The Earth Commission is a global team of scientists with the mission to define a safe and just corridor for people and planet. Future Earth is a global network of scientists, researchers, and innovators collaborating for a more sustainable planet. Future Earth hosts the Earth Commission and its scientific secretariat.
The “Impacts of Meeting Minimum Access on Critical Earth Systems amidst the Great Inequality” study concludes that redistributing resources and transforming society are key to ensuring universal access to basic needs while staying within Earth’s limits. These transformations include redistribution and improvements to water, food, infrastructure and energy provisioning systems.
The study asked: what additional pressures would be on the Earth system in 2018, if adequate minimum access to food, water, energy and infrastructure was achieved? The authors defined ‘just access’ as minimum per capita requirements to allow people to lead a dignified life and escape poverty. Their analysis showed increased pressures on the Earth’s natural systems, raising greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent, while raising water and land use, and nutrient pollution by 2-5 per cent.
The University of Regina’s Dr. Margot Hurlbert is a co-author and says she’s honoured to have contributed to the article. “Achieving minimum access to resources by operationalizing the Sustainable Development Goals puts further pressures on the Earth system. Hypothetical impacts required for redistribution to achieve 'just access' for one-third of humanity equals those caused by the wealthiest 1-4 per cent of the world’s population. This means to achieve 'just access' we must change how resources are redistributed—and we must do it quickly," says Hurlbert, who is a Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, Energy and Sustainability Policy and a professor at the U of R’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
The research also provides scientific evidence that in order to achieve societal and environmental goals, it is the wealthy (who appropriate the bulk of Earth’s resources and ecosystems—not those escaping poverty) who need to undergo transformative change. The authors, therefore, link the ‘Great Acceleration’ of rapid increases in human-driven environmental impacts with a ‘Great Inequality’.
Lead author, Crelis Rammelt, Environmental Geography and Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Earth Commission says the team’s research is important because many people assume that meeting the needs of the poorest is possible without major redistributions and transformations in society.
“We show that in 2018—so with 2018 levels of inequalities, technologies and behaviors—providing dignified lives for the poor would have led to further crossing of Earth system boundaries, especially for climate. However, it is important to frame these potential impacts in the context of wider inequalities in resource use and environmental impacts today. It is the wealthy who appropriate the bulk of the Earth’s resources, not the poor,” says Rammelt.
Co-author Chukwumeriej Okereke, Alex Ekwueme Federal University Nigeria researcher and Earth Commission member says, "The research is significant because it shows that the aching poverty and inequality suffered by people in the global South can be addressed to provide a meaningful life for all, without transgressing key Earth system boundaries and thresholds.
"Rather than asking poor countries of the world to tighten their belts or make do without, as some in the North often tend to suggest, the emphasis should be on promoting ideals of global distributive justice and systematic transformations that will enhance wealth and opportunities for the poor,” he says.
This new research comes ahead of an associated Earth Commission report due out in early 2023 that will outline a range of ‘Earth System Boundaries’ (ESBs) to safeguard a stable and resilient planet and underpin the setting of science-based targets for businesses, cities and governments.
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The University of Regina—with campuses located on Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territories, the ancestral lands of the Cree, Saulteaux, Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda nations and the homeland of the Métis—is a comprehensive, mid-sized university that traces its roots back to the creation of Regina College in 1911. Today, more than 16,000 students study within the University's 10 faculties, 25 academic departments/schools, 18 research centres and institutes, and three federated colleges (Campion College, First Nations University of Canada, and Luther College). The University of Regina has an established reputation for excellence and innovative programs that lead to undergraduate, master, and doctoral degrees.