Human Life Dependent on ‘Planetary Boundaries’ That Should Not Be Crossed, Says Panellist in Second Committee Special Event

16 October 2012

Human Life Dependent on ‘Planetary Boundaries’ That Should Not Be Crossed, Says Panellist in Second Committee Special Event

16 October 2012
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-seventh General Assembly

Second Committee

Panel Discussion (AM)

Human Life Dependent on ‘Planetary Boundaries’ That Should Not Be Crossed,


Says Panellist in Second Committee Special Event


Members of Panel Address Formulation of Sustainable Development Goals

Human life on earth would depend on the formulation of a set of sustainable development goals built on an ambitious vision, Kate Raworth, Senior Researcher for Oxfam GB, told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) today as it held a panel discussion on that subject.

One of four panellists in the discussion on “Conceptualizing a set of sustainable development goals”, she described nine “planetary boundaries” in areas including land use, chemical pollution, climate change and ozone depletion, emphasizing that in order to maintain the planet, they should not be crossed.

Noting that three of the boundaries had already been crossed, with others under major stress regionally or locally, Ms. Raworth stressed that they were designed not “to protect tree frogs or polar bears”, but humanity, and not as part of an environmentalist agenda, but as part of a humanist one.  With “choppy waters” ahead, she said, there was an “extraordinary chance” to develop a real plan to deal with future development.

But that was only half the challenge, she said, describing an inner limit of resource use within which people lacked adequate access to water, energy, jobs, income and gender equality, among other things.  “Every human being must have the resources to meet their human rights,” she stressed, calling for a balance between resource use and resource limitation that would exist in a “safe space for humanity.”  The current imbalance amounted to an “indictment of the path to development we have followed to date”, she said, adding, however, that the challenges could be met.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only 3 per cent of the world’s food supply was needed to meet the needs of the hungry, but 30 per cent of supply was being wasted around the world, she continued.  Moreover, people currently lacking basic energy and electricity could have their needs met with just a 1 per cent decrease in global carbon emissions.  Because all countries, including the rich ones, were seeking ways to create inclusive and sustainable economic development, they were all “developing countries”, she said, imagining a world in which businesses and Governments began to conduct their affairs with the aim of creating a safe and just space for humanity.

Also featuring as panellists in the discussion chaired by George Wilfred Talbot (Guyana), Chair of the Second Committee and moderated by Andrew Revkin, Senior Fellow at Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, were Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, Permanent Representative of Egypt; Manish Bapna, Executive Vice-President and Managing Director, World Resources Institute; and Charles Kenny, Senior Fellow, Centre for Global Development.

Mr. Bapna, echoing calls for a set of forward-looking Sustainable Development Goals, said they must tackle today’s problems rather than those of yesterday.  The world had changed significantly since 1995, he added, pointing out, for example, that the location of poverty had shifted.  About 1.3 billion people were currently living on less than a dollar a day, mostly in India and China, but in the next few decades, most of the world’s poor would be concentrated in Africa and in fragile States, he said, noting that Nigeria was projected to have more of them in five years’ time than China and India.

Emphasizing that the Sustainable Development Goals must be multidimensional, he said that, unlike the Millennium Development Goals, they needed to focus on sustainability and to make clear the links connecting the three pillars of sustainable development.  Moreover, the Millennium Goals asked very little of high-income countries, he pointed out, calling for Goals that would focus explicitly on “global collective action problems” such as climate change and food supply.  Noting that private philanthropy played a much larger role today, with new institutions and funds created daily, he said the private sector was also helping to shape development outcomes for the world’s poor, and it was important that the international community as a whole develop a shared vision of the direction in which the world should be headed.

The process of conceptualizing a set of Sustainable Development Goals must be open and inclusive, unlike the process that had come up with the Millennium Development Goals, he stressed, pointing out that the poor had not been consulted to determine how they defined poverty and what must be done to induce change.  Fortunately, some organizations were beginning to reach out to the poor, he said, adding that it was important to acknowledging shortcomings in the Millennium Development Goals in formulating the new set of targets.  However, it was crucial not to lose sight of good decisions, he said, urging the Committee to “build on the good decisions and learn from the bad decisions so as to not repeat them”.

Mr. Kenny focused on those good decisions, praising the Millennium Development Goals for having dramatically pushed the development dialogue onto the world stage.  Despite the global financial crisis, development aid had not collapsed, which was a testament to the international community.  The reduction in child mortality was a “dramatic success” because 200,000 to 300,000 children were saved each year, while the Millennium Development Goals had enabled the world’s poorest people, living in the direst conditions, to improve conditions for their children.

The Millennium Declaration’s language was numerical, simple and directive, he said, adding that it worked on a timeline.  Part of the success of the Millennium Development Goals could be attributed to their construction around the idea of aid, but they were comparatively narrow, and that could be viewed as a weakness, he said, noting that an opportunity to include the environment and global security had been missed.

The main focus of the Millennium Development Goals was on the poorest developing countries, which in turn led to some unrealistic goals, he cautioned.  Countries like Benin, which had started in 2000 with 30 per cent of children enrolled in primary education, now had 60 per cent enrolled, but there was no chance of their reaching 100 per cent enrolment by 2015, he said, emphasizing, however, that that should not take away from the country’s accomplishments in the last 12 years.  In formulating the Sustainable Development Goals, it was crucial to think where and how they were likely to make a real difference, he added.

Taking up that idea, Mr. Khalil said the Sustainable Development Goals were unlikely to be as basic as the Millennium Development Goals, and would include additional considerations, such as integration of the three pillars of sustainable development.  They would also be more broadly focused, and not limited only to developing countries.  The post-2015 development agenda should complement the Millennium Development Goals, he said, stressing that there was still time to attain them.  Incomplete Goals could be carried over into the post-2015 period, he suggested, calling for universality, while adding that it might be necessary to adopt separate goals for developed and developing countries to reflect the different realities that different countries faced.

The Sustainable Development Goals would be “second generation” targets, offering a chance to better address issues in context, he said.  Poverty eradication efforts could be matched with the need to create better opportunities generally, and a goal on child mortality could go further by seeking more broadly to ensure decent lives for children.  The new Goals could also include maintaining planetary temperature rises below 2 °Celsius or preventing the loss of biological diversity.

Expressing disappointment that the open-ended Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals had delayed the start of its work, he welcomed the fact that the delay enabled today’s special event to set the panel’s agenda.  He urged the Working Group to lose its focus on procedural issues like nominations and distribution of seats, suggesting that it begin its substantive work in parallel to continuing procedural negotiations, in keeping with the “open to all” spirit of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

Following those presentations, Shamshad Akhtar, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, also discussed the process for moving ahead, saying that no one other than Member States and United Nations system entities would be involved in designing or steering the approach to the Sustainable Development Goals or the post-2015 development agenda.  Describing the planet as “virtually creaking”, due to population growth and resource misuse, she said knowledge of that dated back at least to the 1970s, but instead of pursuing sustainable development, the world had done the opposite.  The Sustainable Development Goals needed the discipline of the Millennium Development Goals, which had enabled focus, targeting and, most importantly, implementation.

Moderator Revkin said goals were needed to allow people to “fit our infinite aspirations on a finite planet” with some equity.  A resilient and adaptable approach was needed over the next few decades because mistakes would be made and it would be essential to accommodate them.  Agreements were not enough, he said, calling for goals that actually worked when applied in the real world.

In the ensuing dialogue, Brazil’s representative sought suggestions on how to consult the poor, a very important aspect of the work at hand.

Mr. Kenny replied that a global representative poll would be “a great idea”, and one of the most important topics would be jobs.

Nigeria’s representative said the Sustainable Development Goals must be all-inclusive, but expressed doubt as to whether that was achievable, suggesting that different goals for different countries would go a long way towards addressing their different challenges.

Mr. Khalil responded by emphasizing that sustainable development should be universal, because if one place was developed, it should be possible to achieve the same results elsewhere.  However, he agreed that differentiated goals were possible.

Others participating included representatives of Benin, Morocco, Mexico, Argentina, United Republic of Tanzania, United States, Gabon, India, Australia, Botswana, Ireland and the European Union delegation.

Representatives of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commission on Sustainable Development also took part, as did representatives of the Children and Youth and Women major groups.

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