One of the most important and influential UN initiatives during the past few years is its millennium development goals, which include halving extreme poverty rates, providing universal primary education, promoting gender equality, assuring access to clean water and managing environmental resources in a sustainable fashion. Now, as the 2015 target date for reaching those goals approaches, the United Nations has begun to assess its progress.
Some of those involved in discussions about such goals doubt the ability of the human race to improve unless it first sets clearer and firmer goals for protecting environmental resources. This approach was expressed in an article published recently in the journal Nature by a group of scientists led by David Griggs, director of the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University in Australia.
They argue that processes like climate change, excessive emissions from polluting fertilizers, the destruction of biodiversity and the depletion of water resources are jeopardizing efforts to reduce poverty, expand the food supply and reduce morbidity. The result, they argue, will be that poor and hungry societies will not be able to promote education and equality unless six goals of sustainable development are added to the ones set by the United Nations.
Achieving those goals, they say, will complement the existing goals by preserving water resources and fertile land for food production and ensuring the resilience of the world’s ecosystems.
Sustainable development has been a key concept in environmental thinking during the last three decades. Griggs and his group provide it with a new definition more suited to the current era (to add to the dozens that have been suggested in the past), saying that sustainable development meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends. They say we are living in the anthropocene era, characterized by human influence on the Earth’s climatic, hydrological and biological processes.
Sustainable development objectives are derived from a new approach to analyzing environmental changes developed by Swedish scientists. According to this “planetary boundaries” approach, there are limits to the scope of changes that man can make on Earth without jeopardizing the conditions under which life has existed here for thousands of years, and these limits can be quantified, albeit not with complete accuracy. The limits for three of these conditions − climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen emissions − have already been breached, according to this approach, thereby putting our future at risk.
The first of the six goals set forth in the Nature article is ensuring education, health and welfare while changing consumption and production habits in a manner that preserves the environment. This is a general goal, which calls for more intense sustainability pursuits, such as finding alternatives to toxic substances, restricting mining and recycling. The second objective is ensuring food security and reducing hunger by changing growing methods, with an emphasis on the more effective and less polluting use of fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus, whose natural cycle has been disrupted by man. Griggs et al say fertilizer use ought to become 20 percent more efficient by the end of the decade and say no more than 10 million tons of phosphorus a year should contaminate the world’s waterways.
To preserve water resources, in accordance with another of Griggs’ objectives, pumping from river basins must be reduced so that the average flow into these basins will increase by 50 percent to 80 percent a year. Another goal is to expand the use of clean energy to prevent extreme climate change and ensure clean power. To do so would necessitate reducing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions by 3 percent to 5 percent annually within the next decade. This looks like an almost unattainable target given the economic growth plans of many countries.
The need to preserve ecosystems leads to yet another goal: to prevent a species extinction rate of more than 10 times the natural rate of species’ disappearance. At least 70 percent of the known species of each ecosystem must be preserved, along with 70 percent of the forests, according to the Nature article. It says exploitation of the sea’s natural resources must be done in a manner that ensures the regenerative ability of flora and fauna, especially of fish, since the fishing industry is collapsing in many areas.
Will these new targets be restricted to article in scientific journals or have an impact on policy? There might seem to be little chance of far-reaching structural changes, but one must keep in mind that according to some economists, the cost of these changes would be only a few percentage points of global GDP.
And there has already been some progress, in the form of optimized irrigation methods, taxes imposed on the emission of carbon (the main greenhouse gas) and the accelerated development of alternative energies. Additional measures, such as moderate and gradual changes in diet, increased use of public transportation and changed consumer habits are certainly possible. Being constantly reminded of the limitations humans face in exploiting the Earth can accelerate the achievement of these goals.