How long can we continue our development along a sustainable path? At what point do we become unsustainable?
Everyone wants to be sustainable. However, do we know how long we can be sustainable? When do we reach an unsustainable state? The space just before the unsustainable state is defined as a safe operating space within which we can make our development sustainable and beyond which there is a high risk and disastrous consequences for humanity.
A few years ago, Johan Rockström and his colleagues (2009) defined a safe operating space at the global scale. According to their study, humanity has already moved out of a safe operating space for climate, biodiversity and nitrogen at the global scale. This concept has already attained significant policy attention (for instance, Rio +20, Swedish Environmental Protection Agencies, Switzerland Government and Oxfam) across the world.
However, we argue that we need to define safe operating space at a regional scale, as most planetary processes (for example, land use and biodiversity) are aggregated from regional scale problems. In addition, we need to account for the complex interactions (interaction, feedbacks, non-linearity) between socio-ecological systems while defining the limits to sustainability at different scales.
Our recent research article, published in the journal “Science of the Total Environment,” attempted to fill the above-mentioned gaps by focusing on the south-west coastal Bangladesh as a case study.
This article explores the safe operating space and answers the question - how long can we continue our development along a sustainable path and at what point do we become unsustainable?
Our model explores eight ‘what if’ scenarios based on well-known challenges, like climate change and current policy debates, like subsidy withdrawal for the period 2010s-to 2060s. It reveals that a 3.5° C temperature increase over the period could be highly dangerous for the Bangladesh delta, especially when combined with sea level rise, withdrawal of water and loss of subsidies. The Bangladesh delta may move beyond a safe operating space if the withdrawal of the 50% subsidy for agriculture is combined with the effects of a 2° C temperature increase and sea level rise. Further reductions in upstream river discharge in the Ganges would push the system towards a dangerous zone once a 3.5° C temperature increase was reached. Maintaining the system within a safe operating space demands a temperature rise of less than 2° C over the period, as set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Additionally, this highlights that the Bangladesh delta may be operated within a safe space by negotiating for trans-boundary water resources and revising global policies (withdrawal of subsidy) that negatively impact at the regional scales.
For example, the WTO recommendation to withdraw agricultural subsidies would pose a risk to achieving reductions in poverty and maintaining sustainable agriculture. In doing so, we can tackle the tension between environment and development and manage to live in a sustainable state.
The interactions and feedbacks within the environment and society highlight the need for environmental management from a system perspective, rather than a discrete system approach, in designing development projects in Bangladesh. This system approach should include the stake holder's visions and perspective. The experience from the coastal embankment project in southwest coastal Bangladesh and the debate over the current coal power plant project in Sundarban are highlighting the demand for a system perspective.
Any other misconceived development could move us from the safe operating space beyond which there is a risk to society; it may be difficult to reverse an unsustainable state back towards sustainable development.
It is obvious that we may not be able to avoid all the environmental impacts associated with economic development, but we can try to make the effort to ensure that people live in a safe and just operating space.
It is high time that people understand that it is not the intention to restrict expansion of cities, economic progress and extraction of resources from the environment. Rather, the critical focus should be: how we can make cities safe and sustainable? How can we carry out economic activities such as shrimp farming without jeopardizing our efforts to adapt to climate change, and how can we make shrimp farming sustainable in coastal areas? How can we maintain agricultural growth without substantial increase in production costs and degradation of the environment?
In particular, we need to identify the limits to adaptation beyond which human beings cannot adapt to climate change, and moving beyond this limit could increase the risk of poverty in Bangladesh. Therefore, this approach can be integrated in Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) and Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 by identifying the transformation pathways within the limits to adaptation that the society can thrive sustainably.
Our study was limited to agriculture and exploring a few scenarios in order to demonstrate how we can define the limits to sustainability at different scales. Similarly to the governments of Sweden and Switzerland, the Bangladesh Government could adopt this SJOS concept, which could help to design development projects with a broader view of the system, negotiate trans-boundary issues such as water resources and climate change by utilizing the SJOS concept as a powerful metaphor to assess the regional differences and contribution, and explore optimum pathways for achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and pathways towards transition to sustainability for Bangladesh.
Dr Md Sarwar Hossain is a researcher at the Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland and working on the sustainability challenges in Bangladesh, Kenya and Switzerland. He is the recipient of Europe's most competitive and prestigious awards (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship). He is an interdisciplinary researcher, with MSc in Environmental Sciences (Wageningen University, Netherlands) and PhD in Geography and Environment from University of Southampton UK. He has published 16 international scholarly journal articles and six book chapters.