Global sustainable development goals: Sustainability is about the use, Distribution and scarcity of natural resources - Eradicating poverty and saving the climate

With relations between countries now being shaped by geo-economics rather than geo-politics, an emerging issue is to what extent the United States, China and India, all populous countries and top tier economies, see their national interest in giving a new meaning to words like “responsibility”, “development” and “growth” by shifting the focus from the twenty year old formula of burden-sharing for environmental degradation to modifying longer term trends in resource use, and developing a global vision for ‘sharing responsibility and prosperity’.

Asia, with a larger number of poor, younger population and potential for becoming the largest regional economy in the world after 2050 when growth in the other regions will stabilize, needs to play a leadership role in using the concurrent negotiations on climate change and the sustainable development goals to reframe climate change in terms of sustainable development. This is overdue, because one of the greatest challenges facing us was defined around greenhouse gases, which is a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. 

Framing the issue

With the global middle class expected to triple by 2050, the central global issue is dealing with a crisis that is caused by the distribution and use of available resources rather than by the scarcity of natural resources. We are faced with three inter-related global limits – carbon budget, consumption by the rich and comparable standards of living for the poor. How these limits are approached will not depend on burden-sharing but on what is regarded as essential for human wellbeing.

The forces unleashed by the industrial revolution, in the form of its economic model and urbanization, leads to population moving to cities and  shifts the drivers of natural resource use from production to consumption, resulting in a new relationship between society and nature. As in the case of the Montreal Protocol, the focus on production and consumption alone enables sustainability to become a part of business strategy, and goes a long way towards solving the problem at its roots.

The nature of industrialized societies – urbanization - is the major driving force for increasing demands for material and energy. Cities concentrate and integrate investment and employment opportunities, supporting rapid economic growth and access to electricity, goods, services and public facilities, with economies now being driven by the urban services sector and not just by industrialization.

The sole focus on population numbers in rural areas has kept the attention on their poverty and production patterns and diverted attention away consumption patterns, trends and drivers of natural resource use in cities where the population has shifted, or is in the process of doing so. Already cities produce three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are directly related to household consumption – shelter, mobility and food.

Urbanization involves two transitions – the establishment of infrastructure, or consumption of material resources, as a necessary part of the process of economic development, and later higher incomes support changes in consumption patterns, that are largely non material goods and services based on specific lifestyles. Both are direct inputs to human wellbeing, and each is responsible for roughly a doubling of the rate at which resources are used. While most of the first is essential and some of the second is discretionary, and can vary by a factor of three for countries at similar levels of income and wellbeing.

Recent analysis is focusing on consumption patterns in cities as the driver of global change, and the intellectually challenging question is why it is generally assumed that all countries aspire to adopt the lifestyle of the United States. A new dimension to the forty year old debate, since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, is emerging as China plans to shift 250 million from rural areas to dense urban clusters on the lines of New York City, where emissions are one-third of the average in the United States. China has built 40, 000 kilometers of high speed rail equal to the length inter-state high ways in the United States, modifying earlier global trends in resource use. Carbon dioxide emissions per capita from transportation in the US are 12 times higher than in China, constituting one-third and one tenth of total emissions respectively, and China has begun to limit vehicle ownership in major cities. Similarly, while global livestock production was responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon intensity is highest for beef contributing half of those emissions, half of which the United States wastes, which the Indians do not eat at all and is not a key part of the diet in China. Resource use in China, India and other developing countries’ is likely to remain between half and one-third that of the United States.

Seeking a global consensus

The fundamental issue in the design of the new global framework is whether in 2050 developing countries will remain agrarian societies or between three-fourth and half of their populations would have shifted to urban areas; this shift had taken place in North America, Europe and Japan by 1970. Expert opinion is divided between those who hold that the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDG’s) emphasis on social protection of rural populations, a ‘rights’ based approach, should continue with the new goals limited to eradication of extreme poverty, and those who stress the global historical model of industrialized societies establishing the built environment, whole industries and cities as the notion of development ‘needs’ for prosperity. Urbanization is the product of a major long term, worldwide, socio-economic process; no country has moved to even middle-income status while remaining agrarian.

Second, despite the Rio+20 outcome documents recognizing the critical role that energy plays in the development process, there is still no consensus on energy as the primary sustainable development goal. Energy, in particular electricity, along with urbanization, encompasses and enables the other MDG’s in terms of both ‘basic needs’ and ‘productive uses’ for employment and wellbeing. Currently the poorest three-quarters of the global population uses ten percent of global energy, and ‘scientific’ models using traditional baseline or incremental growth approach assume that only ‘extreme’ poverty will be eradicated by 2030 and there will be a maximum demand of 750 kWh per year per capita for new connections; the global average in 2010 was just under 3000 kWh per capita per year; the average for the United States is 13,400 kWh, Germany consumes about 7,200 kWh and Greece about 5,200 kWh per person per year.  Historical patterns show that countries with large population have in the past experienced fast growth in energy access, and rapid economic growth, in a period of 30 years – United States, China, Thailand, Vietnam and South Africa. The trade-offs related to energy and climate need to be discussed in terms of the transformations the global goals will require because access to adequate and affordable energy is the basis for economic and social development.

Third, the global vision will have to go much beyond eradication of extreme poverty, urbanisation itself accounts for half of the decline in poverty and removing economic inequality is an essential condition for good governance. Currently, the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population, largely in industrialised countries,   owns 40 per cent of global assets, while the bottom half, largely in developing countries, holds just 1 per cent and from 1998-2008 their income increased by 60 per cent while the bottom 5 per cent had no change; the top 8 per cent also take home 50 per cent of the global income (UN, 2013). The primary cause of this disparity is the continued dependence of developing country populations on uncertain incomes from agricultural cropping patterns. The new global goals require an approach to social mobility for achieving middle-class  status; one that goes beyond a limited focus on ‘rights’ to stress education, urban housing and transport, and steady income which only industry and cities can provide. High unemployment, widening inequality and climate change have remained key challenges for countries.

At Stockholm, in 1972, and in Agenda 21, in 1992, environment was not considered only in terms of industrial pollution and conservation of rural natural resources, and a broad view was adopted to include social considerations, like water and health, with an emphasis on ‘rights’. This makes the developmental and environmental agendas quite similar only if the focus remains agrarian. Energy – electricity and transport - infrastructure and related urban consumption which requires trade-offs with global environmental concerns, were left out of the global development and environmental agenda because of the global implications, and will be the subject of considerable debate. The new global goals will have to go back to the Brundtland view of ‘needs’ and debate the related limits to arrive at a consensus.

An assessment of patterns, trends and drivers of the activities that led to the utilization of the global carbon budget over the previous 200 years shows that the most important trend to be modified worldwide is urban design and the resulting consumption shaped by urban lifestyles. As it is closely linked to current economic models, real change will only occur in the long term, and could well take as long as 50 years. For example, lower consumption immediately can stabilize the rate of impact on all parameters of environmental degradation by 2030, while high density cities and a modal shift to rail transport will modify longer term trends in levels of use of energy, food and transportation later by 2050. A genuine commitment is needed to global goals make the pie bigger rather than enable some to seize a larger slice.

The shift in global power, and national interests of those who need to ensure wellbeing of nearly 6 bn, will support a new multilateralism, or vision, for “sharing responsibility and prosperity”, as it is the only kind of economic development that is truly sustainable. Acting collectively in the face of long term and uncertain threats will now be an essential element in solving global problems in an equitable fashion in a manner that is in the long term interests of all.