Will these Sustainable Development Goals get us into the doughnut (aka a safe and just space for humanity)? Guest post from Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth left Oxfam’s research team last year to devote herself to some really pioneering thinking on how to combine environmental and social Kate Raworthconcerns in a new approach she calls ‘doughnut economics‘ (book due in 2016 – it could be a biggie). Here she casts her doughnutty gaze over the UN’s recently drafted Sustainable Development Goals

In mid July, the UN’s Open Working Group proposed a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 17 goals and 169 indicators, to be whittled down through negotiations by the UN General Assembly next month, and adopted as official goals in 2015. So now is the perfect time to play spot the difference: the SDGs vs. the doughnut.

This comparison makes sense. The doughnut’s social foundation was crowd-sourced from governments’ social priorities in the run-up to the 2012 Rio + 20 conference. And the doughnut’s environmental ceiling contains the nine planetary boundaries that protect the key Earth-system processes on which humanity’s wellbeing depends, as proposed by Johan Rockström and his fellow Earth-system scientists in 2009. So how do these draft SDGs deliver against the doughnut’s social and planetary boundaries?

The comparison reveals three key points: on priorities, on ambition and on economic growth.

First, on priorities. Taking a big picture perspective, this initial cut of the SDGs has a very doughnutty spirit. Figure 1 maps the proposed SDGs onto the 11 social and 9 environmental dimensions of the doughnut: green rings indicate issues named in the top-tier goals; orange rings indicate those mentioned in the 2nd tier targets (and the numbers identify which goal).

Fig 1. Spot the difference: mapping the proposed SDGs onto the doughnut

 SDGs v donut It’s clear that every one of the doughnut’s dimensions gets a mention in either the goals or their targets. But the social foundation is more fully and explicitly addressed than the environmental ceiling.

  • Goals 1 to 10 map out the Social Foundation almost word for word (with the sole exception of voice, which only gets a look-in under some scattered targets). Ending poverty and human deprivation is clearly a priority, as well it should be.
  • The SDGs add a new goal to the social foundation, on human settlements. Housing and transport were missing from governments’ top priorities at Rio+20 (and hence from the doughnut) but have now got the attention they deserve.
  • There’s an evident contrast between the near-total coverage of the social foundation in the goals, versus the more patchy coverage of the environmental ceiling. Some environmental priorities are named directly in goals, but most just in the targets, and even then not always explicitly.


Second, on ambition. The doughnut’s boundaries are based on measurable targets for both the social and environmental dimensions. So how do the SDGs compare? Their ambition to end human deprivation by 2030 (ie to get everyone above the social foundation) is focused and clearly defined. But their ambition to address environmental degradation (ie to stay below the environmental ceiling) is more varied and vague.

earth from spaceThe vast majority of social targets have strong ambition, seeking by 2030, to end all forms of poverty, and ensure access “for all” to food, water, sanitation, energy, health care, education, work, housing and more (see Table 1 here Raworth Annex Tables SDG Doughnut). What will success look like? It’s pretty clear: essentially 100% of people will enjoy these rights. Powerful and important stuff.

The environmental targets, by contrast, fall into four clusters, aiming to ‘halt’, ‘restore’, ‘sustain’ and ‘reduce’, and most targets focus on 2020 (see Table 2 here Raworth Annex Tables SDG Doughnut). Some are absolute and time-bound: end overfishing and halt deforestation by 2020. But two key ambitions – to halt biodiversity loss and combat climate change – lack target dates. And for others, the measure of success is unclear. What would it mean to ‘significantly reduce’ nutrient pollution by 2025? To ‘minimize the release of’ hazardous chemicals by 2030? Or to ‘minimize the impacts of’ ocean acidification (by no set date)? The concern among scientists is that the final ambition on targets will now be driven by “political pragmatism, not scientific reality”.

Third, on economic growth. There is a very clear commitment in the proposal to ‘sustained economic growth’. It gets three mentions in the opening paragraphs, and then Goal 8 focuses on promoting ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth’. Is this compatible with getting into the doughnut – and with achieving the rest of the SDGs? Only if economic growth (ie an ever-rising GDP) can be recoupled with poverty reduction and decoupled from environmental degradation. And this is where things get more tricky.

For starters, GDP growth will probably look like an out-of-date economic metric by 2030: smart countries will be steering by a wider dashboard of social and economic success by then, accounting for natural and social wealth stocks as well as monetized flows. So let’s not get hooked on pursuing this goal, and certainly not at the cost of any others.

Making GDP growth ‘inclusive’ by recoupling it with poverty reduction is critical for getting into the doughnut. And Goal 10 – to reduce inequality within and between countries – is a crucial part of getting there. Target 10.1 commits that, by 2030, the incomes of the bottom 40% in each country will grow faster than the national average. Progressive stuff: this target must not get lost in the wash.

What about making GDP growth ‘sustainable’? Here, things get fuzzy. Target 8.4 calls on countries to ‘endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation…with developed countries taking the lead’. Just endeavour?! Let’s be clear. Decoupling can’t be treated as a try-it-if-you-like bonus target. If the aim is to combine ‘sustained economic growth’ with combating climate change, halting deforestation and biodiversity loss, and significantly reducing air, soil and water pollution, then decoupling GDP from resource use is, by definition, absolutely essential – a logical necessity.

And (since the SDGs don’t do it) let’s ask: how much decoupling is needed, in different kinds of countries? It’s the tough question that has stalled the climate negotiations for years. And Figure 2 helps to unpack the key concepts.

Figure 2. GDP growth and resource decoupling: what will it take? GDP and resource decouplingBy 2030, low-income countries need to achieve relative decoupling, backed by international support for energy- and resource-efficient investments – so that their GDP grows faster than their resource use. Upper-middle income countries will need to be on track for absolute decoupling, so that their total resource use starts falling while their GDP grows. And high-income countries that still want a rising GDP will need to achieve sufficient absolute decoupling – strongly reducing their resource use as their GDP grows. Without such decoupling, ‘sustained economic growth’ will push us all right over the environmental ceiling, out of the doughnut, and into an ecological era that is far more hostile to humanity. And if the scale of sufficient absolute decoupling doesn’t look feasible – especially in the high-income countries – then it may be time for them to look long and hard for alternative economic paradigms that do not depend on unlimited GDP growth.

So, will these SDGs get us into the doughnut? They will certainly get us over the social foundation – and that’s well worth celebrating. But they do not face up to what it will take to stay within the environmental ceiling – especially with unlimited GDP growth as the driving economic paradigm.

These Sustainable Development Goals matter. They are humanity’s best chance to envision a shared and lasting prosperity for all. So let’s see what happens in September as the UN General Assembly gets down to negotiating this proposal. And if anyone out there will be at the meeting, please – could you give them doughnuts in the coffee break?…

Kate Raworth is an economic re-thinker and the creator of Oxfam’s doughnut of social and planetary boundaries. Her passion is the rewriting of economics to make it fit for the 21st century. She blogs at www.kateraworth.com and tweets @KateRaworth.

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29 Responses to “Will these Sustainable Development Goals get us into the doughnut (aka a safe and just space for humanity)? Guest post from Kate Raworth”
  1. Peter Thompson

    I would say your analysis is excellent, but all this is pie-in-the-sky as long as governments like those of the US and UK continue to pursue policies which are steadily widening wealth inequality, and promoting techniques like fracking to prolong our irreplaceable-resource consumption. Is there any chance of national governments taking these UN SDGs seriously?

      • Peter Thompson

        Thanks, Kate, I did see your response. Sorry if I sounded negative; I agree with everything you say; it’s just that we have such a long way to go under pretty well all the goal headings, and the time-frame for the goals is short. We need to get people recognising longer-term interests against immediate perceived ‘benefits’. It is ironic that our evolutionary instincts continue to drive our reproduction, at the same time as we jeopardise the survival of our heirs!

  2. Clem McCartney

    Thanks for your analysis,which seems very fair.

    The only place where I would be more optimistic is on the question of voice.
    It may only be mentioned “under scattered targets”, as you mark on your diagram, but some of the language is very clear and unambiguous. For example:
    16.7 ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

    16.8 broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance

    This covers not only within countries but between states.

    The target for women’s participation is also very clear and unambiguous (5.5) though it is missing from your diagram.

    I agree voice is an important foundation for the whole effective implementation of the goals so let us make sure that these targets are retained if not upgraded.

    Clem McCartney
    Policy and Content Co-ordinator
    Shared Societies Project,
    Club de Madrid

    • Kate Raworth

      Fair points on voice, Clem, but I’d still say these targets are not on a par with eg “End hunger for all by 2030”, hence I put them in the 2nd tier. And I think it is worth noting that Goal 5 on achieving gender equality is the only substantive goal in the whole proposal with no dates against any of its targets. I’d love to understand the politics of why and how that happened.

  3. Kate Raworth

    Peter, I agree there is always the pie-in-the-sky risk with global goal setting. But before we dismiss it all, I’d say:

    – Let’s not ignore how hard governments lobby to cut out goals and targets they don’t like, to eradicate numbers and commitments they want to avoid. So they clearly care about them, even if defensively

    – A growing number of international institutions, esp. UN agencies, are aligning their work around pursuing these kinds of goals, and monitoring their own achievements against them too. So they do influence finance and focus of the international development community.

    – Most important, I’d say that national goals (which will be derived from the global ones) are valuable for citizens who want to hold their own governments to account – by pointing out the inconsistencies of their policies, and most positively creating a vision of an alternative goal to unlimited consumption and growth.

    So yes we risk ending up with pie the sky. But without even putting that pie in the sky, and trying to bring it down to Earth, we stand very little chance of getting doughnuts on the table.

  4. Peter Chowla

    Very nice presentation, and the Figure 1 is great. In fact completely surprised that the OWG produced a set of goals and targets which hits every single one of your indicators! That should be celebrated.

    I have to inject of bit of the politics back in (I avoid saying “political economy” out of fear over the language that Duncan has been blogging about before). There is a strong political reason that the targets on the environment side are weaker in the OWG proposal, and you mentioned it: “It’s the tough question that has stalled the climate negotiations for years.”

    If the climate negotiations have been stalled for years, you didn’t really expect the OWG – a 1 year process – to come up with the targets did you? That would be hope beyond all rationality. Besides which, the OWG was a less accountable and legitimate body than a UNFCCC COP in which to make intergovernmental commitments on climate and related issues. This is explicitly referenced in proposed goal 13.

    Developing countries have a strong fear of having climate targets set elsewhere. They know what happens when you do that: think back to trade, when targets on trade liberalisation are not negotiated in a single place – they had those targets imposed on them by the World Bank/IMF and it subsequently hampered their negotiating space in the run up to the conclusion of the Uruguay round. As much as we might like to have a single negotiation for a single global framework, that is neither practical nor, probably, desirable. Climate and environment deals and targets are going to have to be negotiated in the legitimate fora that are set up to negotiate them. Nor if only, we had such legitimate fora for the finance and development issues…

    • Kate Raworth

      Great points Peter. And I agree, it’s a thing to celebrate that the proposed goals cover the doughnut.

      Yes, the OWG worked on developing these social and environmental targets for just one year – but I wouldn’t say that these goals came out of just one year’s work. The very strong commitments to ending poverty for all by 2030 are the result of decades-worth of work, reaching back to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, via the 2000 Millennium Development Goals. So the current international consensus behind those targets has been over 70 years in the making, I would say.

      In contrast, Earth-systems science is only around 30 years old, and the international commitment to acknowledging that human wellbeing depends on protecting Earth’s life-support systems – as much as it does on ending poverty – is still in the making. And this is the gap that is reflected in the less specific environmental goals.

      Meanwhile the commitment to GDP growth as an economic way of life – in every country no matter how rich – has been entrenched since the 1940s or so, which is probably why it also gets such strong mentions in the text.

      So the imbalances between the social, environmental and economic targets in the goals reflect many decades of power struggle between competing worldviews (OK, I won’t talk of political economy either…). And we still have a way to go to get that balance right. But do we have the decades to wait?

    • Sven Harmeling

      On the issue of the climate change goal: I think it is important to have a more differentiated view on “the developing countries”, and you all are probably aware that this group is probably even more diverse than the so-called developed countries. Many of the poorer and more vulnerable developing countries, such as island states and LDCs have called in the OWG for the inclusion of at least the 1.5/2 degrees temperature goals as a target (which has been agreed in UNFCCC but yet lacks the adequate implementation). And the support for a climate target has increased over time, with only some of the more advanced developing countries remaining with stronger skepticism/opposition. I am still convinced that strong global targets which set a clear direction to overall reduce emissions would be very useful in the SDGs, and there is no doubt that details of who is doing what are left to UNFCCC anyway (the SDGs will not negotiate per-country targets for any of the 167 targets). Of course the OWG has shown it is politically difficult, but we are not at the end of the process…

  5. David Murray

    Instead of ‘making GDP growth ‘sustainable’’ work from degrowth for the highly industrialised to some growth for poor countries but towards Herman Daly’s ‘steady-state economics’. Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill is good on this.

      • Kate Raworth

        Too right I would!

        I’d say Duncan is right to be unsure whether ‘degrowth’ is feasible or politically possible – but I’d say we should have the same level of scepticism for whether ‘sustainable economic growth’ (with sufficient absolute decoupling in high income countries) is likewise feasible or politically possible. There is massive ideological and institutional buy-in to ‘green growth’ as a paradigm (WB, OECD, EU, UN…) even though we seem unable to face up to what transformations for decoupling it would entail. That’s why I think there there should be far more research looking into how prosperity could be achieved with no/low/slow GDP growth in high income countries – see my blog post on the few folks currently doing this http://www.kateraworth.com/2013/05/22/whos-looking-beyond-growth/

  6. Peter Burgess

    I like the doughnut image … just as I like a whole lot of the other depictions of society, the economy and the environment. The problem is that they are good to look at, but, in my view not very helpful in addressing the very important question of progress and performance.

    The purpose of data, as far as I am concerned is to understand what is the state of affairs, in all its complexity … and how this state of affairs has changed in the past, and how best to make the best progress in the future, and to do it in a manner that is the most effective (performance).

    I was in corporate management for about 20 years before I started to do consulting work for the UN, the World Bank and others in the official development assistance (ODA)environment (some 30 years ago). I was appalled at the lack of management information in this space back then and find that the data are still lacking in information that is useful for making better high performance decisions. More data … more goals … more talk … is not going to change very much unless there is also some really basic rethink of how data should be used to change behavior by ALL the actors in society and the economy.

    From my vantage point, nothing much is going to change unless we start to measure everything that really matters … everything. I am not at all surprised that the UN has forgotten to include the environment in its draft goals for a better world. But then, many of the pro-environmental groups forget that things like energy are absolutely essential to the modern quality of life and standard of living. Most corporations make their profits marketing products that most of their customers really don’t need … and so on.

    We can have a wonderful world … but putting all our money resources into making more and more profit will ensure that in due course we have a failed society and environmental disaster. What a pity.

    Peter Burgess
    TrueValueMetrics … Multi Dimension Impact Accounting

  7. Kate Raworth

    Peter, I agree data and measurement matter (with a healthy caveat for the dangers of distorting what gets done!…).

    The doughnut is indeed based on indicators and data – check out this 4min video which shows where we currently are in relation to the social foundation and the planetary boundaries. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCAx3TG8LkI#t=20

    I’m sure you are pleased that Sust Dev Goal 17 is all about data, monitoring and accountability and, given the ongoing data revolution, I think you can be more optimistic that things are only getting to get more measured more often….

  8. Richard Kimbowa

    Addressing the social foundation might seem attractive but the resource use towards this points to the environmental ceiling that is often overlooked in the current development paradigm. I like this the doughnut ‘eye-opener’, and actually wish all delegates should carry their ‘doughnuts’ to the UNGA next month instead of getting them there!

    • Kate Raworth

      Thanks Richard. Just to say, many of the delegates have already heard of the doughnut: I was invited to present it at the very first meeting that the UN General Assembly had on the Sustainable Development Goals in October 2012 – here’s the presentation that I made at that event: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/3140raworth.pdf

      But I agree it’s important to keep reiterating, in the run-up to the meeting, that human wellbeing depends fundamentally on living between *both* the social boundaries of human rights *and* the planetary boundaries of Earth’s life-support systems.

    • Kate Raworth

      Thanks David – a good reminder that every achievement worth celebrating (like the strongly worded goals to end poverty) comes with its own set of challenges and questions.

  9. Dave Griggs

    I agree with your analysis, the SDGs are stronger on development than they are on the environment. Although there is a climate change goal this omits a mitigation target and while I understand the wish not to duplicate the UNFCCC process to not even re-state the 2 degree target, which has already been agreed is a pity. The other area I think the SDGs are weak is in the integration of development and environment. The fact that you could go through and asign each goal and target to development or environment is in itself a big problem. It is very likely that we will get perverse outcomes and miss potential synergies as goals and targets are worked on in isolation. Not linking energy to climate through energy intensity and carbon intensity is just one example.

  10. Kate Raworth

    An important concern, Dave, that I could allocate the targets to ‘social’ or ‘environmental’ categories. And of course this is a false division anyway, because they are really all targets for achieving human well-being. I wrote in the blog that the set of proposed goals would get us over the social foundation but not back within the environmental ceiling – yet it is of course deeply unlikely that we could achieve one without the other. Ending human deprivation and protecting Earth’s life-support systems are interdependent essentials for human prosperity. And achieving them depends, crucially, on creating economies that allow and promote both. We are not yet there, but we can get there.

  11. Sylvia Hordosch

    Goal 5 should be added to voice, it has a target – which unfortunately got weakened in the last round: from full and equal participation to full and effective.

    The timeline for the whole set of goals is 2030. It fell off from goal 5 because a number of countries felt that targets such as ending discrimination or ending violence against women should be met much earlier than 2030; that it would send a wrong signal to say that we can wait till 2030 to end violence against women and girls.

  12. Robin Stafford

    After ploughing through the proposals I come away with a sense of these as an unfiltered and unprioritised wish list, perhaps representing the participants personal interests and agendas. It is a mix of the macro and micro, goals and implementation, with no overall vision. To be kind, maybe it’s just a first effort with a lot more work to do

    Charles Kenny and Casey Dunning summarise my thoughts very well, in asking what is the purpose of the goals? See http://www.cgdev.org/blog/what’s-point-post-2015-agenda
    For me, from the options they suggest, it’s probably to prioritise the most pressing development challenges over the next 15 years. And not to get into detail that describes or replicates the detail that should be in a host of other agencies strategies, policies and plans.

    So in short, I’d start with the MDG’s, revise or rebalance as Kate suggests to reflect a stronger emphasis on sustainability and climate change, and also seek to add in more on jobs and employment, possibly drawing on WDR 2013

    What’s the process for feeding back I wonder?

    Robin Stafford

  13. Tessa

    Hi Kate,

    Many thanks for your analysis here. The doughnut provides for a very interesting evaluation of the SDGs. On the question of why Goal 5 doesn’t have any time-bound targets, I’m afraid that there’s no satisfying political reason behind that and that it’s probably down to sloppy drafting. The co-chairs were largely drafted by UN Women’s input on a standalone goal, and as you’ll see from UN Women’s documents, they never specified a date for fulfilling the goal or its targets. This was reflected in the first focus areas document drafted by the OWG co-chairs.

    That said, there’s inconsistency throughout the document not only relating to which targets are time-bound, but also in relation to what is designated a goal or a target. So, I think there’s a chance it was an oversight, as much as anything else.

  14. Kate Raworth

    Tessa, many thanks for this comment (which I have only just seen now, apologies). It’s always fascinating to hear the political processes and human oversights that lead to the final texts we all see. Do you think there should have been a target date on women’s rights, and if so, when?

  15. Lisa Gormley

    On the issue of target dates for the gender equality goal. According to human rights law it should be done “without delay” (Convention on the Elimination against All Forms of Discrimination Article 2 “States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women” which came into force on 18 December 1979.) Arguably that obligation was established in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. So really, the SDG goal on gender equality should be fulfilled “already” (as they say in the US). So we are over the deadline already – but it would be great to emphasise this in the SDG process, and maybe have an regular target checking on achievements in this area. Given that the CEDAW Committee has to assess every country in the world (bar one or two) then each state is monitored for gender equality maybe every 8 or 9 years, an additional process as part of the SDG regime might be really useful.

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