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Ideas Made to Matter

Sustainability

5 ‘extraordinary turnarounds’ for global well-being

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It’s an idea that harkens back at least to 1972, when the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth,” warning that if growth trends continued, society would overshoot Earth’s capacity.

Jump forward 50 years, and the current combination of increased GDP, overconsumption, and a warming planet is contributing to negative well-being globally, according to data compiled by Earth4All, an international initiative committed to accelerating “the systems change needed for an equitable future on a finite planet.”

Currently, the poorest half of the world takes in less than 15% of total earnings and is responsible for 10% of total emissions related to lifestyle consumption. The richest decile takes in well over 40% of earnings and is responsible for 49% of lifestyle-related emissions.

That imbalance is leading to rising social tensions and putting humanity on a collision course with climate disaster, according to Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome, executive chair of Earth4All, and co-author of the organization’s 2022 book, “Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity.”

Speaking at the MIT 2024 Sustainability Summit in April, Dixson-Declève examined the relationship between a warming planet and economic inequality and proposed systems-based solutions. “We need a total paradigm change,” she said. “It’s time to change the rules of the game so people, planet, and prosperity come before power and profit.”

In her presentation, Dixson-Declève described two potential paths. In a “too little, too late” scenario — our current trajectory — the Earth’s average temperature will have increased by 2.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels before 2100, with attendant threats from polarization, food and energy insecurity, and ecological collapse.

Alternatively, a “giant leap” could make the Earth more resilient to the consequences of climate change and economic inequality.  She proposed five “extraordinary turnarounds” to reconfigure the planet’s economies, energy, and food systems to achieve global well-being by 2050.

ENDING POVERTY through reform of the international financial system by expanding policy space, trade re-regionalization, and new growth models. Earth4All projects that doing so would lift as many as 4 billion people out of poverty. The goal: a GDP growth rate of at least 5% for low-income countries until GDP per person is greater than $15,000 per year.

Specifically, Earth4All proposes that:

  • The International Monetary Fund allocate over $1 trillion annually to poor countries to invest in green jobs.
  • High-income countries cancel debt to low-income countries.
  • High-income countries and the World Trade Organization support the local protection of fledgling industries and encourage sustainable export expansion in low-income countries.


ADDRESSING GROSS INCOME INEQUALITY by proposing that all governments increase taxes on the wealthiest 10% of their populations until they take less than 40% of the national income by 2030. Earth4All supports progressive taxation and worker re-unionization. Specifically, the group suggests that governments should pass laws to strengthen workers’ rights and trade unionization to offer economic protections.

49%

The richest 10% of the global population takes in more than 40% of earnings and is responsible for 49% of lifestyle-related emissions.

Earth4All also supports a universal basic dividend, where corporations that exploit common resources pay a fee into a citizens fund that is paid out to citizens as a dividend.

EMPOWERING WOMEN to achieve full gender equality by 2050 by expanding education opportunities, placing more women in leadership roles, and offering pensions.

Currently, nearly 30% of girls in Afghanistan have never been to school. Worldwide,130 million girls cannot access education, according to United Nations figures.

Dixson-Declève noted that countries such as Denmark and Norway, which dominate international polls on happiness and well-being, invest in gender equity.

Earth4All’s ultimate goal is to increase the agency of women and workers to drive the direction of the economy. “We need to shift toward a much more diverse economy that takes into consideration all workers, including the agency of women,” Dixson-Declève said.

TRANSITIONING TO CLEAN ENERGY to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 through increased efficiency and investment in renewables. Renewables prices are comparable to or less than those of fossil fuels, Dixson-Declève said, and it’s now possible to decarbonize long-distance trucking, shipping, or cement and steel manufacturing.

Among the solutions proposed by Earth4All: the immediate redesign and phase-out of fossil-based energy systems, as well as the immediate tripling of investments by the IMF to more than $1 trillion per year in new renewables and energy efficiency technologies and practices.

TRANSFORMING THE FOOD SYSTEM by prioritizing new farming techniques, food system efficiency, and healthier diets. Agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, and 9% of the global population is severely food insecure.

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For that reason, Earth4All is calling for regulators to incentivize farming techniques that support healthier soils and seas, as well as more sustainable and regenerative practices, while eliminating harmful subsidies — coupled with a transition to healthier diets that incorporate new proteins and meat sourced from grass-fed livestock, for example.

What’s Next?

Dixson-Declève is optimistic that such sweeping changes can happen, albeit with a dose of perspective.

“We need to redraw the game board to shift from an over-financialized economy toward a well-being economy,” she said. “The only way to build resilience to future shocks and pressures is to invest in Earth for all. There are no stocks, no bonds, no financial assets, no business prospects on an unstable or dead planet.”

Read next: How ‘climate capitalism’ can help scale green solutions