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Tracking sustainable development with a national barometer for South Africa using a downscaled “safe and just space” framework

Cole, Megan J., Bailey, Richard M., New, Mark G.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2014 v.111 no.42 pp. E4399
case studies, environmental indicators, monitoring, sustainable development, South Africa
Nations in the 21st century face a complex mix of environmental and social challenges, as highlighted by the on-going Sustainable Development Goals process. The “planetary boundaries” concept [Rockstrüöm J, et al. (2009) Nature 461(7263):472–475], and its extension through the addition of social well-being indicators to create a framework for “safe and just” inclusive sustainable development [Raworth K (2012) Nature Climate Change 2(4):225–226], have received considerable attention in science and policy circles. As the chief aim of this framework is to influence public policy, and this happens largely at the national level, we assess whether it can be used at the national scale, using South Africa as a test case. We developed a decision-based methodology for downscaling the framework and created a national “barometer” for South Africa, combining 20 indicators and boundaries for environmental stress and social deprivation. We find that it is possible to maintain the original design and concept of the framework while making it meaningful in the national context, raising new questions and identifying priority areas for action. Our results show that South Africa has exceeded its environmental boundaries for biodiversity loss, marine harvesting, freshwater use, and climate change, and social deprivation is most severe in the areas of safety, income, and employment. Trends since 1994 show improvement in nearly all social indicators, but progression toward or over boundaries for most environmental indicators. The barometer shows that achieving inclusive sustainable development in South Africa requires national and global action on multiple fronts, and careful consideration of the interplay between different environmental domains and development strategies.