The UN has just released a new report on sustainable development, aimed at addressing both our ever-and-increasingly pressing environmental problems while at the same time combatting poverty, social, and gender inequality. In terms of solutions, they might as well have just told people to go read TreeHugger.
In the overview of the report (titled impressively, "Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future World Choosing —The Report of the Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Global Sustainability), the state of the challenges humanity collectively faces over the coming decades and century are amply outlined, as is repeatedly stating that sustainable development hasn't sufficiently been incorporated into business or political decisions.None of it should come as much of a shock to avid TreeHugger readers or green aficionados.
Part of the background:
But what, then, is to be done if we are to make a real difference for the world’s people and the planet? We must grasp the dimensions of the challenge. We must recognize that the drivers of that challenge include unsustainable lifestyles, production and consumption patterns and the impact of population growth. As the global population grows from 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially. By 2030, the world will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water — all at a time when environmental boundaries are throwing up new limits to supply. This is true not least for climate change, which affects all aspects of human and planetary health.
The current global development model is unsustainable. We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities. At the same time, such thresholds should not be used to impose arbitrary growth ceilings on developing countries seeking to lift their people out of poverty. Indeed, if we fail to resolve the sustain- able development dilemma, we run the risk of condemning up to 3 billion members of our human family to a life of endemic poverty. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable, and we must find a new way forward.
Note that that this report is saying 9 billion people by 2040, not 2050, as is popularly cited.
So how to find that new way forward?
Given the nature of the report, indeed any report attempting to cover so much ground, it all comes across as a bit simplistic—however unintentionally—and even then takes 56 (!) separate listed points to explain it all.
Some of the more salient points include: Ending the "silos" separating different aspects of water, environment, poverty, and science research and policy planning; ensuring greater gender and age equity in terms of property ownership, job and educational opportunities; increasing productivity of agricultural land while not compromising biodiversity or the environment more broadly; better fisheries management; universal access to "sustainable energy" (a weird turn of phrase) by 2030; universal telecommunication and broadband internet access by 2025; incorporating the true environmental cost of goods and services into prices (though carbon pricing and/or other mechanisms); adopting better measurements of the economy than GDP; phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2020; and a whole array of steps to improve institutional governance.
It's a tour-de-force overview of how to make political and economic choices that will protect the environment and help end poverty. Ultimately it's a compilation of what environmental, development, and agricultural organizations have been saying for some time, rather than breaking new policy ground. In that aspect, and considering that so much ground is covered that specific details of implementation will necessarily be thin, there isn't a whole lot to criticize in the report. Mostly the right points are all hit.
We Can't Be What We Were
The one thing though that is, to my mind at least, conspicuously absent from Resilient People, Resilient Planet—and is unfortunately absent from much environmental policy discussion as well, it should be said.
That thing is an explicit acknowledgement that there is a very distinct possibility that those expected 9 billion people by 2040 won't have anything like the lives lived by even poor residents of the wealthy nations of the planet do today.
Even with vast improvements in energy efficiency, water efficiency, resource use efficiency, what is considered "developed" by 2050 or 2100, as measured in resource usage, material consumption, may well look like similar to a comparatively well-off so-called emerging economy does today. Think Thailand, Jordan or Indonesia, not Japan or France.
Perhaps I am wrong. But given calculations about equitable distribution of the planet's resources under various population growth scenarios, I don't think I am. Or at least I'm not hugely far off. At bare minimum this possibility needs to be explicitly considered and begun to be expressed to the public, in developing and developing nations alike. But it simply isn't ever discussed as being ever a remote possibility—and that's hugely irresponsible; a recipe for even greater civil discontent and unrest than will undoubtedly occur in places due to resource constraints.
We have to all stop pretending that normal resource usage in the rich countries of today should be the goal, if we also will admit that we would like more equitable distribution of resources.
Resilient People, Resilient Planet may not explicitly present a cornucopian vision of the future. Indeed, it present a stark future, that we can choose to avoid, if we follow the presented policy recommendations. But I just wish somewhere it would mention that if everyone keeps consuming resources like we have been that by 2050 we'd need 2.5 planets, and continuing to do so is recipe for ecological and civilizational collapse. If we don't avert course the vast majority of us will be consuming less whether we like it or not.