Wed, Sep 23, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Goals need adoption by state and public to sustain the planet

By Gro Harlem Brundtland and Graca Machel

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that “All that is solid melts into air,” they intended it as a metaphor for the disruptive transformations that the industrial revolution implied for established social norms. Today, their words can be taken literally: Carbon dioxide emissions and other industrial pollutants released into the atmosphere are said to be changing the planet — with huge implications for the environment, health, population movements and social justice. The world is at a crossroads, and much of the progress that has been made in these areas could vanish into thin air.

In 2007, former South African president Nelson Mandela founded The Elders to address just such risks, mandating this independent group of former leaders to “speak truth unto power.”

That is what we will do at the launch of the new Sustainable Development Goals at the UN General Assembly later this month.

The goals will succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which guided international development efforts from 2000 to this year. The current plan is credited with helping millions of people escape illiteracy, disease and hunger, and placed development at the heart of the global political agenda. However, their overall impact was often inadequate, particularly in fragile, conflict-ridden states — and they failed to include sustainability in their targets.

The new goals represent a quantum leap forward, because they recognize the vital links among challenges — including poverty in all its forms, gender inequality, climate change and poor governance — that must be addressed in tandem. Seventeen separate goals might seem unwieldy, but their cumulative effect should mean that no topic or constituency falls through the cracks. Sustainability is finally being integrated into global development, in line with what campaigners have been demanding for decades.

As former leaders from the global north and south, we are particularly pleased that the new goals will apply to all UN member states and not just those in the developing world. In this way, we hope they will become as “universal” as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a vital element of the civic armory in the fight for fairness.

Implementation and accountability are key. Fine words are not enough; leaders must commit to putting plans into action, and societies must be vigilant in tracking progress and blowing the whistle when not enough is being done. Too often, summit declarations have melted into air once the delegations went home and short-term political calculations regained the upper hand.

This time, the stakes are higher. The decisions taken this year, at the summit and at the climate conference in Paris in December, could have a lasting impact on the planet’s future. A stable climate underpins prosperity, poverty reduction, and the rule of law. If world leaders in Paris do not agree to credible measures to keep a rise in temperatures to below 2oC, the new goals will not be realized.

It is not a choice between reducing poverty and addressing climate change. Indeed, the effects of climate change could undo the development gains that the existing goals helped to achieve. There is a risk of suffocating heat waves, severe droughts, disastrous floods and devastating wildfires. Entire regions could experience catastrophic declines in food production. Sea levels could rise, drowning major cities and small island states. Large populations could be displaced, exacerbating existing economic strains and social tensions.

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