UN panel aims for 'a future worth choosing'

Obese person Current patterns of consumption are not sustainable, the panel concludes, without major change

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Growing inequality, environmental decline and "teetering" economies mean the world must change the way it does business, a UN report concludes.

Health and education must improve, it says. Subsidies on fossil fuels should end, and governments must look beyond the standard economic indicator of GDP.

The High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability was established in 2010 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Its report will feed into discussions leading to the Rio+20 summit in June.

It is being launched in Addis Ababa by its two co-chairs, Finnish President Tarja Halonen and her South African counterpart Jacob Zuma.

"With the possibility of the world slipping further into recession, policymakers are hungry for ideas that can help them to navigate these difficult times," said Mr Zuma.

"Our report makes clear that sustainable development is more important than ever given the multiple crises now enveloping the world."

Ms Halonen emphasised the theme of equality that runs through the report, in terms of gender and redressing the burgeoning gap between people on high and low incomes.

"Eradication of poverty and improving equity must remain priorities for the world community," she said.

Pushing the boundaries
Trading room

The panel's diagnosis

  • The number of people living in poverty is declining, but the number hungry is rising
  • Inequality in wealth distribution is rising
  • Access to clean water is increasing, but 2.6 billion people lack access to modern sanitation
  • By 2030, demand for food will rise by 50%, for energy by 45% and for water by 30%
  • Women are too often excluded from economic opportunities
  • The financial crisis was partly caused by market rules that encourage short-termism and do not reward sustainable investment
  • The current economic model is "pushing us inexorably towards the limits of natural resources and planetary life support systems"

The panel's 22 members include heads of government and ministers past and present, including Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, Australian Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and India's Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.

They also include Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister who led the Brundtland Commission in 1987.

It was that report that coined the most familiar definition of sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Twenty-five years on, the new report concludes that although substantial progress has been made in many directions, such as reducing poverty, development is anything but sustainable.

"We undertook this report during a period of global volatility and uncertainty," it says.

"Economies are teetering. Inequality is growing. And global temperatures continue to rise.

"We are testing the capacity of the planet to sustain us."

To turn this around, it says: "We need to change dramatically, beginning with how we think about our relationship to each other, to future generations, and to the ecosystems that support us".

Changing track

The report - Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing - includes 56 recommendations that would, if implemented in full, have profound implications for societies, governments, and businesses.

Governments would build the true environmental costs of products into the prices that people pay to purchase them, leading to an economic system that protects natural resources.

Ban Ki-moon Ban Ki-moon has been urging a global push to provide modern energy for all, clean if possible

Goods would be labelled with information on their environmental impact, enabling consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions.

With UN support, governments would adopt indicators of economic performance that go beyond simple GDP, and measure the sustainability of countries' economies.

Governments would change the regulation of financial markets to promote longer-term, more stable and sustainable investment.

Subsidies that damage environmental integrity would be phased out by 2020. The UN estimates that governments spend more than $400bn each year subsidising fossil fuels, while OECD countries alone spend nearly the same amount on agricultural subsidies.

In parallel, access to energy, clean water, sanitation and food would be increased, meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and going beyond them.

New targets would be established of ensuring "universal access to affordable sustainable energy" by 2030, while universal telecommunications and broadband access should arrive by 2025.

Governments "should consider establishing a global fund for education" in order to meet the existing MDG on universal access to primary education by 2015, and aim for universal access to secondary education by 2030.

These and other targets should be incorporated into a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be drawn up in the next few years, the panel says.

Some of its recommendations parallel the initial draft agreement drawn up for the Rio+20 summit.

"We greatly welcome the report of the panel and its messages," said Farooq Ullah, head of policy and advocacy at Stakeholder Forum, a civil society group involved with preparations for the summit.

"It outlines a vision of the future which is people-centric and which exists within the safe operating space necessary for planetary health and our existence."

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