circular economy sustainability

Amsterdam’s doughnut economics vision

In 2009 the Stockholm Resilience Centre outlined nine planetary boundaries, thresholds that cannot be exceeded without damaging the earth’s natural systems. They include climate change and ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle. I’ve written about all nine of them.

A couple of years later, Kate Raworth had an idea. The planetary boundaries are a set of limits we shouldn’t go beyond. There’s another set of boundaries that we shouldn’t fall below: a set of standards for health, education, peace, inequality and political freedom. Between this environmental ceiling and a social floor is a safe space for humanity, where communities can thrive within the limits of the planet. Draw this as two circles, and you get a doughnut.

This idea became an Oxfam report, then it was applied at the country level. My friend and co-author Katherine Trebeck calculated the UK doughnut. Raworth wrote the bestselling Doughnut Economics, and the idea is on a roll.

While it’s been a useful model for thinking about the balance between social needs and environmental boundaries, it’s largely been a theoretical tool. So it’s been interesting to see Amsterdam take the doughnut as a foundational idea for its vision for the city.

Amsterdam have set a target to be a ‘circular city’ by 2050, with circular economy practices applied to waste and materials. They have commissioned Kate Raworth to develop the Amsterdam Doughnut as a way of keeping tabs on progress. “The City Donut for Amsterdam ultimately serves to guide the choices that Amsterdam makes and the policies that the city pursues.”

The Amsterdam Doughnut report is available online, and it uses four ‘lenses’ to help ask good questions and guide discussion about directions for the city.

The report also gives starting points on the various boundaries. On the social front, for example, we see that 25% of citizens had experienced some kind of crime in 2017. 40% were overweight. Voter turnout for city elections was 52%. On the environmental ceiling, it shows figures for renewable energy, deaths from air pollution, or the number of green roofs in the city.

One thing I really like about the Amsterdam document is that while it is a local authority, it includes global questions such as fair trade and workers rights. “What would it mean for Amsterdam to respect the wellbeing of people worldwide?” it asks. It’s the kind of question Luton Council needs to be asking as it considers its airport, as it’s very easy to say that your responsibilities are only to your constituents.

I also like the principle outlined briefly at the end: “Aim to thrive rather than to grow.”

This is what developing world cities ought to be aiming for in the 21st century. Circular economies, global responsibility, the wellbeing of their citizens, and a practical local demonstration of Arrival.


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