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A Vision for the UN Panel For Global Sustainability

On October 20, I spoke at an Interactive Dialogue of the UN General Assembly about the imminent report of the High Level Panel for Global Sustainability. The Panel, convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is charged with articulating a new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity. Its report, due at the end of 2011, will set the tone for intergovernmental action in the coming years, including at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit.

With a roster of current and former world leaders (including Mrs. Tarja Halonen, President of Finland and Mr. Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa) the Panel is uniquely positioned to set an agenda for green growth and prosperity. As I say in my remarks below, we already know what we need to do to promote sustainability. The real question lies in how to move forward and overcome both the political and behavioral hurdles that have hampered progress so far. Can the Panel craft a vision that is ambitious, politically realistic, and persuasive to the larger public?

Recently, the Martin Luther King Memorial opened near my home in Washington, DC. Dr. King profoundly changed the history of the United States. His brilliance was his ability to articulate a clear, bold vision for equality – a vision so compelling that it moved both people and institutions to an entirely different place.

I hope the Global Sustainability Panel articulates a similarly bold and compelling vision for sustainability – a vision that is able to move political and business leaders to see sustainability not as a necessary cost but as essential to reducing poverty and stimulating growth. Turning to the forthcoming report, I would like to make three points that I believe will be critical if the Panel is to fulfill its mandate:

1. Ambition

The Report must be bold given the scale and urgency of the issues. We live in a US$63 trillion global economy and we are already severely damaging the ecosystems on which all life depends. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – a 5 year global study conducted under the auspices of the UN - found that approximately 60% of the world’s ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably.

We need to retire the misleading formulations – such as the environment versus development. Growth versus limits. Jobs versus public health. Our narrative must make clear that growth, security, equity and most importantly poverty alleviation are all possible in the pursuit of sustainability.

By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stress conditions.

When it comes to climate change, 2010 was tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere already exceeds 390ppm when many scientists argue that the threshold should be 350 ppm.

If we are already exceeding the limits on what the planet can sustain given the size of today’s economy, how will the planet be able to cope with the global economy in 2050 when it will be four times as large as today?

A former colleague of mine, Robert Repetto, summed up this challenge by saying: “If you believe that we can continue to grow the economy exponentially over the next 50 years without hitting nature’s limits, then you’re either a madman or an economist.”

2. The Politics of Sustainability

The unique contribution of this report will not lie in answering questions of “what”? Such as: what reforms need to occur in agriculture, water or other sectors to promote sustainability? Or: what new skills are needed or what new institutions need to be established? Many others are tackling such technical questions. And I suspect there is actually not much new to be said here.

The real contribution is in the “how”. How do we get difficult reforms to actually happen? How do we navigate entrenched interests and established norms of behavior?

This focus allows the panel to leverage its greatest asset – which is that its members are current or former elected political leaders. They can speak legitimately about how to overcome the political hurdles in advancing sustainability.

Here are examples of the issues that I believe the report needs to address:

Tradeoffs:

  • One of biggest challenges is managing tradeoffs – tradeoffs between groups, between the short-term and the long-term, between geographies, between generations. How do we make those tradeoffs? And how do we ensure that there these tradeoffs are “politically sustainable” - that constituencies support difficult decisions over time?

  • Our experience suggests that providing information and engaging the public improves the quality, legitimacy and durability of decisions. The tradeoffs of any decision become clearer when informed stakeholders are brought to the table. A concrete and important recommendation to come out of this report would be to improve public access to information, participation and justice. It’s a fitting time to advocate for widespread adoption of these access rights, which were enshrined at the Earth Summit in Rio 20 years ago.

Transitions:

  • There will be losers. How they are dealt with, whether they are dealt with fairly is critical to advancing sustainability. The transition from a high-carbon to low carbon growth path is the stated goal of many countries. How can countries transition the people working in these industries, and the related financial interests behind them, to new growth opportunities?

  • The Panel must describe ways in which countries can make this transition successfully, to fairly deal with those who are affected, by providing real-world examples of what works.

3. Persuasion

As I look around this room, I imagine that it is a fairly receptive audience – people who understand the stakes involved, and the critical need for a path forward to sustainability. But when I travel to many places in the world, people have very different perspectives, beliefs and priorities.

Of course you know this. But my point is: we need to focus much more on messengers and narratives. No matter how compelling the evidence and arguments in the report, the world will not budge without diverse and credible messengers who can articulate unforgettable narratives.

All too often we talk about sustainability in ways that appeal to environmentalists but not to the mainstream. We preach to the choir. For this report, we need to enlist unexpected voices that come from unlikely sectors. Frankly, I believe that the messengers are more important than the message. We need support from those who have the ability to persuade those who we cannot persuade – representatives from business, the faith and scientific communities, farmers, and young people. And of course we need civil society organizations.

How can we be more effective in re-framing the narrative around sustainability - as critical for reducing poverty, creating jobs and catalyzing growth? How do we engage voters and consumers sitting on the fence who are not committed to sustainability?

We also need to retire for good the misleading formulations – such as the environment versus development. Growth versus limits. Jobs versus public health. Our narrative must make clear that growth, security, equity and most importantly poverty alleviation are all possible in the pursuit of sustainability.

We are seeing more and more people take to the streets to have their voices heard about inequity and unacceptable imbalances in power and economics. From the Arab Spring to Liberty Square in this city, there is a thirst for a new world.

These social and political movements remind me of a quote from Nelson Mandela that applies well to the challenges before us: “It always seems impossible until it's done.”

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