From growth to doughnut: towards a well-rounded EU economy

What do rising burnout rates and scientists’ alarming reports on climate breakdown have in common? They both point to an economic system that pushes people and the planet beyond the boundaries they can cope with. The doughnut economy offers a sweeter deal than this broken system, writes Nick Meynen.

The Doughnut Economy gets its name from the defining visual framework, which is shaped like a doughnut or, if you prefer, a lifebelt. It is all about a range of key parameters that need to stay above a set of minimum social criteria, and below a set of maximum ecosystem limits. The sweet green zone in between is the ‘doughnut’.

As shown in this 20’ documentary, policymakers at the local and regional levels are already using this model, from Amsterdam to the Brussels region.

Why now? 

There has probably never been a better time in European history to advocate for a doughnut economy for the EU. 

The pandemic pressed pause on some of the major rules in the economic guidebook, and the world has changed dramatically since those rules were made, back in the previous century. Any economist or politician aware of the state of the ecosystems sustaining life on Earth knows there’s no way back to ‘normal’, because what we called ‘normal’ was leading to burn out for both people and the planet. 

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently increased its emphasis on the critical need for alternative economic models, naming the Doughnut economy and degrowth as viable alternatives for sustainable development. Cutting our demand for materials and fossil fuel energy is even mentioned as a step that will “help achieve well-being for all”. However, this is not yet part of the EU’s economic rulebook from the 1990s, which has been pushing member states to grow their GDP no matter what.

Back in March, the EEB and a massive coalition of 270 civil society organisations launched a manifesto calling for a radically different European economy. The long-term goal is to transform the Stability and Growth Pact into a Sustainability and Wellbeing Pact. In the medium term, NGOs want to support anyone within or outside EU institutions who prepares for a “doughnut deal” to be launched as a necessary successor and implementation strategy of the Green Deal. And in the short term, they expect to see the implementation of the recently adopted EU Environmental Action Plan. The latter states that ‘people live well, within the planetary boundaries in a wellbeing economy where nothing is wasted, growth is regenerative, climate neutrality within the EU has been achieved and inequalities have been significantly reduced’. An indicator set beyond GDP has been promised as an enabling condition to achieve this objective. Now it is time to start that process.

Of course, that dashboard of indicators should also serve as a guide for broader EU policymaking. Because it combines many environmental and social concerns in a holistic framework, the doughnut economy is a great tool for shifting our focus to what really matters.

Milestone moments

There is yet another reason why the time to embrace the doughnut model is now. On 2 and 3 June, the UN will hold a major global conference in Stockholm to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the ground-breaking report The Limits to Growth, which came out just ahead of the first-ever multilateral UN conference on the environment. The Stockholm+50 meeting aims to accelerate the implementation of the UN Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the 2030 Agenda, Paris Agreement on climate change, the post-2020 global Biodiversity Framework, and encourage the adoption of green post-COVID-19 recovery plans.

Unfortunately, all indicators – from how much we dig to how much we emit, from chemical pollution to biodiversity collapse, and from insecurity to inequality – are pointing in the same direction: things are getting worse. Given Europe’s historic responsibility and position on the global stage, the EU really needs to lead by example. The EEB will participate with civil society partners in this global gathering, organising a special event to showcase promising practices from different countries and the EU.

The Stockholm+50 meeting doesn’t come out of the blue. Since 1972, we’ve known there are limits to growth. Since 1987, we know what our common future could look like. Since 2012 we have the SDGs, Agenda 2030 and the doughnut economy concept as an example of how to re-organise our economy.

Now it is time to step the game. We can listen to the advice of the European Commissions own expert group and avoid a green (washed) taxonomy that labels fossil gas and nuclear a green energy source. We can choose agroecology, with fewer and better animal proteins to drive down the current excess of nitrogen and phosphorus far beyond the limits. We can tackle overproduction and overconsumption at the source, with a binding material footprint reduction target of 65% by 2050. There is so much that we can do, right now, if we see a European economy within the doughnut sweet spot as a goal. The cost of inaction will be far more expensive, in the EU as well as beyond.