Global Sustainability

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Background Information

High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (Intro by UN-NGLS)

General Points

  • Growth and Sustainability don't go together, the growth thinking is one important reason why we are not getting closer to sustainability. The so-called rebound effect often lessens or completely compensates the benefit of "greener" (less destructive or polluting) technologies.
  • The question to the Panel is ill-posed. There is no such thing as "sustainable growth". At least it is nothing that any of us would recognize. Where are the examples of modern fully sustainable systems, created by humans?


"Progress" past decades

  • On the one hand, there has been some progress on renewable energies, agroecological techniques and information technologies that allow for a wide dissemination of best practices.
  • On the other hand, the depletion of ressources, the destruction of natural ecosystems, of biological and cultural diversity and the contamination of healthy living systems has accelerated. Global CO2 emissions are just one very obvious indicator of this process.
  • Unfortunately, economic development worldwide has tended to follow a model pioneered by the over-consuming countries of the "Global North" whose very foundations are the burning of fossil fuels and the transformation of natural ressources into waste (with a limited amount of downcycling in some areas). Keeping the waste out of sight - as is practiced in the more "progressive" countries - does not solve this problem, it rather makes the population more vulnerable to the illusion that environmental problems are a thing of the past.
  • Rising populations, rising material prosperity, rising absolute consumption, rising waste production, rising pollution, rapid depletion of ecosystems and biodiversity, rapid depletion of the natural resource base and global commons, massive and rising income inequality all are terribly negative signs that the global community is not headed in the right direction in terms of sustainability

Three pillars

  • The three pillar model is a symptom of the ecological illiteracy of our societies and the predominance of business interests even over the foundations that sustain life. The social realm is something included in the ecosystem, and economics is only one dimension of interactions in human societies. Portraying them as of equal importance is misleading ecologically illiterate people to believe that there can somehow be tradeoffs between ecologic and economic criteria which is not the case.

Contemporaneous factors and quantum leap

  • A quantum leap can be possible in areas where traditional, inherited knowledge is combined with new technologies. But most importantly these need to be guided by a sense of humility and respect for our Mother Earth and for the wisdom inherent in evolved solutions. In order to create sustainable societies, we must look in three directions: to our own past, rediscovering traditional ways of meeting human needs; to indigenous peoples who conserve many traditional practices; to appropriate technologies that integrate modern achievements with the human scale.

New Vision

Paradigm Shift

  • The basic problem of our time is not "underdevelopment", it is "overconsumption". This must be recognized and addressed.
  • The Brundtland Report rightfully points out "Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all." Unfortunately there is no generally accepted definition of basic human needs, the most widespread theory being Abraham Maslow's theory of a hierarchy of human needs, proposed in 1943. Research into this question and a new consensus on human basic needs would be highly desirable. Guaranteeing the meeting of basic human needs for all human beings should be an international political priority. This might help to give guidance to the implementation of the Human Rights Conventions as well as the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals.
  • Poverty must not be defined in terms of money. It must be defined in terms of basic needs met. Livelihoods of people that lie outside the market economy must be protected.
  • In theory, it is simple to create a sustainable society: power everything with renewable energies and close all material cycles, without degrading either the resource base or the biological diversity that supports the system. But in practice, these systems have simply not been created. The defossilization of the world economy is a task that - so it seems - will be left almost completely to our generation, with atmospheric CO2 levels already way beyond safe levels.
  • So the question of our time is not about sustainable growth, that is naive dreaming in the best case, propaganda brainwash in the worst. The question is about degrowth either in a controlled or in a catastrophic way. Progressing on the sustainability agenda will help to make degrowth more controllable. That is the paradigm shift needed.
  • The concept of "Buen Vivir" ("Good Living") present in many indigenous cultures of the Americas is an example of an emerging alternative to the money-dominated Western worldview that has created the current crisis. It incorporates the values of harmony in the local community and also with Mother Earth. Reviewing the indicators of political achievement in each country in an intercultural process can help to discover gems of philosophical wisdom that have been forgotten by mainstream society but can be recovered and help guide us to a sustainable future.

Time-bound goals

  • A major issue is climate change and here, time-bound goals are necessary. Globally, net zero emissions should be reached by 2050. Annex-I countries should reach zero emissions before that date. In the next months and years, the UNFCCC process must lead countries to working out the details of their emissions descent and the date of hitting the zero line.
  • Time-bound goals must be set not only for the long-term but also but the short and medium term (2015, 2020, 2030) We must realize that systemic change must begin today. If we further delay action, that window of opportunity to avert environmental disaster will become smaller and smaller and the risk of incremental problems will only massively increase.
  • Time-bound goals are important, but so is the elucidation of the proper implementation mechanisms and institutions that are required to herald change. We can see that if there is no collective global will, especially by developed countries to ensure that international goals are met, then they just seem to disappear into oblivion (MDGs to some extent has suffered this fate)

Policies and Institutions

Better Policies and Measures

  • Fossil subsidies have to be stopped immediately.
  • The World Bank has to stop funding fossils completely (as recommended by the Extractive Industries Review).
  • Climate policy and fossil extraction policy has to be coordinated internationally and nationally. They are currently contradicting each other.


  • Vested interests in the fossil economy are doing their best to stop the de-fossilization of society. This resistance can be reduced through a clear and long-term framework that leaves no doubt that we will put the fossil age to an end in a controlled way before it collapses.

Better Policy Dialogue

  • Invite children and youth to participate in a meaningful way. They constitute half of the world's population and will bear the brunt of the crisis. They should have a say in defining the responses to the crisis and designing the pathways leading into the future. Agenda 21 (Chapter 25) establishes that youth must be involved in all decision-making processes that affect our future on all levels. This needs to be taken seriously and implemented on a much larger scale than at present.
  • "7 Generation Councils" shall be established at different levels (international, national and subnational), that evaluate policy impacts in the long run, building on the traditional wisdom of indigenous North Americans. The recommendations shall be integrated with the policy-making process at the highest level of the respective government section (i.e. president or prime minister in the case of nations, governor in the case of states) to ensure that their recommendations are taken into account in strategic decisions and to ensure that key policy makers become more literate in sustainability issues.
  • Governments must be accountable to their citizens on key policy making decisions. (investments into energy infrastructure, where governments invest pension funds into) Conversely, a well informed citizenry must effectively participate in civil discourse and debate to ensure Governments do not make decisions that are not in the interests of their people. Sustainability issues must become more tangible as national election issues in every country.

Green Protectionism

In the field of climate change, the best recipe to avoid "green protectionism" is to agree on a supply-side mitigation scheme, where fossil fuel extraction is regulated to an extent that allows meeting the mitigation targets. This must go hand in hand with a programme that ensures energy access to all. In the case of the United States of America, punitive tariffs should be collected by other countries, if the US fail to reduce their high per capita emissions to a level close to the global average. The same applies to other Annex-I countries with high per capita emissions that fail to participate in the global mitigation efforts in a sufficient manner.

Beyond GDP

  • The challenge of our time is not only about transforming our societies into sustainable ones, but also more just ones. The Gini coefficient is a measure that helps bring inequalities in a country into consideration.
  • In the climate change question, there is one very fundamental measure, that is not yet present enough in the international discussion: per capita emissions. Figures and targets in the UNFCCC framework shall be expressed in emissions per capita. Because climate change is a global phenomenon and no single person who emits can avoid being responsible for its impacts. Nation states are only a sort of intermediary between the individual and the global community. But this intermediary role must not be used to create inequalities among people with regard to their responsibility for their acts and lifestyles and for contributing to the solution of the climate crisis.

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