Today's date:
Spring 2001

Rich and Poor Alike Need to Speed Shift to Sustainability

Kofi Annan
is the secretary general of the United Nations.

Dhaka, Bangladesh - Climate change brings us face to face with an uncomfortable fact about development as we know it: its unsustainability. In the industrialized countries, and in those parts of the developing world that are fast following in their tracks, the prevailing model of economic development is wasteful, shortsighted and hazardous for humans and the natural environment alike.

Clearly, the biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract-sustainable development-and turn it into a daily reality in the lives of ordinary people.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released its latest forecast. The panel's portrait of a warming world makes for chilling reading. It warns of adverse consequences such as the melting of glaciers and polar icecaps, leading to rising sea levels. It predicts more extreme droughts, floods and storms, and significant changes in the functioning of critical ecological systems such as coral reefs and forests.

Warmer and wetter conditions would increase the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. And the inundation of low-lying islands and coastal areas could lead to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people.
Among those coastal areas is, of course, the beautiful and fertile river delta of Bangladesh-the largest delta in the world-which is home to millions of people and to a wealth of biodiversity, and which is already under great stress from human activities. The climate panel's report says that sea-level rise could cause the disappearance of vast swaths of this region, and along with them species such as the famed Bengal tiger. It suggests that crop production and aquaculture would be threatened, and with them the livelihood and food security of many of the delta's inhabitants. And it points out that the cyclones and monsoons that already bring such damage to the area could become even more frequent and intense.

Unsustainable practices are woven deeply into the fabric of modern life. The burning of fossil fuels produces dangerous greenhouse gas emissions yet still accounts for 80 percent of the world's energy supply. Almost 70 percent of our oceans have been over-fished or fully exploited. Freshwater consumption is out-pacing the rate of population growth. World population will increase most in countries that already contain the largest number of hungry people and the most stressed farmlands. Billions of dollars in subsidies perpetuate unsustainable practices in farming, transport and energy.

Sustainability is in everybody's interest. In agriculture, forestry and fisheries one of two jobs worldwide depends directly on the sustainability of ecosystems. But it is the developing countries that will suffer most if the world as a whole fails to achieve sustainable development.

It is said that we face a choice between economic growth and conservation, when in fact growth cannot be sustained without conservation. Some use the excuse that it is too costly to make the necessary changes, when in fact cost-effective technologies and policies are available. Often, leaders in the developing countries say that the so-called luxury of environmental protection can only come later, when in fact the environment provides many of the precious resources and capital that societies need today to develop and sustain themselves.

One key sector in which the effort toward sustainability is needed is that of energy, which lies at the heart of both development and global warming.
Two billion people lack access to electricity. Two billion people-not all the same two billion-cook with traditional fuels that contribute not only greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, but also poisons to the household, which cause illness and several million premature deaths each year.

The picture is even grimmer when you consider that several hundred million women and girls spend hours each day foraging for and carrying fuel and water. This back-breaking work is a tremendous burden in itself; it is also a tragic loss of time that could be spent on more productive pursuits, such as educating, earning or simply caring for the health and well-being of one's family.

Helping these men, women and children to lift themselves out of poverty will necessarily require a bigger supply of energy. Our challenge is to do so in a way that does not pollute the environment or contribute to global warming. The answer lies in energy efficiency, renewable energy resources and cleaner use of fossil fuels. Hundreds of technologies and practices are available now, and many more are being developed, that promise a brighter, less damaging energy future.

This is not a dream scenario, based on discoveries we hope will be made later this century; it is a "win-win" situation for today, based on the views of energy experts, including the World Energy Assessment, a report produced jointly by the United Nations and the World Energy Council, an organization representing major energy suppliers. The technical, financial and economic obstacles, which have denied many of the world's peoples access to the benefits of a high level of energy services and a better environment, are all rapidly disappearing.

What we do in the field of energy, we can and must do in other realms as well. Ultimately, we are talking about a new ethic of global stewardship. And this, of course, is also a political challenge.

This stewardship must come from countries big and small, rich and poor. It would mean that the more industrialized countries reexamine their consumption and production patterns. It would mean that in our effort to eradicate poverty, we look at democratic governance, institution-building and community-based development. It would mean upholding international commitments to developing financing and technology transfer. And it would mean placing the advancement of women and the education of girls at the very center of these efforts.

The burden of leadership at this juncture falls on the industrialized countries, and in particular the United States, the European Union and Japan. They are responsible for most of the world's past and present carbon emissions. And they are best placed, both economically and technologically, to move ahead with their own reductions and with assistance for the developing world. To abandon this process now would set back the global climate strategy for many years.

At the same time, even as we look to the industrialized countries to take the lead, developing countries themselves can do more.

First, they can make sure that environmental issues are fully integrated into mainstream economic and social policy.

Second, companies and entrepreneurs in developing countries should explore the new business opportunities that changes in climate policy will make available. Green technologies offer some of the brightest business opportunities of the new century.
Third, developing countries should prepare projects for the "clean development mechanism," a key element of the Kyoto Protocol that will allow industrialized countries to gain emissions credits by making climate-friendly investments in the developing world.

Finally, developing countries should consider their own contributions to the global climate strategy. Developing countries will be doing themselves no favors if they, too, pursue a path of industrialization that before long proves unsustainable.
There is some good news to report. Public awareness has grown. Civil society is engaged. The private sector is beginning to seize the opportunities of green technology. The global machinery of policy-making and governance is moving in the right direction. We have the human and material resources to place our economies on more sustainable footing.

But the bottom line is that the challenges of sustainability are overwhelming our responses. In the past, we could afford a long gestation period before undertaking major environmental policy initiatives. Today the time for a well-planned transition to a sustainable system is running out. We may be moving in the right direction, but we are moving much too slowly.

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