also severely undermine peoples’ livelihoods and security. Deteriorating social conditions, rising civil disturbance and violence dramatically alter household activities; increase family mortality rates; restrict access to basic services; reduce incomes and employment opportunities; undermine infrastructure and strengthen local community dependence on natural resource exploitation profoundly affecting social-ecological sustainability.

The myriad ways conflicts degrade broader ecological sustainability include enhanced forest and natural resource exploitation; land conversion; the creation of poaching opportunities and nascent wildlife trade and timber economies and the transformation of local livelihood strategies in ways that continue to have post-conflict environmental legacies. Conversely, adequately managing natural resources can provide a route to effective peacebuilding (i.e. social reintegration and reconciliation) by supporting economic growth, creating employment opportunities and securing a pathway for livelihood recovery.

Governance and Sustainability

Moving out of extreme poverty requires proper political processes and governance: good governance, exercised through formal and informal institutional mechanisms (e.g. norms, laws etc.), underpins the foundation of a stable society and economic development. Effective government is central to building capacity, providing basic infrastructure and public services, ensuring the rule of law, framing and upholding rights, regulating the economy and enhancing social and economic mobility. When these areas go awry, are undermined or fail to function altogether then the outcomes for the vast majority are poor, and what frequently follows includes high rates of unemployment, poor health conditions and civil unrest.

Fostering good governance is central to inclusive and responsive development strategies, especially for reducing inequalities and conflict and enhancing the political participation of social groups, particularly those located on the margins of society. Governance is also fundamental to environmental sustainability because it supports and legitimizes the establishment of property rights and rules of ownership regarding the use of natural resources, it provides institutions and decision-making arenas for the development of natural resource policy, and it can affect whether transformative routes are taken to deliver an equitable and sustainable flow of ecosystem services.

The Nexus, Wellbeing and Sustainability

Food Security

Agriculture represents a crucial life support system intimately connected to experiences of poverty and economic development. For instance, agriculture generates 10% of GDP in low and middle-income countries, and in low income countries 80% of rural households depend on agriculture as their primary source of revenue. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the agricultural sector employs 65% of the labour force and makes annual contributions of over a third of GDP in two-thirds of countries. Also of significance is the role played by women; across low and middle-income countries they represent 43% of the agricultural workforce: though in comparison to their male counterparts they often face a number of social, economic and market constraints.

Many agricultural communities regularly face food security issues particularly in the form of undernourishment. This is why a thriving agricultural sector can have far reaching socio-economic impacts, for example, in terms of increasing food production, incomes, and profitability; expanding the local farming economy; stimulating on-farm and off-farm job creation; contributing to wider economic growth via links to upstream and downstream non-farm sectors, and generating development trajectories that favour poorer sectors of society. A functioning agriculture sector is much more effective at tackling poverty than non-agricultural sectors in the poorest communities, reducing poverty by up to 52%.

However, as demand for agriculture has grown, year on year for decades, the environmental consequences of intensification and extensification have been significant. This is especially the case with regards to the consequences of substantial land conversions and land use change, extensive application of fertilizers and pesticides, and excessive groundwater extraction. The results have been damaging and wide ranging. Some notable examples include deforestation and forest degradation with concomitant loss of biodiversity and increased soil erosion, declines in water quality and more frequent water shortages, as well as enhanced greenhouse gas emissions and changes in biogeochemical cycles.

Yet, at the same time, somewhat ironically, biodiversity is crucial in supporting food production and ensuring food quality. First, agro-biodiversity provides a wide array of food sources and types and underlies a healthy diet. Second, genetic diversity is essential for promoting a resilient food system particularly in the face of extreme climate change. And third, biodiversity underpins essential pollination; nutrient cycling and pest regulation services all of which are under threat.

Water Security

Water is an essential resource, essential for life, yet access to basic water infrastructure, to water that is clean and readily available, is for many a luxury and not a right. Countries experiencing the most extreme water security-related issues include many in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Chad, Nigeria, Angola), Central Asia (e.g. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) and South and East Asia (e.g. China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea). Transforming this reality represents a pathway out of poverty and towards a sustainable and secure future, because the lack of access to secure water sources is a major source of ill-health (particularly for women and children), a loss of income and detrimental to long-term economic sustainability.

Looking ahead, water security is and will be a major global challenge for a number of reasons including: growing domestic and industrial demand; rising population and demographic changes (especially in low and middle-income countries, but also in China and India); increased consumption (especially from agriculture); widening inequalities (such as social exclusion); environmental drivers of change (especially climate change and deforestation); alterations to the world’s hydrological cycle; overexploitation of ground water sources; conflict and weak governance.

According to some researchers two principal challenges will define the future of global water security over the next few decades: (i) how to ensure that by 2050 9 billion people will be able to have access to efficient water-related services (e.g, water conservation, water recycling, optimizing water production, focusing on the water-energy-food nexus) and; (ii) how best to manage and mitigate the variety of water-related threats to society (e.g. focusing on water quality and quantity, identifying tipping points).

Energy Security

Demand for energy is increasing; at local, regional and global scales energy consumption is increasing and alongside that so are demands for natural resources. Some projections suggest that energy usage with grow by 33% up to 2040 driven in particular by the domestic production and consumption patterns in China, India, Southeast Asia and parts of the Middle East and Africa. During the same period, due to increased energy efficiency and economic and demographic changes energy consumption by OECD countries is set to decline.

The overall rise in energy demand and supply, and its regional variation, has significant implication of poverty reduction, social cohesion, long-term economic development and environmental sustainability. It still remains the case that universal access to commercial energy is still largely an aspiration of the future, and in many parts of Africa and Asia the lack of appropriate electrification is having significant social and economic impacts particular in terms of enabling the provision of basic services such as health and education.

Energy security will be dictated over the next couple of decades by developments in China and India in particular, but also across low and middle-income countries more broadly, as their changing energy demands and infrastructure requirements influence production and consumption in key energy sectors (e.g. coal, gas, oil, and renewables). In the long-term energy derived from coal is set to decline while energy from renewable sources such as hydro-power is set to increase. Many developing countries are net importers of energy – some countries spend almost half their export earning on importing energy – with such high import dependency they are also open to the capricious and volatile nature of energy prices: securing long-term affordable, clean and reliable energy sources will be central to achieving development trajectories.

Sustainability: Moving Forwards

Providing solutions to these broad challenges will require interdisciplinary research and cross-sector collaboration, with a focus on social-environmental and socio-economic impacts, and a multi-scalar approach. But, on a more practical note, it will also require adequate funding and investment, the political will and sound and effective integrated government policies involving both the private and voluntary sectors. Thankfully, there have been renewed calls to tackle human-environment problems in a holistic manner under the auspices of a new “global sustainability” agenda. At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015 this new framework emerged as the “2030 Agenda for Sustainability”.

Integral to achieving this aim and the 2030 Agenda are the 17 goals and 169 targets that make up the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The success of the SDGs will depend on the extent to which they align with existing international agreements and processes (e.g. Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction), how effectively they are implemented (e.g. need to optimize synergies between goals and targets and reduce potential trade-offs), and the degree to which progress in each of the goals and targets is measurable and verifiable (e.g. adequacy of indicators). At present only 29% of targets are considered well developed, 54% are considered to be in the “could be strengthened” bracket, with a further 17% requiring “significant work”.

Nevertheless, the SDGs do have the potential to transform economic, social and environmental sustainability. Adopting a nexus approach to the way the SDGs are implemented provides a route that supports the idea that reducing poverty and improving social and environmental sustainability necessitates the crystallization of poverty-environment linkages in policy formulation, implementation, evaluation and budgeting processes across spatio-temporal scales. This provides the catalyst for us to think much more boldly of new, more radical ways, to shape a sustainable future: one that leads to prosperity for all!




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