Opportunity for Change

UNEP should provide leadership in integrating the environmental, economic and social agendas
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By 2100, the world’s population is projected to reach 11 billion. If we continue to consume food, energy and water as we are, we will require far more resources than the planet has to offer.
Advocates of the global environmental agenda have a historic opportunity to incorporate it into the economic and social agendas, to build a set of truly sustainable development goals.

This year brings opportunities for genuine transformations, with the SDGs being agreed nationally, regionally and globally. What should we and what can we do towards building the future we want? Development experience has shown that most countries have made significant progress when their goals and strategies have been defined clearly and meaningfully with concrete end results.

The first session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), held in June, 2014, was attended by more than 1,200 participants, including 110 ministers from 159 UN Member States and major groups and stakeholders. It comprised the largest participation ever at a session of UNEP’s governing body. It provided an important floor for interactive debates and dialogue for and amongst governments and major stakeholders on the critical issues of the SDGs and the post-2015 agenda, including sustainable consumption and production (SCP), Environmental Rule of Law, and illegal wildlife trade.

Ministers of environment and major groups of representatives shared success stories showing a multitude of powerful models for achieving environmental protection and economic growth by creating green and decent jobs in their national contexts and for improving people’s health and food security. Transforming our economies is possible. Solutions are within our reach. And best practices need to be scaled up and replicated.

The high-level segment in UNEA’s last two days focused on “SDGs and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including SCP.” Participants shared a vision for constructing an “ambitious, universal, implementable and realizable post-2015 development agenda that fully integrates the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in a coherent, holistic, comprehensive and balanced manner, including comprehensive and action-oriented sustainable development goals with the aims of eradicating poverty, protecting the environment and promoting inclusive social and economic development in harmony with nature.”

By the end of this century, the world’s population is projected to reach 11 billion. If our consumption patterns and ever-increasing demand for food, energy and water continue, we will require far more resources than the planet has to offer. Humanity must learn from history, and be more responsible and proactive in shifting to the sustainable consumption and production that will allow our economies and societies to grow—and grow sustainably within the means of the planet, whilst creating equity and human well-being.

Human well-being depends on many ecosystem functions and services. The sustainable delivery of food, water, energy and materials, and the regulation of natural hazards, diseases, pests, pollution and climate, all depend on the functioning of the various components of the Earth’s system and the interactions among them. Global environmental change affects human well-being and social and economic development, just as development strongly influences the global environment. Human development is now closely linked to the management of land, water, forest and other natural resources—and of the atmosphere, ocean and marine ecosystems.

There is growing evidence that the climate is changing, that critical environmental services are degrading, and that there are risks of crossing critical tipping points in the Earth’s system. These changes can have potentially irreversible implications for human societies.

The evidence also indicates that only modest progress is being made towards sustainability. UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook-5 assesses the state of the environment in different regions, for different sectors and for the world as a whole, and concludes that we are not moving towards sustainability, with only three of 90 indicators showing significant improvement. Development indicators have shown some gains, yet about a billion people remain poor and hungry, and many more experience chronic threats to their livelihoods, health, and well-being.

An Oxfam study released prior to the World Economic Forum in Davos indicated that the wealthiest 1 per cent will soon own more than the rest of the world’s population. It showed that their share of the world’s wealth increased from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent last year—and is expected to exceed 50 per cent by 2016. Addressing such disparity poses a major challenge for a more interconnected and resource-efficient world.

At Rio+20, the nations of the world agreed to develop SDGs that integrate environmental and development indicators to set targets for the future, and discussed other options and opportunities for environmental stewardship and equitable development.

Advocates of the global environmental agenda have a historic opportunity to incorporate it into the economic and social agendas, to build a set of truly sustainable development goals. The leading environmental agency of the UN system, UNEP—and its lead forum and decision-making body, UNEA—has an essential leadership role.

The Open Working Group of the General Assembly on SDGs has proposed a set of 17 goals and 169 targets. The proposed SDGs signal a strong message that economic growth cannot continue to be at the expense of the environment. All 17 goals emphasize sustainability and nearly half of the goals directly complement the efforts of UNEP and the environmental agenda. Undoubtedly, this is a significant advancement in environmental dimension of integrated sustainable development.

In the coming months leading up to September, we must focus our discussions on “how” we can successfully implement the SDGs to reach our goals and targets. Detailed plans of implementation require a coherent monitoring and evaluation framework, a plan to mobilize financial resources, and strategies to complement existing national and regional efforts.

UNEP can provide leadership in creating coherent and accurate monitoring and evaluation frameworks to provide a credible platform for action: without an accurate measurement system of our progress, we risk undermining the significance of the SDGs.

UNEA, meanwhile, will continue to provide the stewardship on moving towards the future we want using an integrated and universal approach to the SDGs. ▲