from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Eating Our Seed Corn: Warnings from the Global Sustainability Report

February 8, 2012
2:37 pm (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Last week, as the world’s media focused on the deepening crisis over Syria, it missed a less pressing story with profound long-term implications. The High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, released a sobering assessment for the world’s seven billion inhabitants. The document—Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing­­—offers humanity a stark choice: modify our patterns of production and consumption, or risk crashing through the “planetary boundaries” of growth and social progress.

It’s easy to mock UN reports, particularly from “high-level” panels. (Does the UN have any other kind?) But this document is an eye-opener—and offers some crucial recommendations for the Rio+20 mega conference in June.

First, it highlights just how far the world is from realizing the vision of “sustainable development.” That paradigm, introduced by the Bruntland Commission in its 1987 report, Our Common Futureis deceptively simple.

Sustainable development is not a synonym for “environmental protection,” as Resilient People underlines. It’s about ensuring that today’s actions, particularly in the economic sphere, advance growth and social welfare but don’t undermine critical ecosystem services. Fundamentally, it recognizes that our demand for water, food, land, and energy should not come at the expense of future generations. We must respect the environmental limits, or expand them through technological innovation and creative adaptation.

The panel’s twenty-two global luminaries don’t pull their punches. From a development perspective, the planet is “experiencing the best of times, and the worst of times.” On the positive side, the proportion of the world’s inhabitants living in absolute poverty has declined from 46 to 27 percent since 1990. Over the same period, global GDP per capita has surged 75 percent, average life expectancy has risen by 3.5 years, and primary school enrollment has soared. Nevertheless, 884 million people go without clean water, 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation and the number of malnourished has swollen by 20 million since 2000.

Mother Nature has also taken it on the chin. As humans degrade the earth’s terrestrial, marine, and atmospheric resources, entire ecosystems are destroyed and biodiversity suffers. Each year, the world loses another 5.2 million hectares (net) of forest—an area twice the size of New Jersey. The oceans are polluted, coral reefs are dying off at alarming rates and 85 percent of all marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted, or barely recovering. Meanwhile, annual carbon dioxide emissions have jumped 40 percent since 1990. Accelerating climate change portends reduced crop yields and water availability, land degradation and desertification, catastrophic sea level rise, and the spread of disease. Overall, scientists estimate, two-thirds of the “ecosystem services” nature provides to humankind are in decline. “In effect,” the report notes, we are “running down natural capital assets.”

Can anything be done to reverse this trajectory? Demographic and economic trends would seem to offer more grounds for despair than hope. The global population will jump to nine billion by 2040, before topping out at ten billion in 2100. A projected surge in the “global middle class” from 1.8 billion to 4.9 billion by 2030 will place extraordinary strains on natural resources and ecosystems. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified at least nine thresholds or tipping points that could bring about “irreversible and abrupt environmental change.” These include (among others) unchecked climate change, accelerated biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification.

Resilient People offers a bewildering array of policy recommendations (fifty-six in all). Many proposals are familiar and hortatory, like asking governments to promote sustainable development principles or invest in a “new green revolution.” But a few recommendations are more innovative.

Among the most important is a proposal that governments take vigorous action to incorporate the ecological costs of economic activities, by adopting regulatory and pricing policies that reflect “externalities” borne by the environment. Beyond placing a price on carbon and ecosystem services, Resilient People calls on governments to reduce inefficient subsidies, particularly on fuel; to adopt “green” public procurement policies; to provide incentives for corporations and sovereign wealth funds to consider sustainability in investment decisions; and to experiment with innovative financing sources modeled on the secretary-general’s advisory group on climate change financing.  More path-breaking still, the authors call for the creation of a sustainable development index, to be developed by 2014, that would capture concerns ignored by a conventional focus on GDP growth as the measure of economic success and social progress.

Does the crisis of sustainable development warrant new institutions of global governance? Here, the panel makes some of its boldest recommendations. The report identifies a weak and fragmented system of global environmental cooperation, with “hundreds of environmental agreements covering various issues and a wide range of institutions with overlapping roles. There is growing consensus regarding the need for a strengthened and simplified environmental institutional architecture.” Wisely, the panel avoids proposing a World Environmental Organization (as some countries occasionally have). Instead, it calls for “strengthening” the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), and possibly upgrading it to a specialized UN agency. That would put UNEP on an equal footing—and in a stronger position to work—with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on sustainable development.

Beyond this reform, the report makes a strong case that “sustainable development” provides a natural successor to the Millennium Development Goals after their 2015 deadline. The panel calls on UN member states to begin formulating a set of “sustainable development goals”—why not call them SDGs?—to galvanize international action through 2030. To measure progress towards these objectives, the panel further calls on the secretary-general to launch an up-to-date report of national and international sustainable development successes and failures—to be overseen by a “global sustainable development council.”  The new council would serve as a peer review mechanism to encourage states “to explain their policies, to share their experiences and lessons learned, and to fulfill their commitments.”

Collectively, these steps would represent a huge step forward in global environmental governance. Let’s hope they get an adequate airing at the upcoming Rio+20 conference this June.

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