Rio+20 Comment: Seizing Sustainable Development

By Tarja Halonen and Jacob Zuma

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 Taken together, these are symptoms that share a root cause, whereby speculative and often narrow interests have superseded common interests, common responsibilities, and common sense.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 that this concept is not only 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 eco-system 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, released last week, 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 among other things at 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 ramp up resilience for the 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 detracts from 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 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.

Tarja Halonen is President of the Republic of Finland. Jacob Zuma is President of the Republic of South Africa. They serve as Co-Chairs of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability.

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