Statement by Mr. Thomas Stelzer, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs - Introduction of the Reports of the Secretary-General to the General Debate for the 2008 High-Level Segment
New York, 1 July 2008

I have the honour to introduce the reports of the Secretary-General for the second Annual Ministerial Review (E/2008/12) and for this year’s thematic discussion (E/2008/68).

The concept of sustainable development, which integrates economic growth, social development and protection of the environment, includes a long-term perspective to ensure the well-being of future as well as present generations. It is also participatory, to reflect the perspectives of all parts of society. All countries have subscribed to this principle, at the core of the Rio Conference, the Millennium and Johannesburg Summits and other international agreements.

Largely as a result of strong global economic growth in recent years, many countries have achieved advances towards their economic and social goals. We have today a financial, technological and policy basis for stronger progress towards realizing sustainable development. We also have at the highest political levels, especially when it comes to climate change, the awareness that action must be taken now. Other long-term sustainability issues of biodiversity, water and energy resources, deforestation and desertification demand urgent attention as well. In all these areas, however, the situation continues to deteriorate. Unsustainable consumption and production patterns are at the heart of the problem. Marginal improvements in the resource intensity of production and consumption are overwhelmed by increases in volume. Moreover, progress on the economic and social fronts can be undermined if such progress is detrimental to the environment.

The report before you highlights some approaches that offer benefits in all areas, but also acknowledges that there are often costs and trade-offs involved. Striking a balance among the three pillars of sustainable development remains a challenge at the national and international levels. Let me highlight five key messages of the report.

First, integration of the three pillars into national planning and policymaking is a difficult process but can and should be done. A mechanism is needed to reconcile the objectives of economic growth and industrialization, poverty reduction and social equity, and environmental protection. For this reason, it is essential that all countries develop policy frameworks for integrating economic, social and environmental objectives. The national sustainable development strategies adopted by over 70 countries to date are an example of such an approach.

Second, given the nature and scope of the sustainable development agenda, governments alone cannot meet all the challenges. The participation of civil society, local authorities, the private sector and the general public is critical to sustainable development planning and implementation. Advancing the water and sanitation agenda can only succeed with the full involvement of local communities, especially women. Similarly, with half of humankind now living in cities, planning for sustainable urbanization can only be pursued effectively with the full engagement of all stakeholders.

Third, climate change is the challenge of our lifetime. If left unchecked, it may roll back hard-won progress in advancing the UN development agenda. Mitigating climate change will involve substantial short-term costs in return for mostly long-term benefits. Fundamental changes in consumption patterns will be required for reasons that are not easy to explain to the general public. Furthermore, because the impacts are global rather than local, each individual, each community and even each country benefits little from its own actions, but mostly from the actions of everyone else. These factors help to explain why it took considerable time to build sufficient momentum to deal with the challenge of climate change. The post-2012 negotiating process offers the opportunity to address climate change more effectively.

Fourth, adequate attention should be paid to fighting environmental deterioration. Reversing the loss of forest cover and sustainable management of forest resources, protection of biological diversity, including in marine areas, and efforts to combat desertification could contribute to addressing climate change as well as challenges related to poverty reduction and economic growth.

Fifth, we need greater efforts to promote technology transfer on a concessional and preferential basis. Special priority should be energy and resource-efficient modern technologies and affordable and renewable energy systems.

In its multiple facets – some of which I just underscored – sustainable development confronts the international community with a systemic challenge that, by its nature, requires strengthened international cooperation, coupled with local action.

Mr. President,

The high-level segment also addresses “Promoting an integrated approach to rural development in developing countries for poverty eradication and sustainable development, taking into account current challenges”. By adopting this theme, the Council decided to review the implementation of its Ministerial Declaration of 2003, within the current global context.

Since the adoption of the 2003 Declaration, there have been many developments in key areas related to rural development. In spite of the progress made, however, challenges persist, such as rationalizing institutional and policy frameworks, strengthening capacities of local governance structures and empowering rural communities. Moreover, new challenges have emerged in the wake of the recent slow down in the global economy and the financial crisis. The initial consequences of climate change and the onset of a global food crisis have exacerbated the challenge of promoting rural development.

In light of the current food crisis the situation is especially alarming. High food prices will jeopardize the success so far in fighting hunger and reaching the other MDGs if no urgent action is taken to mitigate the impacts. The food-insecure and poor households will be the most affected. This situation warrants urgent response. For the short run, the report of the Secretary-General urges the international community to act swiftly to protect the most vulnerable against the current rapid increase in food prices. However, short-term measures should not undermine efforts, over the medium to long-term, to promote rural and agricultural development.

For the medium and long-term, high food prices, together with the heightened threat of climate change, will require well-coordinated, coherent programmes to promote sustainable rural development, featuring agricultural productivity improvement. Some of the key aspects of the medium-to long-term responses include: increase in agricultural productivity; investment in infrastructure; provision of social protection; and investment in science and technology. The report offers a list of elements for a programme on rural development, which the Council may wish to consider adopting.

I am confident that today’s discussion will contribute to meeting the challenges of sustainable development and integrated rural development.

Thank you.