Sunday, November 23, 2014

Seizing Sustainable Development

HELSINKI/JOHANNESBURG – The world is on an unsustainable path, and must urgently chart a new course forward, one that brings equity and environmental concerns into the economic mainstream. To do so, we must put sustainable development into practice now, not in spite of the economic crisis, but because of it.

Our challenges today are many. Economies are teetering, ecosystems are under siege, and inequality – within and between countries – is soaring. Taken together, these are symptoms that share a root cause: speculative and often narrow interests have superseded common interests, common responsibilities, and common sense.

As Co-Chairs of the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, we have been asked by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to work with 20 of the world’s most eminent leaders in grappling with these issues. Our task is clear: propose how to provide greater opportunity for more people with less impact on our planet.

A quarter-century ago, the Brundtland report, named for former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland, called for a new paradigm of sustainable development. It stated that durable economic growth, social equality, and environmental sustainability are mutually interdependent. Human well-being depends on their integration.

We are convinced not only that this concept is sound, but also that it remains more relevant than ever. Now we need to put theory into practice by moving sustainable development into mainstream economics and making clear the costs of action – and inaction – today and in the future.

By 2030, as the human population swells and appetites increase, the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy, and 30% more water. Our planet is approaching, and even exceeding, scientific tipping points. This has serious implications for how we manage the global commons – and for reducing poverty: if developing countries are to realize their legitimate growth aspirations, they will need more time, as well as financial and technological support, to make the transition to sustainability.

Yet we remain optimistic. Representative democracy is now the world’s dominant form of government. Advances in science have given us a better understanding of climate and ecosystem risks. Billions of people are connected by technologies that have shrunk the world and expanded the notion of a global neighborhood. We believe that we can summon the wit and the will to choose our future, rather than have it choose us.

The greatest risk lies in continuing down our current path. In 2030, a child born this year will come of age. We cannot mortgage her future to pay for an inherently unsustainable and inequitable way of life.

So, how do we begin to tackle the massive challenge of retooling our global economy, preserving the environment, and providing greater opportunity and equity, including gender equality, to all? The Panel’s report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, offers suggestions.

First, we need to measure and price what matters. The marketplace needs to reflect the full ecological and human costs of economic decisions and establish price signals that make transparent the consequences of action – and inaction. Pollution – including carbon emissions – must no longer be free. Price- and trade-distorting subsidies should be made transparent and phased out for fossil fuels by 2020. We also need to build new ways to measure development beyond GDP, and propose a new sustainable development index by 2014.

Second, we must put science at the center of sustainability. We live in an era of unprecedented human impact on the planet, coupled with unprecedented technological change. Science must point the way to more informed and integrated policy-making, including on climate change, biodiversity, ocean and coastal management, water and food scarcities, and planetary “boundaries” (the scientific thresholds that define a “safe operating space” for humanity). To see the big picture, we propose a regular Global Sustainability Outlook that integrates knowledge across sectors and institutions.

Third, we need to provide incentives to take the long view. The tyranny of the urgent is never more absolute than during tough times. We need to place long-term thinking above short-term demands, both in the marketplace and at the polling place.

Limited public funds should be used strategically to unlock greater private investment flows, share risks, and expand access to the building blocks of prosperity, including modern energy services. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals – aimed at, among other things, halving global poverty by 2015 – have served us well. Governments should develop a post-2015 set of universally applicable Sustainable Development Goals that can galvanize long-term action beyond electoral cycles.

Fourth, we should prepare for a rough ride ahead, because extreme weather, resource scarcity, and price volatility have become the “new normal.” We need to strengthen our resilience by promoting disaster risk reduction, adaptation, and sound safety nets for the most vulnerable. This is an investment in our common future.

Fifth, it is crucial to value equity as opportunity. Inequality and exclusion of women, young people, and the poor undermines global growth and threatens to unravel the compact between society and its institutions. Empowering women has the potential to reap tremendous benefits, not least for the global economy.

Ensuring that developing countries have the time – and the financial and technical support – to make the transition to sustainable development ultimately benefits all. Promoting fairness and inclusion is the right thing to do – and the smart thing to do for lasting prosperity and stability.

No expert panel, including ours, has all the answers. But if we work together, we can help to steer our world onto a safer, more equitable, and more prosperous course. We call on leaders across all sectors of society to join us. The need is urgent; the opportunity, enormous. Let us seize it.

This column was produced within the framework of the EC-funded “V4Aid” project. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the view of the EU.

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    1. CommentedGabriel Nagy

      On the way towards achieving some sort of “sustainable” development -a concept that is commonplace nowadays, many forget how we got here and that not all countries, regions and cities are at the same level in the development process.
      There is more at stake in evolution than just preserving the world’s economic growth and the ‘developed’ world privileges (accumulated through hundreds of years of exploitation and colonization). If we are to preserve life, which is what at the end matters, it is necessary to continue evolving, learning from the experience and adapting accordingly. Challenges remain the same: survival, equity, opportunity -within our means, respects for others and reverence for the environment. There is no master plan, Holy Grail, or Nirvana. Time, experience and geography shape the world’s regions, nations and cities making them different and unique. Only a detailed study of history, fact finding research and a sound analysis could provide some light for adaptation but no expert panel has all the answers.

    2. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      I cannot agree more on the pricing of opportunities that must have a fair deal for the community at large and not be priced based on market forces only that distort reality as a core strategy; it may seem utopian but utopia got the better off stark reality that brought the semblance of balance in an otherwise partisan terrain that brought the moral divide between distortion of reality and that which is common good. For common good to triumph we must end the nexus between seekers of market distortion and those who provide all forms of credit to them.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with all the suggestions.

      There is only one thing missing: motivation.

      Our inherent nature revolves around ourselves, we always think about our own well being, our own health, our own profit first, and then if we still have some surplus we might share it with others.

      There is nothing we can blame here this is how we are born.

      So if this is the case why would those who still has much, and now fear they might not have that much later on start sharing with others?

      This would go against human nature!

      Until we truly understand what it means living in a global world, that we are in such an integral interdependent system that I cannot succeed, cannot prosper, cannot survive unless the whole network is healthy, and that for any calculation and action I have to take the whole system into consideration before my own needs simply because otherwise I do not get my fulfillment, we will not change.

      Then we will just continue with the superficial adjustment within the same box, within the same paradigm no achieving anything but exhausting our last resources.

      We need to start such a global, integral education program that could make it absolutely clear to each and every human being that unless we work together, in complete mutuality and equality none of us will be able to create a sustainable future for ourselves, and we risk extinction not in some faraway future but within our lifetime.

      If Humanity starts working as a single, united organism, like cells and organs of a healthy body we have unlimited potential and we can truly control reality, if we behave like cancer cells like today, we will destroy everything.