The current global development model is unsustainable, but it can be fixed.  These are the findings of a distinguished group of laureates of the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Prize who contributed to the recent report, “Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act.”  Since the prize was established in the year of the Rio Earth Summit (1992), recipients have included the likes of Gro Harlem Brundtland, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, Bunker Roy of Barefoot College and Will Turner of Conservation International.

The Problem

Rapid population growth and excessive consumption lay at the heart of the challenges to sustainable development.  According to the report, “Civilization is faced with a perfect storm of problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, the use of environmentally malign technologies, and gross inequalities.”

This is not to discount the role that economic development has played in lifting billions of people out of extreme poverty and improving living standards around the world.  The laureates point to the economic emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as “a major success story.”

Rather, the report emphasizes that unsustainable behavior and increasing inequality will impede future development and even threaten to take back some of the gains that have already been made.  While the per capita emissions of developed countries are far higher, the energy intensive development of the BRIC countries, “is associated with a significant increase in their GHG emissions (particularly CO2) … from 15 to 35 percent of global emissions over the last 60 years.”

The complexities of the problem make it hard to grasp and far too easy to ignore: “The human ability to do has vastly outstripped the ability to understand.”

Energy and Climate Change

Human-induced climate change is primarily a result of the way the world has chosen to produce and use energy.  Climate-altering fossil fuels account for some 90 percent of global energy needs, excluding some 12 percent of energy that comes from “traditionally scavenged biomass” like coal, wood and peat.

More compelling facts from the report put the issue in better perspective: “The global population, which has now passed 7 billion people, and the average per capita energy consumption have both increased sevenfold over the past 150 years, for an overall fifty-fold increase in the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”  In the laureates’ assessment, thus far, “The global community’s attempts to address climate change have been hopelessly inadequate.”

The report traces the crux of many energy issues to market failures and misaligned incentives.  Inefficient, environmentally damaging subsidies and tax codes have long favored fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy alternatives.

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

“Two-thirds of ecosystem services are currently being degraded globally, which will soon amount to an estimated loss of $500 billion annually in benefits,” according to the report.

Biodiversity “runs human life-support systems.”  The essential ecosystem services of biodiversity include: 1) providing food, water, fiber and fuel; 2) regulating climate, floods and diseases; and 3) offering aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational cultural benefits.

Costly biodiversity losses and the impairment of ecosystem services are driven by: 1) the conversion and irresponsible use of natural habitats; 2) excessive exploitation of the earth’s limited and declining supply of natural resources; 3) the introduction of exotic species in places where they do not belong; and 4) human-induced climate change.

Correcting market failures that underestimate or entirely exclude the full economic and social value of biodiversity and ecosystem services is a “particularly urgent and important” component of a new model for sustainable development.

Food Security

More than one billion people still go to bed hungry each night.  The need to increase agricultural productivity while reducing the ecological footprint of food production is a key challenge of meeting the increasing global demand for food, which is expected to double in the next 25 to 50 years.  The laureates advocate a worthy objective: “The Right to Food should become a basic human right; a combination of political will, farmers’ skill and scientists’ commitment will be needed to achieve this goal.”

Water Security

Regardless of climate change, over half the world’s population is projected to live in areas of severe water stress by 2025.  Fifty to sixty percent of wetlands have already been lost.  Global warming will only contribute to expediting and exacerbating the challenges to the world’s water sources.

Human Security

Issues of food and resource security raise the risk of human conflict.  The map below shows areas of recent and potential future conflicts related to water scarcity, demography, crop decline, hunger and coastal risk.

Women’s Health and Demographics

Global funding for family planning and reproductive health care, which are central to the well-being of poor girls and women in developing countries, decreased by 30 percent between 1995 and 2008.  The laureates pull no punches by positing the decline is, “not least … a result of legislative pressure from the religious right in the USA and elsewhere.”

The Way Forward

The laureates call for immediate action on a number of fronts to address the urgency of the economic and development challenges at hand.

  • Value and Price in Environmental and Social Impacts – “The value of ecosystem services and natural capital must be incorporated in national accounting and decision-making processes across all sectors of society.”  Factoring the full value of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decisions about energy production and use is a critical component of transitioning from climate-changing fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
  • Grow Green – Low-carbon, green growth is “the only sound basis for a sustainable recovery” from the prolonged economic slowdown in developed countries.  If existing barriers are lowered and technologies scaled up accordingly, “the share of renewable energy in global primary energy could increase to 30 to 75 percent.”
  • Empower Girls and Women – Involving girls and women makes development efforts more effective, improves well-being and reduces inequality.  Women have critical parts to play in increasing agricultural productivity and managing the environment.  The report observes, “The next major increment of global well-being could well come from the full empowerment of women.”
  • Adapt to Climate Change – Climate change is real and inevitable.  Even in the best case scenarios, countries need to take action to minimize the threats to living environments and loss of economic opportunities.
  • Define and Operationalize Sustainability – The report points out that a clear, working definition and set of guiding principles for pursuing sustainability is “mandatory” for evaluating tradeoffs, calculating potentials and impacts and cooperating across sectors and disciplines.
  • Cooperate Regionally – Regional cooperation has often proven more effective than more expansive global cooperation efforts.  The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is cited as an example of a regional grouping of countries that has developed a common vision and interests which can facilitate the pursuit of sustainable development.  Successful regional efforts can also “grow into global building blocks.”
  • Mainstream Grass Roots Action and Solutions – The report calls attention to the success that community groups, often in poor, rural areas, have had with influencing regional and national policy since Rio 1992.  Their efforts have also yielded valuable lessons, “if only we have the humility and ability to listen.”  Among them, the answer to addressing poverty and climate change is primarily social rather than technical.  In India, discontent with government inaction led to Public Hearings and Social Audits that now benefit nearly 600,000 villages.  Grass roots groups have also used South-South partnerships to transfer “traditional knowledge, village skills and practical wisdom” between communities and across continents that have had “an incredible impact on improving the quality of life.”

Time for Change

The challenge of addressing the real risks to sustainable development is exacerbated by an irrational, short-sided belief in the “perpetual growth myth.”  Particularly in developed countries, too many people continue to blindly trust that economic expansion will somehow resolve the unpleasant issues of the day.

The laureates beg to differ that, “Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”  Fortunately, they offer hope that sustainable, equitable development “is an achievable dream” provided we are willing and able to make fundamental changes to the way things have been done so far.

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Sustainability and Equity: UNDP Human Development Report (HDR) 2011

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