Sustainable convictions

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Sustainable convictions

Achieving a more sustainable world presupposes a worldview that considers well-being not only in terms of income, but also in terms of human security and opportunities for every person to thrive.

By Mahmoud Mohieldin (Issues)

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Published: Mon 20 Aug 2012, 10:56 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 11:51 AM

It is worth considering what the world would look like from such a perspective.

For starters, it would be a world in which people live free from conflict over land, water, and space, and that ensures food security for the 739 million people who are hungry or malnourished today. Such a world would preserve the 20,000 species of animals and plants that face extinction, understanding their power to heal us physically and spiritually. It would draw us back from the brink of unstoppable global warming and its consequences for coastal communities, weather patterns, and, in some regions, habitability. It would protect sites of extraordinary natural beauty and inspiration. And, for future generations, it would be a world that is more sustainable than ours.

Many people consider this idealistic. But economic growth enables people to improve their lives. It alters the political economy of decision-making, creating space for new ideas to thrive. And one of those ideas is that growth is unsustainable in the long run unless it is inclusive and green.

We need to break the myth that greener growth is more costly. Smart policy can help us to overcome short-run constraints, deeply entrenched behaviours, and social norms, and to develop innovative financing instruments that change incentives. A recent report by the World Bank makes the case for cleaner, greener, and more inclusive growth models. At the same time, the Equator Principles offer companies a framework for considering the environmental and social risks of their investments.

Similarly, we need to use more comprehensive wealth accounts as a reference point for decision-making. Countries have long used national income accounts, with GDP as the main indicator, to describe economic performance. A more accurate portrait of the wealth of nations must account not only for income, but also for natural and social assets.

Such indicators would enable decision makers to consider the longer-term impact of behaviour that might deplete or build assets and impede or establish a more sustainable pattern of development. New tools such as Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystems, or WAVES, enable increasingly robust ecosystem accounting – an approach endorsed by 62 countries, more than 90 private companies, and 17 civil-society and international organisations at the Rio+20 summit in June.

We must also protect our oceans, which are the source of 16 per cent of the global population’s animal protein intake. Only a small fraction of species that live in oceans have been discovered and documented. The potential value of ocean life for medicine, the economy, and our climate is unknown. Yet ocean bio-systems are under threat from acidification, pollution, and over-exploitation.

The need for concerted action to limit greenhouse-gas emissions is beyond doubt. While the politics of international agreements plays out, we need to take action now. More thoughtful urban planning, more efficient transport systems, better management of forests, agricultural techniques that help to sequester carbon, cleaner and more affordable energy, and appropriate pricing of dirty fuels can all move us in the right direction. Climate Funds such as the Climate Investment Fund, the Global Environment Facility, and the recently created Green Climate Fund deserve support as major vehicles for developing workable solutions.

Above all, we must use goals to focus policy. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals set ambitious targets for lowering poverty, improving health and nutrition, expanding education, increasing gender equality, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Those targets have served as a useful rallying call.

Massive investments will be needed to strengthen governments’ capacity to collect timely, relevant, and high-quality data; to analyse information; and to present it to policymakers in ways that allow them to grasp and tackle the major challenges to sustainability.

“Think globally, act locally” has long been a useful rallying call for the health of the planet. But the magnitude of the problems that we face also compels us to act globally. New tools for economic modeling, natural-wealth accounting, and investment decision-making can move us forward. Action now to build smarter cities and protect oceans, air, and forests will shape the trajectory of our changing climate. As the agreements reached at Rio+20 are implemented, the global community should resolve to take even bolder action in the next 20 years – at the local, national, and international levels – to foster sustainability.

Mahmoud Mohieldin is Managing Director at the World Bank Group, and was formerly Egypt’s minister for investment

© Project Syndicate

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