Sustainable development—balancing resource use and its impact on the environment—is one of the critical global issues today. The international community has been discussing sustainable business practices and governmental policies for decades, but only recently has the discussion taken centre stage. Global climate change is one of the processes that have accelerated this transformation. The stakes are high because there is only one planet Earth. If decisive and concerted steps are not taken to increase sustainable practices and policies on the world stage, it will become more severe than it already is.
Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. It is a long-term strategy to reduce, stop and even reverse much of the damage now being done to the global commons by pollution and greenhouse gases. The nightmare scenario is one in which humanity acts after it is already too late, leading to disastrous shifts in weather, sea levels, vegetation, animal habitats, and so on. This would in turn influence migratory flows, continental demographics, natural geography, resource distribution, and other factors in ways that will undoubtedly have unforeseen consequences. The issue deserves some attention.
As with so many other global issues, the United Nations has begun to marshal the resources needed to effectively address this problem. The United Nations General Assembly is in the midst of inaugurating its 67th session this September in New York City. The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development will be one of the major forums in which the debate on sustainable development takes place. The results of the recent Earth Summit held in Brazil (Rio+20) will be assessed, and a way forward for sustainable development will be charted. This is the official, institutional response of the global community to climate change, and for that reason alone it is an exceptionally important public policy issue at the global level.
Yet while the UN can serve as a potent symbol of international collaboration, it has no intrinsic power apart from the authority bestowed upon it by its member-states. What this means is that the best way to achieve results at the UN is if governments take the lead in adopting sustainable development practices and resisting climate change through their own policies. The European Union has for 15 years been crafting and fine-tuning such a . Australia is one of the first developed countries to adopt a nationwide carbon tax. Even China, considered a rising global power but not particularly strong on environmental issues, is reallocating resources for its latest Five-Year Plan from environmentally harmful end-products to building long-term sustainable development infrastructure. It is vital for the sake of sustainability in general that these governments become part of the solution to climate change, not add to the problem.
But politics and bureaucratic wrangling can stop progress in its tracks. They can oftentimes hinder substantial progress on issues of monumental concern. Other players, like nongovernmental organizations or civil society, can help them stay on track and achieve their goals. This statement from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development website sums up this notion well: “From the very beginning of the first Earth Summit in 1992, people realized that sustainable development could not be achieved by governments alone. It would require the active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people - consumers, workers, business persons, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, indigenous communities, and other communities of interest”. With everybody involved working in diverse ways towards promoting, strengthening and achieving sustainable development objectives, a number of potential solutions are viable.
The cost of instituting sustainability-oriented policies at this stage in the development strategies of national governments worldwide is minimal. And, while the costs of not doing so are staggering, they grow larger every day that solutions are delayed. With attention focused on the beginning of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly this month, an open policy window is presenting itself to the countries of the world and their governments. Either the national representatives of these governments can continue to play politics and conduct business as usual, or they can get serious around the negotiating table during this latest moment of simultaneous crisis and opportunity. The risks, costs and benefits of their policies will last for generations to come.