17 February 2021
No Easy Way to End Poverty Within Planetary Boundaries, But Solutions Exist
Photo Credit: Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash
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An IISD briefing paper explores the evolving understanding of how poverty and environment are linked, with three current crises – climate change, conflict, and COVID-19 – prompting a reassessment of efforts to address the two.

The author considers solutions to the challenge of ending poverty without exceeding planetary boundaries and causing irreparable environmental harm.

The 'Still Only One Earth' series is being published in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.

A briefing paper from IISD’s ‘Still Only One Earth’ Series explores the evolving understanding of how poverty and environment are linked, with three current crises – climate change, conflict, and COVID-19 – prompting a reassessment of efforts to address the two. Author Delia Paul also considers solutions to the challenge of ending poverty without exceeding planetary boundaries and causing irreparable environmental harm.

The brief titled, ‘Merging the Poverty and Environment Agendas,’ by Delia Paul provides a historical overview of development thinking, showing how it has gradually accounted for environmental challenges in a more realistic way. In 1972, the Action Plan resulting from the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden “reflected dominant development thinking at the time,” that development was a primarily economic issue measurable in changes to GDP, and therefore the key to alleviating poverty was access to international markets. At that time, the idea that the Earth’s resources had hard limits “was sidelined,” Paul writes. This shifted thanks to the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland commission), which popularized the definition of sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This “successfully married concerns for human development and environmental sustainability,” says Paul, while lacking specific markers.

The SDGs combine environmental and poverty eradication aims more concretely than ever before.

Additional global conferences elaborated on the relationship between poverty and the environment, leading to the understanding that poverty reduction is an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, and natural resources must be managed in a way that will maintain productivity and production of goods. In 2012 governments agreed on the need for a set of universal goals to address in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development (social, economic, and environmental) and their interlinkages. This call resulted in the UN General Assembly’s 2015 adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 SDG, which combine environmental and poverty eradication aims more concretely than ever before, with 169 targets and 231 indicators for measuring progress.

Despite these decades of work, people are still in poverty and the Earth’s ecosystems are near collapse, which will make everyone poorer. In the meantime, poverty can lead to trading off long-term environmental quality for short-term resource decisions. All three crises illustrate this overlap, Paul explains with sections on climate change, conflict, and COVID-19.

Paul concludes that two lessons from these challenges are that land, water, forests, and biodiversity are not just resources to serve human development without awareness of the limits of the Earth’s systems. Second, food, energy, and household incomes cannot reach acceptable levels for everyone without overstepping planetary boundaries; thus “there is no silver bullet to ending poverty” without crossing those boundaries and causing irreparable environmental harm.

However, some changes could help:

  • Avoid excessive resource consumption by the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population. Policies could include taxes on luxury items that consume large amounts of energy, such as private jets, second homes, and yachts. Tax breaks could be used to encourage recycling and repairing consumer goods rather than replacing them with new ones.
  • Measure and communicate changes in poverty levels, environmental impacts, and the relationships between the two.
  • Shift governments’ focus and outward communication away from gross domestic product (GDP) and jobs numbers, and towards indices of national wellbeing that include the historically marginalized and the environment.

The ‘Still Only One Earth’ series is being published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The briefs assess successes and shortcomings of five decades of global environmental policy, focusing on biodiversitywildlife tradesustainable energyfinance and technologyclimate change, and plastic pollution, among other issues. [Publication: Merging the Poverty and Environment Agendas] [Still Only One Earth policy brief series

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