Flood water in Sylhet City Md. Akhlas Uddin/ZumaPress

Securing a Sustainable Future

The world is at a crossroads, and much of the progress made in fighting poverty and promoting social justice risks vanishing into thin air. If sustainable development is to be achieved, world leaders must agree to minimize climate change.

LONDON – When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that “All that is solid melts into air,” they intended it as a metaphor for the disruptive transformations that the Industrial Revolution implied for established social norms. Today, their words can be taken literally: Carbon-dioxide emissions and other industrial pollutants released into the atmosphere are changing the planet – with huge implications for the environment, health, population movements, and social justice. The world is at a crossroads, and much of the progress we have made in these areas could vanish into thin air.

In 2007, Nelson Mandela founded The Elders to address just such risks, mandating this independent group of former leaders to “speak truth unto power.” That is what we will do at the launch of the new Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

The SDGs will succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which guided international development efforts from 2000-2015. The MDGs helped millions of people escape illiteracy, disease, and hunger, and placed development at the heart of the global political agenda. However, their overall impact was often inadequate, particularly in fragile, conflict-ridden states – and they failed to include sustainability in their targets.

The SDGs represent a quantum leap forward, because they recognize the vital links among challenges – including poverty in all its forms, gender inequality, climate change, and poor governance – that must be addressed in tandem. Seventeen separate goals may seem unwieldy, but their cumulative effect should mean that no topic or constituency falls through the cracks. Sustainability is finally being integrated into global development, in line with what campaigners have been demanding for decades.

As former leaders from the global North and South, respectively, we are particularly pleased that the SDGs will apply to all UN member states and not just those in the developing world. In this way, we hope they will become as “universal” as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a vital element of the civic armory in the fight for fairness.

Implementation and accountability are key. Fine words are not enough; leaders must commit to putting them into action, and civil society must be vigilant in tracking progress and blowing the whistle when not enough is being done. Too often, summit declarations have melted into air once the delegations went home and short-term political calculus regained the upper hand.

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This time, the stakes are too high. The decisions taken this year, at the SDG summit and at the climate conference in Paris in December, will have a lasting impact on our planet’s future. A stable climate underpins prosperity, poverty reduction, and the rule of law. If world leaders in Paris do not agree to credible measures to keep a rise in temperatures to below two degrees Celsius, the SDGs will not be realized.

We do not face a choice between reducing poverty and addressing climate change, as the fossil-fuel companies maintain. Indeed, the dangerous effects of climate change threaten to undo the development gains that the MDGs helped to achieve. We risk a world of suffocating heat waves, severe droughts, disastrous floods, and devastating wildfires. Entire regions could experience catastrophic declines in food production. Sea levels could rise, drowning major cities and small island states. Large populations would be displaced, exacerbating existing economic strains and social tensions.

At the same time, there is an emerging consensus – among grassroots organizations and central bankers alike – that inequality poses a serious threat to people’s livelihoods and prosperity worldwide. Globalization has led to a weakening of social contracts within nation-states and regional blocs and even among continents.

The answer to inequality cannot be to build walls, hoard wealth, and stigmatize the poor and vulnerable. Sustainable prosperity requires that all groups within a society share equitably in the benefits of economic growth – especially as our societies become ever more interdependent. For this reason, we are particularly encouraged by Goal 10 of the SDGs, with its commitment to reducing inequality within and among countries, as well as the focus on gender equality throughout the goals.

We know that any framework or process will have its limitations. International summits are too often conducted in a way that is remote and alienating for people outside the conference hall. Back in the 1980s, the UN commissioned what became known as the Brundtland Report to address mounting global concern about damaging environmental, social, and economic trends. The report defined the concept of “sustainable development” and called for radical change. It warned that, “Unless we are able to translate our words into a language that can reach the minds and hearts of people young and old, we shall not be able to undertake the extensive social changes needed to correct the course of development.”

Sustainable growth and development policies cannot be imposed by diktat; they must be designed and implemented in a way that heeds the views and experiences of ordinary citizens. To implement the SDGs and minimize climate change, massive shifts will be required to move away from our fossil-fuel-driven economic model. Public understanding and consent will be crucial.

World leaders must have the courage to take bold decisions, explain their necessity, and implement them in a just and effective way. They have no right to deny a decent future to our grandchildren. It is no longer a question of choices, but an obligation to prevent catastrophe. The time for action is now. We must not allow this opportunity to melt away.