Spatial variability in sustainable development trajectories in South Africa: provincial level safe and just operating spaces

Megan J. Cole, Richard M. Bailey, Mark G. New

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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represents the first globally agreed framework to address human development and environmental stewardship in an integrated way. One approach to summarising national SDG status is our “barometer for inclusive sustainable development in South Africa”. The barometer downscales global social and planetary boundaries to provide status and trends for 20 critical indicators of environmental stress and social deprivation. In this paper, we explore the sub-national heterogeneity in sustainable development indicators by creating barometers defining the ‘safe and just operating space’ for South Africa’s nine provinces. Our results show that environmental stress varies significantly and provinces need to focus on quite different issues. Although generally environmental stress is increasing, there are areas where it is decreasing, most notably, marine harvesting. Social deprivation results show more of a pattern with high levels of deprivation in employment, income and safety across the provinces, and historically disadvantaged provinces showing the most deprivation overall. Although deprivation is generally decreasing, there are notable exceptions such as food security in six provinces. Our provincial barometers and trend plots are novel in that they present comparable environmental and social data on key indicators over time for all South Africa’s provinces. They are visual tools that communicate the range of key challenges and risks that provincial governments face, and are non-specialist and accessible to a range of audiences. In addition, the paper provides a critical case study of spatial disaggregation of national data that is required for the SDGs implementation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)829–848
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number5
Early online date7 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017


  • Disaggregation
  • Planetary boundaries
  • South Africa
  • Sustainable development
  • Sustainable development goals

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