Sustainable development means achieving economic growth that is widely shared and that protects the Earth’s vital resources, but our current global economy is not sustainable, with more than a billion people left behind by economic progress and the Earth’s environment suffering terrible damage from human activity. Sustainable development requires mobilizing new technologies that are guided by shared social values.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has rightly declared sustainable development to be at the top of the global agenda. We have entered a dangerous period in which a huge and growing population, combined with rapid economic growth, now threatens to have a catastrophic impact on the Earth’s climate, biodiversity and fresh-water supplies. Scientists call this new period the Anthropocene — in which human beings have become the main causes of the Earth’s physical and biological changes.
Ban’s Global Sustainability Panel has issued a new report that outlines a framework for sustainable development. The panel rightly notes that sustainable development has three pillars — ending extreme poverty; ensuring that prosperity is shared by all, including women, youth and minorities; and protecting the natural environment. These can be termed the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development, or more simply the “triple bottom line” of sustainable development.
The panel has called for world leaders to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will help to shape global policies and actions after the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Whereas the Millennium Development Goals focus on reducing extreme poverty, the SDGs will focus on all three pillars of sustainable development — ending extreme poverty, sharing the benefits of economic development for all of society and protecting the Earth.
It is, of course, one thing to set SDGs and quite another to achieve them. The problem can be seen by looking at one key challenge — climate change.
Today, there are 7 billion people on the planet and each one, on average, is responsible for the release each year of a bit more than four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide is emitted when we burn coal, oil and gas to produce electricity, drive our cars or heat our homes. All told, humans emit roughly 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere, enough to change the climate sharply within a few decades.
By 2050, there will most likely be more than 9 billion people. If these people are richer than people today (and therefore using more energy per person), total emissions worldwide could double or even triple. This is the great dilemma — we need to emit less carbon dioxide, but we are on a global path to emit much more.
We should care about that scenario, because remaining on a path of rising global emissions is almost certain to cause havoc and suffering for billions of people as they are hit by a torrent of droughts, heat waves, hurricanes and more. We have already experienced the onset of this misery in recent years, with a spate of devastating famines, floods and other climate-related disasters.
So, how can the world’s people — especially its poor people — benefit from more electricity and more access to modern transportation, but in a way that saves the planet rather than destroys it?