UN report: Lack of political will hindering sustainable development

By Tierney Smith

The report sets out 56 steps towards global sustainability (Source: UN/Eskinder Debebe)

The long-term resilience of people and the planet must be at the heart of all economic and political decisions, says a new report from the United Nations.

The report by the high-level panel on global sustainability – established in 2010 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – said the world must change the way it does business, looking beyond GDP and bringing equity and environmental science to the forefront of the debate.

Recommendations include the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, the provision of new opportunities for green growth and analysis of the full environmental costs of production and consumption.

“For too long, economists, social activists and environmental scientists have simply talked past each other — almost speaking different languages, or at least different dialects,” the foreword reads.

“The time has come to unify the disciplines, to develop a common language for sustainable development that transcends the warring camps; in other words, to bring the sustainable development paradigm into mainstream economics.”

In 1987, a landmark study by the World Commission on Environment and Development – known as the Brundtland report – introduced the concept of sustainable development into the international debate.

A quarter of a century later, the current report: “Resilient people, resilient planet: A future worth choosing”, highlights how little the debate has moved forward and calls for the widely accepted idea of sustainable development to become day-day reality on the ground.

The report says there are two reasons why this has yet to happen. Sustainable development has suffered from a failure of political will and a lack of presence in both the national and international economic debate.

The report sets out 56 recommendations towards sustainable development ahead of the Rio+20 conference to be held this June – below we have highlighted 12 key areas.

The high-level panel was put together in 2010 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Source: UN)

1.) The three key areas of water, energy and food must be integrated together and no longer treated a separate issues if the world is to face the looming food security crisis.

2.) Science and policy must also be better integrated including agreed definitions of “planetary boundaries”, “environmental thresholds” and “tipping points”. More emphasis should also be given to the oceans and the “blue economy.”

3.) Consensus must be reached on the full environmental and social costs of production and consumption, offering new opportunities for green growth.

4.) Social inclusion must be addressed and widening social inequality targeted.

5.) Equity must be at the forefront of sustainable development. Young people should be included in society, politics, labour and business development.

6.) Gender equality must also be addressed for any serious shift towards sustainable development to be successful.

7.) The international community should measure development beyond GDP and look for a new sustainable development index.

8.)  Vast new sources of capital – both private and public – will need to be mobilised, and development assistance will remain critical.

9.) Sustainable development must be at the forefront of political agendas and budgets.

10.) International institutions will play a critical role in the move to sustainable government. The creation of a global sustainable development council and the adoption of sustainable development goals should be considered.

11.) Resources for adaptation and disaster risk reduction should be increased.

12.) Governments, markets and people must all look beyond the short term, and incentives favouring the short term must be challenged. Sustainable choices must become more available and affordable for consumers.


Speaking at the report launch, South African President, Jacob Zuma, chair of the high-level panel said:

“With the possibility of the world slipping further into recession, policymakers are hungry for ideas that can help them to navigate these difficult times. Our report makes clear that sustainable development is more important than ever given the multiple crises now enveloping the world.”

In a statement following the reports release, Connie Hedeggard, European Commissioner for Climate Action said:

“The world must decide now what to do with it [the report]: either take it as another report for another shelf or to take it as a serious wake-up call and act. The world’s leaders will have a very good first opportunity to act in the Rio+20 summit in June. They need to agree on targets for access to sustainable energy and renewables. And they must get the pricing of good and services right. While private capital seeks profits, one must see that the cost of production is not the only thing that determines the value of a product. Its social and environmental costs must be priced as well.”

Sarah Best from Oxfam International said:

“The Panel’s report is a welcoming rallying cry for the vision of a sustainable, fair and resilient future that Oxfam fully shares. But their recommendations don’t deliver the quantum leap the Panel calls for. It’s weak medicine for such a life-threatening diagnosis. World leaders will need to do better when they meet at the UN summit in Rio in June.”

The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights welcomed the Panel’s report and say they hope it will generate the momentum needed in the build up to the Rio+20 conference.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the Elders, said:

“If decision-makers continue to focus mainly on economic growth to address the needs of humanity, rather than taking a range of factors into account in a more sustainable approach, they risk leaving future generations an even more polarised and dangerous world.”

Gro Brundtland, member of the UN Global Sustainability Panel and former World Commission on Environment and Development who produced the Brundtland report said:

We now need to act much more forceful. There is no alternative pathway ahead. For 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit, these issues have been widely debated, with the acknowledgement that only an integrated approach that embraces intra- and inter-generational equity will secure a sustainable future for humankind.”

Contact the author at [email protected] or @rtcc_tierney.

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