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Scientists: Degradation of Planet 'Undermines' Poverty Eradication

New report calls on countries to combine environmental and development goals

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

A farmer in the Lobesa valley of Bhutan, which pledges to be the first 100% organic country. (Photo: 10b Travelling via Flickr)

"Degradation of the natural world is undermining efforts to reduce poverty," scientists warn in a new article published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

The only way we can achieve a "thriving global society" and mitigate the combined effects of environmental destruction and global poverty, the authors write in Policy: Sustainable Development Goals for People and Planet, is for international policymakers to adopt new targets that combine the need for planetary stability with poverty alleviation goals.

"Humans are transforming the planet in ways that could undermine any development gains," says lead author Professor David Griggs of Australia's Monash University.

"Mounting research shows that the stable functioning of Earth systems – including the atmosphere, oceans, forests, waterways, biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles – is a prerequisite for a thriving global society," added co-author Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center.

This call comes in the wake of a meeting last week of the United Nations' working group on sustainable development to discuss new international targets to implement after the internationally agreed-upon poverty alleviation targets, millennium development goals (MDG), run out in 2015.

The researchers argue that, in the face of increasing global degradation, the "classic model" of sustainable development as three integrated pillars—economic, social and environmental—does not reflect reality and jeopardizes any potential progress that could be made.

"As the global population increases towards nine billion people, sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth's life support system, not as three pillars," says co-author Dr. Priya Shyamsundar from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics in Nepal.

Rather, they propose, a set of global environmental targets should be combined with the UN's MDGs to create new "sustainable development goals" (SDGs). Focusing on a set of six goals, the researchers urge policymakers to "embrace a unified environmental and social framework [...] so that today's advances in development are not lost as our planet ceases to function for the benefit of a global population."

The Guardian summarizes the researchers' six proposed SDGs:

Goal one: Thriving lives and livelihoods.

End poverty and improve wellbeing through access to education, employment and information, better health and housing. It should include targets on clean air that build on World Health Organisation guidelines for pollutants such as black carbon.


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Goal two: Sustainable food security.

The MDG hunger target should be extended and targets added to limit nitrogen and phosphorus use in agriculture; phosphorus flow to the oceans should not exceed 10m tonnes a year; and phosphorus runoff to lakes and rivers should halve by 2030.

Goal three: Sustainable water security.

Achieve universal access to clean water and basic sanitation. This would contribute to MDG health targets, restrict global water runoff to less than 4,000 cubic kilometres a year and limit volumes withdrawn from river basins to no more than 50-80% of mean annual flow.

Goal four: Universal clean energy.

Improve affordable access to clean energy that minimises local pollution and health impacts and mitigates global warming. This contributes to the UN commitment to sustainable energy for all, and addresses MDG targets on education, gender equity and health.

Goal five: Healthy and productive ecosystems.

Sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services through better management, valuation, measurement, conservation and restoration. Extinctions should not exceed 10 times the natural background rate. At least 70% of species in any ecosystem and 70% of forests should be retained.

Goal six: Governance for sustainable societies.

Transform governance and institutions at all levels to address the other five sustainable development goals. This would build on MDG partnerships and incorporate environmental and social targets into global trade, investment and finance. Subsidies on fossil fuels and policies that support unsustainable agricultural and fisheries practices should be eliminated by 2020.

The research was done in association with Future Earth, an international research program designed to "develop the knowledge required for societies worldwide to face challenges posed by global environmental change and to identify opportunities for a transition to global sustainability."


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