Report: Sustainable Development Never Took Hold, but Time Is Running Out

January 30, 2012 Updated: February 7, 2012
According to a U.N. report published Monday, the world will need 30 percent more clean water by 2030. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

With the world population rapidly expanding, global policymakers and influencers are in a race against the clock to figure out how to meet rising demands for fuel, food, and water. While the concept is not new, the urgency is acute, and the world finally needs to act on it, concludes the awaited final report of the United Nations High-level Panel on Global Sustainability that was released on Monday.

The 22-member panel, headed by South African President Jacob Zuma and Finnish President Tarja Halonen, was established in 2010 to chart a course for the world based on sustainable development and low-carbon prosperity. They call their 99-page (unformatted) report “Resilient People, Resilient Plant: A Future Worth Choosing.”

The important precursor to the panel dates back to 1987, when the Brundtland Report first introduced the concept of sustainable development as a new paradigm for economic growth that included social equality and environmental sustainability.

But while the term is now ubiquitously brandished, it has never been truly implemented. Why? “A failure of political will,” conclude the panelists after looking back at the last quarter of a century.

In practice, they say, sustainable development failed because it never made it into the mainstream of the economic policy debate. Instead, economic decision makers have treated its elements as externalities, versus macroeconomic, or any other economic level, management goal.

A Cambodian farmer cuts rice in a field in Kampong Speu Province on Nov. 14, 2010. In a report published Monday, the U.N. says that the current economic system cannot meet the growing global demands for food, fuel, and water. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

Charles Dickens is paraphrased in the beginning of the report, saying that “our planet and our world are experiencing the best of times, and the worst of times,” referring to the massive inequality between the world’s rich and poor, as well as the huge surge in population.

The global population will increase from 7 billion today to nearly 9 billion by 2040, the report states. At the same time, there will be 3 billion more middle-class consumers in the next 20 years, forcing an exponential rise in the demand for resources.

By 2030, compared to today, it is estimated the world will need “at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy, and 30 percent more water,” the report states. If governments do not act to address these issues, there will be 3 billion people in poverty. 

Time is Now 

The panel offers 56 recommendations to speed up and deepen the process of change toward true sustainable development. Their framework aims at bypassing political, economic, and social hurdles that imperil sustainable growth. 

“Democratic governance and full respect for human rights are key prerequisites for empowering people to make sustainable choices,” said the report. “The peoples of the world will simply not tolerate continued environmental devastation or the persistent inequality, which offends deeply held universal principles of social justice.”

Currently, the world’s development model is not sustainable and to achieve this, the global economy must be changed, the panel said. “Economists, social activists, and environmental scientists have simply talked past each other—almost speaking different languages, or at least different dialects,” it added, stating that there needs to be a unification of these aforementioned disciplines to enact actual change.

Nations should create a global education fund, improve upon human rights, and give more opportunities to women to improve upon the global economy, the panel recommends. At the same time, governments need to spend more on agricultural research, protect land and water, protecting endangered species, and curb general pollution.

Compared with 2000, there are 20 million more undernourished people around the world and 12.8 million acres of forest have been lost each year. However, the report said the number of people living in abject poverty has dropped from 46 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in recent years.

“It is time to embrace a second green revolution —an ‘ever-green revolution’— that doubles yields, but builds on sustainability principles” at a time when the world’s economy is still reeling, the report states.

Carbon and natural resources should be taxed, with regulations and emissions trading schemes implemented by 2020, and subsidies for fossil fuels should be done away with, the report states. Social and environmental costs of goods should be taken into account.

Overall, the panel said that politicians and economists focus too much on the short term when making decisions because there are little rewards for long-term, sustainable development. Investors and politicians are rewarded if the economy does well on a yearly basis.

The test will be how the report and its recommendations are received by both policymakers and sustainable development proponents.

Jim Leape, the head of the World Wildlife Fund environmental group, applauded the overall direction of the panel. “[The] report gives the highest level political signal yet of greater readiness to take the bold steps needed to build a prosperous future.”

However, he also criticizes it for being too short on specifics. “It fails to suggest any concrete, time-bound commitments for progress, leaving policies open to governments to implement as they saw fit.”