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
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
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
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
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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