A new report was released on Monday by the UN’s high level panel on global sustainability. Unsurprising its conclusion is that the world’s current economic , environmental and demographic trajectory is wildly unsustainable. According to the UN estimates, as reported by Reuters:
As the world’s population looks set to grow to nearly 9 billion by 2040 from 7 billion now, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially.
Even by 2030, the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water…at a time when a changing environment is creating new limits to supply.
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The threat is that if we do not implement sweeping changes, then we risk “condemning up to 3 billion people into poverty”. The trouble is that although the world’s economy has grown 75% in since 1992 and the proportion of those living in absolute poverty has decreased by 19% over the same period, our “improved lifestyles and changing consumer habits have put natural resources under increasing strain”. Thus, the problem has been our success at getting out people of poverty. Yet isn’t that exactly what the report is trying to avoid – condemning people to poverty?
The trouble is that our recent successes have left a major impact on the environment – 5.2 million hectares of forest are lost each year, 85 percent of fish stocks are over-exploited. According to the report this cannot continue – we have to avoid poverty yes, but need to do so in a sustainable manner. To this end, the panel has made 56 recommendations to institute a “new political economy”. I will list a couple of these recommendations here and you can see if you can figure out what on Earth these recommendations practically mean:
…it urged governments to agree on a set of sustainable development goals which would complement the eight Millennium Development Goals to 2015 and create a framework for action after 2015.
They should work with international organizations to create an “evergreen revolution,” which would at least double productivity while reducing resource use and avoiding further biodiversity losses, the report said.
Water and marine ecosystems should be managed more efficiently and there should be universal access to affordable sustainable energy by 2030.
To make the economy more sustainable, carbon and natural resource pricing should be established through taxation, regulation or emissions trading schemes by 2020 and fossil fuel subsidies should also be phased out by that time.
National fiscal and credit systems should be reformed to provide long-term incentives for sustainable practices as well as disincentives for unsustainable ones.
Sovereign wealth and public pension funds, as well as development banks and export credit agencies should apply sustainable development criteria to their investment decisions, and governments or stock market watchdogs should revise regulations to encourage their use.
Governments and scientists should also strengthen the relationship between policy and science by regularly examining the science behind environmental thresholds or “tipping points” and the United Nations should consider naming a chief scientific adviser or board to advise the organization…
I’m sorry for being cynical, but how many hectares of forest went into making this report? (Not to mention the carbon footprint of flying all those delegates together to prepare it!)
Yes, environmental concerns are real and yes we have a responsibility to the environment, we have blogged before about the excessive consumerism and material wastage that goes on (particularly in the developed world). Changing attitudes in this regard is necessary I believe – more stuff =/= happier. However, I can’t help but cringe at these sort of UN reports – useless at best, perniciously useful for those seeking to enforce stricter population controls on societies at worst.
As an antidote, Tom Chivers in the Telegraph has blogged about “the new green revolution” and cites the work being done in the Sainsbury Laboratory to increase the yield of rice, a food that “provides a fifth of all the calories humanity consumes”. The research:
…uses genome sequencing and analysis to show which genes in rice have important effects – stem height, seed size and so on. It’s not conventional transgenic modification, adding a new gene to the plant from another source. It relies on ordinary mutations and selective breeding, the methods used for generations, but with the added power of gene sequencing.
Hopefully this work will continue the Green Revolution, led by Norman Borlaug in the latter half of the twentieth century. Either way, the Sainsbury Laboratory research seems a much likelier succour for the Earth’s future billions than the recommendations of the UN’s high level panel on global sustainability.