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Some hear ‘sustainability’ … will others hear ‘class warfare’?

Bringing electricity, more food and higher income to the world’s poor billions wouldn’t create much new stress for either the planet or the global economy.

On the other hand, bringing down the vast levels of over-consumption by the world’s wealthiest and most resource-hungry could make a huge dent in the world’s carbon emissions, nitrogen pollution and other systems currently being pushed past their safe operating limits.

That’s the conclusion of a new discussion paper, “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can We Live Within the Doughnut?,” from the global charity Oxfam. The “doughnut” it refers to is the sustainable space between a ring of environmental limits on the outside — climate change, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, ocean acidification, etc. — and a ring of essential human needs — water, food, energy, education, gender equality, health, income, etc. — on the inside.

Improving conditions for the people most in need of the basics, the paper finds, would create the smallest of economic and environmental ripples. For example, providing electricity to the 19 percent of the world’s population that currently doesn’t have access would lead to a rise in global carbon emissions of less than 1 percent, while ending extreme poverty for the 21 percent who live on less than $1.25 per day would cost just 0.2 percent of global income.

Reducing the carbon footprint of the world’s highest-consuming 11 percent, on the other hand, could generate a massive cut in emissions, as those people currently produce half the globe’s carbon dioxide pollution. And curbing meat-eating appetites in the EU — which has just 7 percent of the world’s population but accounts for one-third of the planet’s sustainable nitrogen budget — could dramatically ease pressure on the overstressed nitrogen cycle.

“Moving into the safe and just space for humanity means eradicating poverty to bring everyone above the social foundation, and reducing global resource use, to bring it back within planetary boundaries,” writes Oxfam author Kate Raworth. “Social justice demands that this double objective be achieved through far greater global equity in the use of natural resources, with the greatest reductions coming from the world’s richest consumers. And it demands far greater efficiency in transforming natural resources to meet human needs.”

Makes sense … but we think we just heard new and even louder screams of “class warfare” from the people who already oppose simple efficiencies like compact fluorescent light-bulbs and smart meters.

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