Leav­ing our chil­dren noth­ing

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Our gen­er­a­tion has a unique op­por­tu­nity. If we set our minds to it, we could be the first in hu­man history to leave our chil­dren noth­ing: no green­house-gas emis­sions, no poverty, and no bio­di­ver­sity loss.

That is the course that world lead­ers set when they met at the United Na­tions in New York on Septem­ber 25 to adopt the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals range from end­ing poverty and i mprov­ing health to pro­tect­ing the planet’s bio­sphere and pro­vid­ing energy for all. They emerged from the largest sum­mit in the UN’s history, the “Rio+20” con­fer­ence in 2012, fol­lowed by the largest con­sul­ta­tion the UN has ever un­der­taken.

Un­like their pre­de­ces­sor, the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals, which fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, the new global goals are uni­ver­sal and ap­ply to all coun­tries equally. Their adop­tion in­di­cates wide­spread ac­cep­tance of the fact that all coun­tries share re­spon­si­bil­ity for the long-term sta­bil­ity of Earth’s nat­u­ral cy­cles, on which the planet’s abil­ity to sup­port us de­pends.

In­deed, the SDGs are the first de­vel­op­ment frame­work that recog­nises a fun­da­men­tal shift in our re­la­tion­ship with the planet. For the first time in Earth’s 4.5-bil­lion-year history, the main fac­tors de­ter­min­ing the sta­bil­ity of its sys­tems are no longer the planet’s dis­tance from the sun or the strength or fre­quency of its vol­canic erup­tions; they are eco­nom­ics, pol­i­tics, and tech­nol­ogy.

For most of the past 12,000 years, Earth’s cli­mate was rel­a­tively sta­ble and the bio­sphere was re­silient and healthy. Ge­ol­o­gists call this pe­riod the Holocene. More re­cently, we have moved into what many are call­ing the An­thro­pocene, a far less pre­dictable era of hu­man-in­duced en­vi­ron­men­tal change.

This fun­da­men­tal shift ne­ces­si­tates a new eco­nomic model. No longer can we as­sume – as pre­vail­ing eco­nomic think­ing has – that re­sources are end­less. We may have once been a small so­ci­ety on a big planet. To­day, we are a big so­ci­ety on a small planet.

And yet, far from be­ing utopian, the SDGs are achiev­able by 2030. Some coun­tries, in­clud­ing Den­mark, Fin­land, Nor­way, and Swe­den are well on the way to achiev­ing many of them, and much progress is be­ing made else­where around the world. In the last few decades, poverty has been halved. De­spite the head­lines, vi­o­lent con­flict is on the wane. Dis­eases are be­ing erad­i­cated. The global pop­u­la­tion is set to sta­bi­lize. The ozone layer is show­ing signs of re­cov­ery. And the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion is dis­rupt­ing en­tire in­dus­tries in ways that could ben­e­fit the planet.

Erad­i­ca­tion of ex­treme poverty is well within our reach. To­day, about 800 mln peo­ple live on less than $1.25 a day. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent World Bank re­port, about 30% of them live in In­dia, a sleep­ing gi­ant about to in­dus­tri­alise, given the right in­cen­tives. Poverty is de­clin­ing in other coun­tries as well, in­clud­ing Nige­ria (where 10% of the poor­est live), China (home to 8%), and Bangladesh (6%).

The main source of doubt con­cerns wealthy coun­tries’ com­mit­ment to help de­vel­op­ing coun­tries cut green­house­gas emis­sions as they end poverty. With­out the proper as­sis­tance, poor coun­tries risk be­com­ing locked into re­liance on coal and oil for at least another gen­er­a­tion, putting the en­tire planet in cli­mate change.

World lead­ers need to re­alise that the cost of trans­form­ing the global energy sys­tem is far less than cop­ing with the con­se­quences of burn­ing the planet’s re­main­ing fos­sil fu­els. Re­search pub­lished this month con­cluded that con­sum­ing all re­main­ing hy­dro­car­bons would re­sult in the melt­ing of the en­tire Antarc­tic ice sheet, po­ten­tially rais­ing sea lev­els by 58 me­ters. And higher sea lev­els are just one po­ten­tial threat. Drought and crop fail­ure re­sult­ing from cli­mate change, for ex­am­ple, could trig­ger vi­o­lent con­flict.

For­tu­nately, there is abun­dant ev­i­dence that coun­tries and in­dus­tries can thrive with­out con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change. By 2030, sev­eral coun­tries are likely to have freed them­selves from fos­sil fu­els, with Swe­den, France, and Ger­many prob­a­bly in the lead. These coun­tries will have less air pol­lu­tion, im­proved health and well­be­ing, and thriv­ing economies.

Com­pa­nies such as Ikea and Unilever are lead­ing the way with gen­uine ef­forts to as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity for the planet’s cli­mate, re­sources, and ecosys­tems. One rea­son is that ris­ing con­sumer aware­ness makes ecosys­tem degra­da­tion bad for busi­ness. At the same time, all in­dus­tries, from in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy to agri­cul­ture, de­pend on ser­vices pro­vided by na­ture. Man­ag­ing forests, rivers, grass­lands, and coral reefs in sus­tain­able ways makes them more re­silient and in­creases their abil­ity to ab­sorb green­house gases, which is good for busi­ness.

We are the first gen­er­a­tion that can make an in­formed choice about the di­rec­tion our planet will take. Ei­ther we leave our de­scen­dants an en­dow­ment of zero poverty, zero fos­sil-fuel use, and zero bio­di­ver­sity loss, or we leave them fac­ing a tax bill from Earth that could wipe them out.

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