Rad­i­cal goals for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Let us imag­ine for a mo­ment that we could change the world ac­cord­ing to our wishes. Dra­matic eco­nomic in­equal­ity gives way to so­cial and po­lit­i­cal in­clu­sion. Univer­sal hu­man rights be­come a re­al­ity. We end de­for­esta­tion and the de­struc­tion of arable land. Fish stocks re­cover. Two bil­lion peo­ple look for­ward to a life with­out poverty, hunger, and vi­o­lence. Rather than pay­ing lip ser­vice to cli­mate change and re­source scarcity, we start to re­spect and up­hold the lim­its of our planet and its at­mos­phere.

That was the aim in 2001, when the United Na­tions adopted the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals. And it will be the aim next year, when the MDGs ex­pire and the UN adopts a suc­ces­sor frame­work for en­vi­ron­men­tal and de­vel­op­ment pol­icy. The com­ing set of Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs) will seek to pro­tect ecosys­tems, con­serve re­sources, and, as with the MDGs, lift mil­lions of peo­ple out of poverty.

Com­bin­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and de­vel­op­men­tal frame­works is a good idea – one that builds on the suc­cess of a host of legally bind­ing in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions and agree­ments crafted un­der the UN’s aus­pices to pro­tect the cli­mate, con­serve bio­di­ver­sity, up­hold hu­man rights, and re­duce poverty. Though they may not be per­fect – and, un­for­tu­nately, the coun­tries that rat­ify them do not al­ways achieve the tar­gets – they have led to the cre­ation of in­sti­tu­tional pro­cesses that en­cour­age coun­tries to meet their prom­ises and em­bolden cit­i­zens to hold gov­ern­ments ac­count­able.

But, though the SDGs will thus stand on solid le­gal ground, that ground must be de­vel­oped fur­ther. For starters, global agree­ments and tar­gets have not yet been put in place for ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the de­struc­tion of fer­tile top­soil and global plas­tic pro­duc­tion. Such agree­ments will be nec­es­sary to en­able the SDGs to con­sider hu­man rights, the en­vi­ron­ment, and de­vel­op­ment holis­ti­cally.

Re­searchers and civil-so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions have been call­ing for a re­ver­sal of soil degra­da­tion by 2020, and are press­ing for at least one in­ter­na­tional panel of ex­perts to meet at the UN to ad­dress this cen­tral as­pect of global food se­cu­rity. Ev­ery year, 12 mil­lion hectares of land – an area the size of Aus­tria and Switzer­land – are lost to overuse and ex­ces­sive ap­pli­ca­tion of fer­tilis­ers. The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact is mag­ni­fied by large-scale farm­ing. The so­cial con­se­quences can also be se­vere: evic­tion, the loss of liveli­hoods, and vi­o­lent con­flict.

The use of plas­tic must also be reined in. Since the 1950s, world­wide pro­duc­tion has in­creased by a fac­tor of one hun­dred. Ev­ery year, more than 280 mln tons of plas­tic is pro­duced, with vast quan­ti­ties mak­ing their way into ground­wa­ter, rivers, and oceans – and on­ward up the food chain. Though plas­tic is not biodegrad­able, not a sin­gle coun­try has pledged to pre­vent it from en­ter­ing our en­vi­ron­ment.

Another largely un­ex­plored pos­si­bil­ity would be to set tar­gets for phas­ing out en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing and so­cially detri­men­tal sub­si­dies. Glob­ally, such sub­si­dies, like those of­fered by the Euro­pean Union’s Common Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy, run into the hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars, drain­ing bud­gets and of­ten do­ing noth­ing for the poor. Cut­ting them would not only re­move per­verse in­cen­tives; it would also free up money for ed­u­ca­tion, univer­sal health care, and in­fra­struc­ture in ru­ral in­come op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Un­for­tu­nately, we are un­likely to get the world of our wishes. The SDG ne­go­ti­a­tions re­flect what is cur­rently pos­si­ble in a mul­ti­lat­eral frame­work: rel­a­tively lit­tle. No gov­ern­ment is truly will­ing to tackle the causes of in­equal­ity and hunger, which would re­quire mak­ing fair tax­a­tion and com­pre­hen­sive wel­fare a top pri­or­ity. Such re­forms would be more ef­fec­tive than any de­vel­op­ment aid, but for now they are off lim­its.

The rules of the global econ­omy also re­main un­touch­able, mak­ing it nearly im­pos­si­ble to re­struc­ture fi­nan­cial and trade poli­cies to en­sure that they do not re­sult in more poverty, unchecked cli­mate change, and ir­re­versible re­source de­struc­tion. The lan­guage agreed upon so far is not re­as­sur­ing. A time­worn com­mit­ment to eco­nomic growth at all cost is no an­swer to the ques­tion of how de­vel­op­ment can be bal­anced against the lim­its of our planet and the fact that bil­lions of peo­ple live in poverty. In a fi­nite world, in­fi­nite growth is im­pos­si­ble, and ris­ing out­put will not put food on ev­ery­one’s ta­ble if the ben­e­fits of growth are not fairly dis­trib­uted. It is not only the ad­vanced coun­tries that are im­ped­ing the cre­ation of a bolder de­vel­op­ment agenda. Elites in emerg­ing and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are us­ing the SDG ne­go­ti­a­tions pri­mar­ily as a plat­form to call for in­ter­na­tional aid trans­fers.

The UN is only as good as its mem­bers. We will know how good they are by the ex­tent to which they view the SDGs as an op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish truly new pri­or­i­ties and truly univer­sal goals for en­vi­ron­men­tal and de­vel­op­ment pol­icy in the twenty-first cen­tury.

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