Global distributive justice and systemic transformations key to planetary stability

Achieving access to minimum resources and services for all whilst safeguarding the stability of the Earth system requires redistribution and societal transformations.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, we investigate the Earth system impacts of escaping poverty and achieving a dignified life for all. We conclude 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 would be the additional pressures on the Earth system, in 2018, if adequate minimum access to food, water, energy and infrastructure was achieved? We looked beyond the international poverty line and instead defined ‘just access’ as minimum per capita requirements that would allow people to lead a dignified life and escape poverty. Our analysis showed an increase of pressures on the Earth’s natural systems, raising greenhouse gas emissions by 26% whilst raising water and land use, and nutrient pollution by 2-5%.

Fig. 2
The x axis is truncated at 90%. Total current pressure amounts to 100%. We include percentages to show the additional pressures in relative terms. The purple area ‘Further pressure to achieve access level 2’ is equal to the impact of achieving level 2 minus the impact of achieving level 1.

The analysis also showed that these pressures, arising from the poorest third of humanity achieving adequate resource access, equalled the pressures caused by the wealthiest 1-4%. It provides scientific evidence for concluding 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. We therefore link the ‘Great Acceleration’ of rapid increases in human-driven environmental impacts with a ‘Great Inequality’.

The graph shows inequalities for selected material needs with cumulative population on the x axis (by country and as percentage of global population) and consumption or spending levels on the y axes, for energy (total residential electricity consumption in gigajoules per year per capita59), water (average water footprint of consumption for 1996–2005 in cubic metres per year per capita60), food (protein consumption in grams per day per capita61) and infrastructure (produced capital from the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) in US$ per capita62).

This 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 behaviours – 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.

See full open-access article here: Rammelt, C.F., Gupta, J., Liverman, D. et al. Impacts of meeting minimum access on critical earth systems amidst the Great Inequality. Nat Sustain (2022).

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