Is there a sustainable way forward?

Sustainable development – a phrase that has gained resonance in the corridors of governments, multilateral institutions and corporate boardrooms and has become the dominant slogan of virtually all non-government organizations, particularly those focused on environmental issues.   It is a concept that has been the focus of many discussions and negotiations for over forty years.

Accomplishments have been made – witness the phenomenal growth in SD reporting by all major private and public institutions globally over the last few decades.  It will be the predominant issue for the UN over the next few years as it develops global Sustainable Development Goals for the post 2015 generation.

And yet, the major signposts of what SD is supposed to stand for – enhanced environmental protection, economic growth that enhances resources for future generations and addresses equity gaps, fair and transparent governance regimes – is all too often falling far behind in too many countries.

Even when progress is made, it is often done so for reasons purely rooted in market forces with little, if any, reference to SD goals.  One of the more interesting examples being the rapid reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions in the United States over the last few years – mostly due to the growing competitiveness of natural gas resources there, replacing coal fired utilities, which carries its own potential issues.

All too often we have seen the unintended impacts of well meaning policies that work to exacerbate problems – witness various biofuel subsidy programs that threaten food security while doing little to actually reduce overall emissions.

And then there is the ‘elephant’ in the room – consumer behavior.   The model for development, particularly for the middle class globally, is cars, suburbs and perishable goods.   Is this model sustainable over the long term?   What is the balance between technology, planning and behavior in reaching an appropriate future?  If it is too late to change the model for developed countries, is it fair to expect expect people in developing countries to compromise their wishes?

There are lessons to be learned here.  Linkages between policy making and actual results is much more complex than most envisioned.  Indicators of progress remain staunchly entrenched: GDP growth remains the be all and end all, despite the use of SD indicators in stock exchanges like the NYSE.   Global carbon price signals remain dangerously weak, despite rising concerns by investment firms of the long term implications of potential ‘stranded assets’ on the part of fossil fuel industries.

While many, including yours truly, believe that SD offers a new paradigm of integration between the forces of economics, social progress and environmental protection there is no question that it carries impacts that, at least over the short term, concretely affect livelihoods.  It is not a simple panacea and to cast it as such does everyone a disservice.  But to not face those challenges and find ways forward is equally delusional.

In future blogs, I will be taking an eclectic approach to these fascinating issues, with one theme – there are no ‘magic bullets’ to be found, but that does not mean profound progress cannot be made.  I look forward to your feedback.  And here’s hoping for a truly sustainable future.

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