Launching Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Deputy Secretary-General Says When it Comes to Environment, ‘There Is No Plan B because There Is No Planet B’

24 September 2012

Launching Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Deputy Secretary-General Says When it Comes to Environment, ‘There Is No Plan B because There Is No Planet B’

24 September 2012
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Launching Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Deputy Secretary-General Says

When it Comes to Environment, ‘There Is No Plan B because There Is No Planet B’

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s remarks at the launch of the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, at Columbia University, in New York, 22 September:

Before I begin my prepared remarks, I feel it is important to first set the stage and to underscore the significance of our work together in this new Network, and indeed our discussion today, for the direction of the debate on post-2015 development planning.

We live in an increasingly interdependent world.  We also are experiencing an unprecedented era of internationalism and globalization; wherein the local problems affect the globe, and global decisions can seriously impact the local.

This moment in history is indeed a test for multilateralism.  And for many, when looking at the issue of globalization, they ask themselves — is it a threat or a promise?  That is the question we too must ask ourselves.

As you all know, there is also a serious strain on nature — climate change, scarcity of resources and the need for sustainability.  Similarly, of major concern are the persistent huge inequalities between and within nations.  And not only inequalities; flagrant poverty remains a reality for many and poses great risk.

On the positive front, new technology offers a huge promise.  And we must tap it as well as the huge potential of our youth.  With the modern communications revolution, we must also have a sharpened focus on rights and responsibilities to speak to truth.  And so, having this context forefront on our minds, I will now turn to my prepared remarks.

Thank you for inviting me to launch the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  The Secretary-General regrets that he cannot be here himself, but asked me to send his greetings and expression of support for your important work.

We look forward to working closely with Professor [Jeffrey] Sachs and his colleagues here in New York and around the world to bring the best ideas and practices from academia, the private sector and civil society to contribute to the United Nations post-2015 development planning process.

Sustainable development has been a top priority for the Secretary-General since he first took office.  It touches virtually every aspect of the work of the United Nations, and is the key to our well-being as a human family.  The formula from the Summit Document of 2005 remains as valid as ever — there can be no lasting peace without development, no development without peace, and none of the above without respect of human rights.

This June, the global sustainable development agenda was re-energized at the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil.  Heads of State and Government agreed to launch a process to develop sustainable development goals, or “SDGs”.  Its work will be coordinated and coherent with the processes to consider the post-2015 development agenda.

The clock is ticking fast towards the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals.  The “MDGs” have been immensely important in focusing the international community’s efforts to reduce extreme poverty and hunger, and to promote education, health and gender equality.  We can point to successes in reducing extreme poverty and illiteracy, but the fact remains that even if the Millennium Development Goals are all met on time, poverty will still be a major global issue, as will hunger, child mortality and lack of progress in areas such as water and sanitation and maternal health.

So, we need a clear agenda with bold yet practical ideas for what to do after 2015, and poverty eradication and sustainable development have to be at the centre.  We increasingly understand that the social, economic and environmental factors are intertwined.

I will never forget flying by helicopter from El Fasher in Darfur when I was the United Nations Special Envoy there.  It was the first time I had seen desertification with my own eyes.  It was there, right before me — here was grass, there was sand.  The pilot told me the desert had advanced 8-10 kilometres in the three years he had been there.

The cause of the conflict in Darfur was, and remains, complex — and this is not the venue to go into the politics of it — but at one level, it is about competition over fragile and scarce resources in the face of environmental decline.

As the effects of climate change become more obvious and powerful around the world, the social and economic consequences will mount.  There are many examples.  We had another insight this year with the droughts in the mid-west of the United States.  The impact on grain prices will reverberate globally, and is being closely followed by the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Food Security.

We should develop early warning mechanisms which could alleviate the effects of food price rises.  As food price volatility is here to stay, we need two streams of early warning.  We need it for sudden emergencies, like conflict or floods.   We also need tools that alert us to structural issues like climate change and food security.  When these factors collide, people’s resilience can reach breaking point.

As these examples show, it is not hard to see the links between poverty eradication and social development, on the one hand, and the environment, on the other.   Rio+20 recognized that sustaining progress, or avoiding reversals, on social development depends in large part on preventing and reversing the environmental harm that threatens fish stocks, food production, water supplies and — ultimately — human well-being and security.

But this critical link between social and environmental sustainability is still insufficiently represented in our model of economic development.  We rarely account adequately for ecosystem factors and the role they play for economic and social well-being.

At Rio+20, Governments recognized the potential of socially inclusive green economy policies for sustainable development and poverty eradication.  But, with few exceptions, Governments seem hesitant to adopt the “inclusive green economy” or “inclusive green growth” as a national strategy.  They tend to see trade-offs rather than synergies; costs rather than opportunities.  And many apparent success stories at the local level remain just that — local.

A critical challenge is how to disseminate, replicate and scale up successful practices.  We hope this sustainable development solutions network can play an important role and provide scenarios and solutions to many of these challenges.  With its focus on solutions, this network can help bring good ideas to the fore, give them the air they need to flourish, so that they can be adopted where appropriate, and adapted where needed.  “Adopt and adapt” can be a motto. 

We see the potential of renewable sources of energy in many countries — solar, wind, waves, hydro, geothermal.  Yet, we also know they account for a low share of the global energy mix, and will remain so until policies shift, costs reduce and technologies improve. 

The Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative aims to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and double the amount of renewable energy in our mix of fuel sources by 2030.  For that we will need sustainable development solutions — solutions that provide a dividend and a bonus for people and the planet.

Likewise, we see important examples of local experimentation with sustainable agricultural practices, but so far with little impact on the prevalent chemical-, energy- and water-intensive production model.

We see attempts to abolish environmentally harmful subsidies, such as fossil fuel subsidies.  Then, we see Governments reversing their decisions when people oppose the associated price rises — perhaps because these policies were not introduced with an adequate and clear social objective that aimed to compensate the poor and vulnerable — or because the revenue was not invested in social protection schemes.

It is clear that sustainable development is not an easy proposition.  We need to make it not only the responsible thing to do, but also a line of action in the enlightened self-interest.  This network can help us do that.

Setting new policy requires vision, courage and tenacity.  It also requires confidence based on sound analysis that assures policy makers as well as the public that short-term adjustment costs are bearable, that the vulnerable will be protected and that the long-term pay-offs are worth the immediate costs.

Sustainable development also requires strong international cooperation.  That is why the global partnership for development, “MDG 8”, is so important.

Of all the Millennium Development Goals, this is also the one — apart from sanitation — that has been least successful, as we highlighted this week when we released the MDG Gap Task Force report.

As we look past Rio+20 and forward to the post-2015 development agenda, we will need an enhanced global partnership for sustainable development — especially if we are to convince developing countries of the benefits of the green economy.  We need an international division of labour.

Rich countries must show the way by shrinking their environmental footprints — by changing consumption and production patterns and reducing inefficiencies of resource use.  They need also to be prepared to transfer appropriate technology so that other countries can develop in a sustainable way.

The Western world needs to demonstrate to consumers in the developing world that high living standards are compatible with limited environmental impact.  There is no alternative:  our planet cannot support 9 billion people consuming resources at the rate of the average person in the world today.  Our environmental footprint has already overstepped planetary boundaries.

I am glad that the Rio+20 outcome finally adopted the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production.  It is now up to all of us to build robust programmes within it — to change both public and private sector consumption patterns, to make production more energy- and resource-efficient.

The choices we make in the coming years will have profound implications for human well-being for decades and generations.  There is little room for error.  We may have a Plan B in many areas.  But when it comes to the state of our environment, not least in view of climate change, we must realize there is no Plan B.  Simply because there is no Planet B.

It is important that the post-2015 development framework, including sustainable development goals as agreed by Members States, is effective in bringing together the social, environmental and economic dimensions of progress, just as the Millennium Development Goals have been successful in focusing minds on concrete gains in health, education, and access to improved water sources.

This is the task Member States have set for themselves and for us in the United Nations system and the international community.

We look forward to working closely with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network in crafting a truly global post-2015 sustainable development framework, with goals and targets that will bring us to the future we want — and the future the people of the world deserve and are longing for.  Thank you.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.