The sustainable development goals (SDGs) have been adopted by all United Nations (UN) member states as the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The SDGs, however, do not explicitly incorporate principles of environmental justice which recognize the right of every person to freely access natural resources and to participate in decisions that affect their environment. This leads to contradictions within and between the 17 goals. The most obvious contradiction is an attempt to achieve and measure sustainability within a capitalist system that values consumption and economic growth often at the expense of social and environmental well-being.

This article continues a series called "Science for Everyone", in which we provide accessible summaries of degrowth-related academic papers. This is a summary of the article by Menton and colleagues that was recently published in Sustainability Science (2020).

By Olga Koretskaya and Laura van Oers

SDG8 focuses on economic growth and contradicts many of the other goals, most notably SDG13 on climate action. The objective of SDG8 is to “sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7% gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries”. According to the UN, this is supposed to be possible without environmental collapse, by “improving progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation”.

The problem is, however, that at the global level (taking into account trade flows and displacement of environmental effects) there is no evidence of successful “decoupling” until now. Moreover, decoupling is not likely to occur in the next 12 years that are critical to turn the tide on climate change. Even 3% annual growth makes it impossible to drastically reduce resource use and carbon emissions to stay within the 2 °C warming limit.

A global increase in production and consumption, that supports economic growth,  negatively affects wildlife and natural ecosystems. Disproportionate burdens of environmental degradation are shouldered by marginalised communities, which impacts their access to clean water (SDG6), their health (SDG3), access to land for agriculture (SDG2), and, therefore, loss of livelihoods (SDG1).

SDG1 calls to address some of these issues by aiming “to ensure social protection for the poor and vulnerable, increase access to basic services, and support for people harmed by climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters.” SDG1 acknowledges some multi-dimensional aspects of poverty, stressing synergies in social protection, such as health (SDG3) and education (SDG4). However, SDG1 still centres on poverty primarily measured by income, shown in its target to: “by 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.”

Increased income cannot compensate easily or at all for the depletion of environmental resources or degradation of ecosystems including but not limited to water availability, water quality, forest biomass, soil fertility, topsoil and loss of biodiversity. To take a simple example, if a mine opens in a community and income increases from $0.75 to $1.25 a day, but the water is now polluted by tailings and women need to walk several kilometres to buy water for their household use, would it be just to consider that poverty had decreased?

SDG1 also does not address any of the structural factors that cause poverty, such as overconsumption, increased inequality, labour exploitation, dispossession and ecosystems’ destruction. A similar issue applies to climate change, conflict and food insecurity. If SDG1 addressed structural causes, a number of stronger governmental approaches needed to be proposed, for instance, reducing and eliminating uneven agricultural subsidies, recognising peasant sovereignty over seeds, stopping all land grabbing, regulating speculation on agricultural commodities and land reform.

Finally, while SDG1 calls for the mobilisation of aid and development resources from rich to poor countries, it does not address global dynamics such as trade rules, structural adjustment, debt burdens and so on. Poverty will not be meaningfully addressed, let alone eradicated, by financial transfers only. Structural solutions call for the dismantling of the international political and economic arrangements that systematically benefit the wealthy and disenfranchise the poor.

The interactions among the SDGs are complex, leading to a wide range of potential implications for environmental justice. The contradictions highlighted in the examples above emphasize the need to acknowledge global power relations and to move beyond a focus on economic growth (SDG8) and income-based indicators of poverty (SDG1) that mask the complex multi-dimensional nature of poverty and the conditions needed to ensure human well-being for all. The SDGs need an approach that questions the trade-offs and power challenges of moving toward a more sustainable and just society: a transition towards goals that are focused on values, solidarity, and diversity.

Original article:

Menton, M., Larrea, C., Latorre, S., Martinez-Alier, J., Peck, M., Temper, L., & Walter, M. (2020). Environmental justice and the SDGs: from synergies to gaps and contradictions. Sustainability Science, 1-16.

Full text can be found here

Authors of the blogpost:

Olga Koretskaya is a PhD researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and a member of the Dutch Degrowth Platform Her current research focuses on making practices in contemporary urban economies and their potential to facilitate sustainability transformation beyond capitalism.

Laura van Oers is a PhD researcher at Utrecht University (the Netherlands) and a member of the Dutch Degrowth Platform Laura studies CSA and permaculture as cases of radical grassroots innovation in the context of food and agriculture in the Netherlands.