The fundamental prerequisite for successful poverty reduction is the conservation of the natural life-support systems. Yet these systems are being massively jeopardized by current, often unsustainable patterns of development. The WBGU therefore recommends the inclusion of a comprehensive environmental goal entitled 'safeguarding Earth system services' in the catalogue of new sustainable development goals (SDGs). The aim of this goal is to bring development paths in line with ecological boundaries, so that human progress can be ensured. The necessary impetus for transformation and the finance required can only come from the global middle and upper classes. In order to operationalize this goal, the WBGU recommends integrating six targets to protect the climate, the soils and biological diversity:
- limit global warming to 2°C – to avoid irreversible climatic consequences.
- limit ocean acidification to 0.2 pH units – to keep the marine environment intact.
- stop the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – to protect the natural life-support systems.
- stop land and soil degradation – in order not to jeopardize global food production.
- limit the risks posed by long-lived and harmful anthropogenic substances (such as mercury and plastic waste) – since the related negative effects are difficult to reverse.
- stop the loss of phosphorus – since this element is the limiting factor in agriculture.
The new sustainable development goals should apply to all countries, irrespective of their level of development. Germany and the European Union also need to take action and should lobby for this environmental goal at the ongoing international negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals.
The WBGU substantiates its recommendations in detail as follows.
1. Compliance with ecological boundaries in the form of planetary guard rails is a prerequisite for poverty eradication and development. Planetary guard rails are quantitatively definable damage thresholds whose transgression, either today or in future, would have such intolerable consequences that even large-scale benefits in other areas could not compensate these. Some of the successes that have been made in poverty eradication can be undone if guard rails are crossed, for example through the loss of fertile soils. The development of the globally emerging middle and upper classes, i.e. the wealthiest 3 billion people, would also be slowed down, e.g. by rising sea levels or extreme weather events.
2. Taking planetary guard rails into account does not imply restrictions on the future development of the poorest 2 billion people who have to survive on less than 2 US dollars a day. Rather, in the long term development will only be possible within planetary guard rails, e.g. because food security cannot be assured if soils are not protected. Furthermore, it is possible to secure the basic needs of human development – e.g. access to food and energy – without transgressing guard rails.
3. Consumption decisions and lifestyles of the middle and upper classes are causing the greatest threat to the natural life-support systems, e.g. as a result of their high level of resource consumption or high per-capita CO2 emissions. At the same time, however, these groups have the best access to sustainable technologies. This gives them a responsibility: to become pioneers in the protection of the Earth system and to create space for a sustainable development of the poorer sections of the population. Economist and Nobel Laureate Michael Spence already pointed out that we cannot scale up the existing growth patterns. Policy-makers therefore have a responsibility to create the necessary requirements for sustainable production and consumption patterns. Regulative legislation in the form of administrative command and control should lay down the framework for compliance with the guard rails, while market-based instruments should create the appropriate incentives. Furthermore, consumers and producers must have enough information to enable them to judge their own actions. At the same time, there should be a greater critical focus on individual consumption choices, e.g. through education campaigns and programmes, to make individual action more likely to support such policies.
4. Planetary guard rails highlight the need for international cooperation. Global commons, such as the atmosphere, cannot be protected by unilateral measures. Encouraging cooperation throughout the international community to conserve the natural life-support systems is therefore one of humankind's greatest challenges in the 21st century. The environmental goal recommended by the WBGU can make an important contribution towards developing institutions for protecting the Earth system.
September will see the beginning of the intergovernmental negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals. The plan is for them to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in autumn 2015.