Ever since I published my blog post ‘System Change not Climate Change’, I have felt slightly unsatisfied. Sure, I dare say my analysis of the failures of the current economic system was pretty accurate. But I fell short on the solution side of the story. After 21 paragraphs on what is wrong with free market capitalism, I did not get farther than 2 paragraphs on a possible way out. Because I didn’t see one.

The absence of a feasible alternative at hand should not withhold me – or anyone else – from criticising the shortcomings of society. But truth be told, this blog is all about finding a sensible answer to the climate challenge and I would very much like to succeed at that.

Therefore, I am revisiting my conclusion of the article I – somewhat hesitantly – threw at the world nearly three months ago. Finding my way in the web of interdependencies between science, economics, politics, and human psychology is by no means an easy task. But we are not here for a PhD defence, as a close friend pointed out recently. So, we’ll take it in manageable bites. Paso a paso, as my Spanish teacher used to tell me when I lived in Barcelona.

The Planetary Boundaries

The diligent reader of my blogs will remember that, as a first step, I called for a global stock tacking of Earth’s replenishable resources and the extent to which we are using them. To demand system change without knowing within which boundaries the new system should be defined, is like a professor flunking you without explaining where the mistakes are. Difficult to improve.

Luckily, some scientists had figured that out long before me. Ten years ago, Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre led an international group of scientists to identify the most important processes that regulate the stability and resilience of our planet’s system. Think a stable climate, fertile soils, a protective ozone layer. They concluded there are nine of them in total, all driven by one or more variables. These variables, they found, should be kept within reasonable limits to avoid disruption of the process in question. The concept of Planetary Boundaries was born.

The idea is simple enough. Take the ozone layer, a blanket that protects humans and ecosystems from harmful UV-radiation. If ozone levels in the higher atmosphere drop under 95% of pre-industrial levels, we are screwed, according to Rockstrom’s team. We should avoid depleting it by all means. And although we gave the ozone layer a hard time in the second half of the previous century, luckily it is now recovering well after we stopped attacking it with harmful chemicals leaking out of our fridges.

Other processes are portraying a more dire trend though. Biodiversity loss is at such high levels that even people who usually don’t care about the animal world utter that ‘trop est trop’. Humans have kicked off the 6th mass extinction period in the long history of our planet. And that’s not a thing to be proud of, ladies and gentlemen. We are very far above the acceptable Planetary Boundary of 10 extinctions per million species per year (for the initiated: 10 E/MSY).

The picture below gives the state of affairs. As indicated by the yellow colour, for four processes we are at least in the danger zone (climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, and biochemical flows). But if we act quickly we have a good chance we limit the damage. With respect to nitrogen and phosphorus leakage to the biosphere and extinction of species, we are in such bad papers that irreversible effects are already unavoidable. For example, nitrogen has been overused as fertilizer in intensive agriculture for years. Via run-off, it found its way into our rivers and oceans at such high levels that it creates dead zones where no marine life can survive.

The nine planetary processes that ensure a stable and resilient functioning of Earth’s systems, and their driving variables (Credit: J. Lokrantz/Azote)

What is so great about the principle of Planetary Boundaries is that it allows us to give it to policymakers and ask them to do something they love doing: budgeting. Now that we know how much fresh water, carbon emissions, farmland, and ozone depletion we can afford within the replenishable means of the planet, we can set out a trajectory to go back to a healthy Planetary balance sheet.

The green transition shall be just, or it won’t be

Once you become a planetary accountant, it soon becomes clear we are burning cash at a rate even Elon Musk can’t keep up with. Emissions cash, fertile soil cash, biodiversity cash. It is the duty of an accountant at that point to ask the board: can we keep on consuming and producing as we currently are? Is business-as-usual (a.k.a. growth before everything) still maintainable within our budget?

Obviously, that is a rhetoric question. With a few billion people eagerly waiting for their chance to move up the welfare ladder and acquire TVs, cars, and clothes in somewhat comparable amounts to the Western world, the current economic paradigm will lead the picture above turn completely orange before we reach the second half of this century. A more pertinent question arises: is there an economic model in which we rhyme the Planetary Boundaries and everybody’s needs?

Again, I can count on the brainwork of others. Kate Raworth introduced ‘the Doughnut’ in her book Doughnut Economics in 2017. What the hell is ‘the Doughnut’, you ask? It is the sweet spot for mankind, where we fulfil life’s essentials without overshooting our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting processes. Indeed, the doughnut defines not one, but two, boundaries: a planetary and a social one. Based on the minimal social standards as set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals, Kate defines the Social Foundation. The area between the Social Foundation and the Planetary Boundaries (a.k.a. the ecological ceiling) defines the socially just and environmentally safe space for humanity to thrive.

The Doughnut is defined as the safe space for mankind to thrive, between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling (Credit: Kate Raworth)

Kate does not give us a step-by-step plan for bringing back our growth-driven economy to the sweet spot. But she does provide us with a new framework to rethink economics. The Doughnut can act as a ‘compass for human progress in the 21st century’. It beautifully unites the aim of social progress and environmental sustainability. Even though the storm of the Yellow Jacket movement has died out a bit by now, we should not forget that many people are struggling to make ends meet every month, also in the ‘developed’ world. We will only succeed in transitioning to a more environmentally friendly economy if we take care of those who need it most. It means the planetary accountant has a second balance sheet to keep track of: the one of well-being.

Does the Doughnut exist?

There is, of course, one potential, but possibly fatal, problem with the Doughnut concept of Kate Raworth. You might already have guessed it. Exactly.

What if the Doughnut’s social foundation turns out to be larger than its ecological ceiling?

Or, for the math-lovers under the readers: what if the inner radius of the Doughnut is larger than the outer radius? In that case, the Doughnut does not exist! It is either social justice, or environmental sustainability, but not both. That is a worrisome thought.

One should also not forget that we can’t reshuffle the cards at any given point in time. If we opt to cross certain planetary boundaries now in name of economic development, say pushing atmospheric CO2 levels out the safe zone of 350-500 parts per million, we cannot just stop emitting later – and even removing CO2 from the air – and think we get through unharmed. CO2 has a delayed effect on global warming and can trigger several feedback mechanisms. Once we have kicked them into action, there is no way back.

For the third and last time in this blog post, I turn to the academic world to answer my question. Researchers from the University of Leeds first translated the planetary boundaries into seven indicators on a personal level. Using the current population of 7 billion people, one finds an ecological ceiling per capita. For example, one person should not consume or pollute more than 574 cubic meters of fresh water per year (including water used in agriculture for his food and manufacturing of his clothes). It may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that a steak already accounts for one cubic meter and a pair of jeans for seven and a half.

Secondly, the scientists translated the Doughnut’s social foundation into eleven social indicators. Among them are life satisfaction, healthy life expectancy, income, education, nutrition, and democratic quality. For each of them, a threshold has been defined. This is naturally somewhat subjective; would you agree that 65 years is the threshold for an acceptable healthy life expectancy? Luckily, you can play around with these thresholds yourself and see how they impact the different environmental indicators.

Let this not distract you from the bigger picture though: what the team of the University of Leeds found is disturbing. It turns out, as we feared, that the Doughnut does not exist. Or, more accurate, not a single country in the world finds itself within the Doughnut in present time. Not a single country, developed or developing, finds itself both above the wellbeing thresholds and below the ecological ceiling. That is the disturbing reality of the planetary accounting dilemma.

A comparison of the Doughnut for Belgium and Sri Lanka. The former reaches its social foundation but overshoots most of its ecological thresholds. The latter finds itself in the opposite situation. (Credit: O’Neill, D.W., Fanning, A.L., Lamb, W.F., and Steinberger, J.K (2018))

How to solve the Planetary Accounting Dilemma

Is there a way out? Or rather: a way in, into the Doughnut? Countries like Belgium reach ten out of the eleven social boundaries but overshoot six out of seven biophysical ones. When we look at how our little country is positioned with respect to others, we notice something surprising. There are many developed countries with a lower carbon footprint per capita, that have a similar or higher life satisfaction index. In fact, of the 120 investigated countries, only the US is performing worse.

This data shows that Belgium (and several other developed countries) should be able to fulfil most or all of the requirements for a good life, with significantly less impact on the environment. Such countries need to undergo ‘degrowth’, at least in the material sense. Jup, we Belgians need to keep ourselves happy with less stuff. This does not necessarily need to lead to a decrease in GDP. Instead of buying cars and flat screen TV’s, we could all spend more on services and leisure activities that require little energy and materials. Yet, even the better performing kids in class, like Sweden or New Zealand, are far from staying within the environmental ceiling. True, decarbonisation could help a hand in addressing that. But on the other hand, the world population is still increasing, so the per capita ecological thresholds will become ever smaller.

I currently see only two ways out. One option is to drastically reduce the number of humans on this planet to create more breathing space for the rest. But this is a non-option really, since doing so in the short term requires massive genocide. So yeah, we can forget about that.

The other option is that we completely rethink what it means to give people a dignified life worth living. We need to re-envision how to be happy and reset our priorities: what do we truly need? What makes us really satisfied? Are we defining and measuring well-being correctly?

As I discussed in my blog post on system change, happiness is highly subjective and culturally determined. But it is also driven by consumerism and its merciless advertisement. Giving exactly the same material means to a Belgian family and a Congolese one might result in very different levels of life satisfaction. Which we are measuring in units defined by us, developing countries. Maybe, by Congolese standards, we in the West are worse off spending half a lifetime in traffic jams and shopping malls. Maybe we developed nations should reconsider – and redevelop.

This discussion on well-being is tricky and has only just started to emerge in small circles of academia, environmentalists, philosophers, and policymakers. But it is a discussion that we should all be having. We simply have to make the Doughnut work. We have to solve the planetary accounting dilemma.

To be continued.