Friday 24 February 2012

UN Global Sustainability Report: A Roadmap or a Mile Marker?

Rachael McCallum

UN Global Sustainability Report, January 30th 2012  United Nations

The United Nations recently released its major new report from the UN’s High-level panel on Global Sustainability. Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth choosing, which comes on the back of COP 17 in Durban, December 2011 and published ahead of the June Rio+20 Earth Summit.

The panel included former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who produced the Brundtland report in 1987 which defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Displaced Somalis were affected by floods in November 2006, in Dadaab UN
 Whilst the carefully nuanced report acknowledges that some progress has been made since 1987 to reduce environmental impacts, it acknowledges that the debate has not really gained momentum, especially in terms of making sustainable development into an everyday reality. The report argues that this is due to the lack of political will and the lack of presence of suitable development in both national and international politics, which in recent years has been monopolized by economic stability.

Resilient People, Resilient Planet emphasizes the interconnected web of the core elements of sustainable development, including economic growth and environmental protection, and highlights a number of worthwhile recommendations on a range of policy issues in this regard. The report contains 56 specific recommendations created with the express aim of putting sustainable development into practice and to mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible. It also vocalizes the call to bring gender equality and environmental science to the forefront of the debate.

National Geographic
Amongst its 56 recommendations, the report calls for a mechanism to measure progress in sustainable development by creating a sustainable development index or set of indicators, which moves away from GDP to broader measures of wellbeing to put a value on natural resources.
This ties in with the growing belief amongst economists and politicans that the old method is outdated as it provides no protection for natural resources such as clean air and biodiversity, which could help ensure that economic development does not come at the too high cost of our natural world.  It also plays to the strengths of Ban-Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, and is something that should be implemented but needs to be considered at greater depth.  

Whilst the report is an important advocate for a sustainable future, it fails in a number of key areas, including in pushing for Sustainable Development Indicators and Goals.  Yes, it is important to break way from traditional methods of measuring growth, thus also replacing the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), but this comes at the risk that we might overcrowd the development sphere with too many goals and measurements.

It is crucial that we stop and consider the MDGs and the reason why we have failed to achieve them. We cannot simply assign a new measurement, but draw on the experience of the MDGs, building upon their successes and learning from their failings.

The panel suggested the creation of a new institution: the UN Global Sustainable Development Council to monitor the progress made in the name of sustainable development, and in doing so failed to actively engage with the critics of the UN who are understandably concerned about the insitutions’ effectiveness.  It also fails to take into account the intellectual and collective experience the UN personnel have; from the top right down to the bottom. In proposing a quick fix of creating a new institution it could undoubtedly do itself a real injustice.

The report also  falls down on a number of other important issues, but what is perhaps most lacking is a concrete timetable for progress on sustainable development.

On the other hand,  although the report can be criticized on several accounts, what it has excelled at is creating a picture of a sustainable and equal future. However, this picture needs to become a reality. To this end, the report is somewhat of a stepping stone to the more crucial aspect in terms of mobilizing policy action as well as mainstreaming the broader issue of sustainable development into economic and political international discourse. As Connie Hedeggard, European Commissioner for Climate Change remarked:

“The world must decide now what to do with it: either take it as another report for another shelf or to take it as a serious wake-up call and act."

To this end, we will have to wait for the Rio+20 Earth Summit for an indicator on what, if any, action the world leaders intend to take in making sustainable development an everyday norm. Although, with 56 recommendations, there is a significant need to narrow down the priorities in the countdown to the Earth Summit in June. In the meantime, our resilient world and its resilient people wait with bated breath.