UN highlights challenge of balancing poverty eradication with sustainable development

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The main challenge facing humanity now is to sustain poverty eradication and development while shifting gears, according to a new report issued in advance of discussions on 10-11 January to prepare for next year’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

Despite two decades of progress since countries first laid out a blueprint for sustainable development in the twenty-first century at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the report, issued by the United Nations Secretary-General, says it has become apparent that a global economy based on current patterns of consumption and production is placing heavy stresses on many ecosystems and on critical life-support systems.

At the same time, extreme poverty persists in many parts of the world, despite the fact that world gross domestic product (GDP) has increased by roughly 60 per cent since 1992.

The report, “Objective and Themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development”, is one of two reports issued in advance of the intergovernmental discussions.  The other, the “Synthesis Report on Best Practices and Lessons Learned”, cites successful examples of sustainable development.

The new round of informal discussions will focus on the objectives and themes of the Conference, which has been charged by the General Assembly to see how efforts to achieve sustainable development can be scaled up, as well as to explore how countries can green their economies and to determine how to strengthen the institutional frameworks for sustainable development.

“Today we will review what we have accomplished so far in preparing for Rio + 20, what lessons have been learned and how best to move ahead.  My hope is that the intersessional meeting can help participants reach common ground and focus on those critical elements of an action-oriented, forward-looking outcome of the Conference, which will help launch our world on a trajectory towards global sustainability in the twenty-first century,” said Sha Zukang, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.

Mr. Sha serves as Conference Secretary-General, supported by two Executive Coordinators, Elizabeth Thompson ( Barbados) and Brice Lalonde (France).

Although many countries are incorporating the green economy concept in various policy sectors, most do not have an overall strategy for a green economy for sustainable development and poverty eradication, according to the reports.  But there are bright spots, such as in the Republic of Korea and China, where stimulus packages that boosted “green” investments in public transport systems, smart power grids and energy-efficient buildings helped reinvigorate the economy.  In South Africa, renewable energy feed-in tariffs that can spur clean energy generation have been approved and, in Brazil, the Government has provided considerable support for biofuels.

The concept of a “green economy” should be flexible, the report states, allowing Governments to define their own paths towards sustainable development, based on national circumstances and priorities.  The challenge, of course, is that while developed countries can focus more on addressing environmental problems, developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards while trying to contain adverse environmental impacts.

The 2012 Conference will also tackle questions related to the institutional framework for sustainable development.

“What is in place clearly does not work,” Ambassador John Ashe ( Antigua and Barbuda), co-chair of the Preparatory Committee, said about the existing global architecture.

Over the past 20 years, numerous institutions were established to promote sustainable development, such as the Commission on Sustainable Development.  More than 500 multilateral environment agreements currently exist – including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which grew out of the 1992 Earth Summit.  But many institutions and treaty mechanisms have not received adequate support and need to be strengthened to be effective.

Intergovernmental consultations in the lead-up to the 2012 Conference started last year, with the first meeting of the Preparatory Committee in New York in May 2010.  The second meeting of the Preparatory Committee will be held in New York in March 2011, the third in Brazil in 2012.

The current meeting at United Nations Headquarters is the first of three so-called intersessional meetings — to take place in between the meetings of the Preparatory Committee — providing Governments with more time to discuss the objectives, themes and expected outcomes of the Conference.  The second intersessional meeting will take place in New York on 14–15 November 2011; the dates of the third are still to be determined.

In 2012, Governments, businesses and civil society leaders will gather again in Rio to assess progress, gaps and challenges and renew political commitment for achieving sustainable development — defined by the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Based on United Nations Press Release ENV/DEV/1177.

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