Sustainability, Equity and Growth – Change is the Key

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Palais de Nations, Geneva

by Alina Suvila

It seems like a never-ending discussion about sustainable development and climate change. But there is a very good reason for it: now is the time to act. Three notable personalities discussed various possibilities for action in a public conference named ”Sustainable Development on a Warming Planet?” on 24th April 2014 at the Palais de Nations, Geneva.

The speakers included Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele, professor of climatology from Belgium and vice-chair of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Sunita Narain, a leading environmental activist from India, the Director General of the Indian Centre for Science and Environment and H.R.H. Prince Albert II. Sovereign Prince of Monaco.

Scientists have been aware of the changes within the climate system for almost three decades. The warming of the oceans, melting of glaciers and increasing occurrence of extreme weather phenomena are a detected result of climate change as pointed out by professor Van Ypersele. The natural carbon cycle does not rest unperturbed when CO2 gets into the system due to man created emissions. Continuously rising quantities of carbon lead to the phenomenon we call the greenhouse effect.

Risks increase in proportion to warming. This calls for adjustment, which is easier said then done. Adaptation is expensive and the reduction of emissions requires costly technological and institutional changes towards a low or zero carbon economy. In order to reach global results, states should start treating adaptation and economic growth as complementing each other, not as two separate goals.
Globally, the people who suffer the most are also the least privileged. Climate change is closely interlinked with the challenge of increasing equity, justice and human rights, the goals Sunita Narain fights for in India. According to Narain the biggest problem is not the lack of knowledge about climate change but the inability of people to act upon something already known. She is merciless in pointing out irresponsible decisions made by politicians in her own country and elsewhere.

According to Narain, there are two realities that make the countering of climate change difficult. Firstly, it is not just about cutting emissions – it’s about changing the way we think about economic growth today. Historically, the developed countries have been the biggest producers of CO2 emissions and have achieved economic growth at the expense of the developing world. In the future, growth ought to be distributed more equally among nations and all countries will need to bear responsibility for countering climate change – not just the developed world. The problems of the present and the future need to be equally shared, pointing fingers will only delay responsible action. The best way forward is equal multilateral action.
Secondly, mitigation is already a practice in use and regulative control of emissions is exercised, so why have there been no changes observed? In the developed countries we are set on old models of functioning and the potential basis for progressive development therefore lies in the developing world. For example, where there is no infrastructure or electricity; these should be constructed in a sustainable way, also in order to meet the qualifications of basic human rights.

Besides these two challenging realities, there is also an opportunity that can help the creation of a sustainable future: sustainability is nowadays seen as a privilege for the rich – “green” can be bought, but only for a price. This is where according to Sunita Narain there is a possibility for policy reform. Affordability has to go with and not against sustainability, especially in the new generation of technologies. Decisions will need to be based on equity so that sustainability is fair. Basic rights like access to energy need to be viewed from a point of renewability, not from the view of access itself in focus. New business models are needed to reach the marginalized people. Concern about expenditure slows down the progress but a global agreement on viewing growth is needed.

Prince Albert of Monaco is also advocating a more equal and sustainable driven world. H.R.H Prince Albert II. decided in 2006 to set up
a foundation dedicated to the protection of the environment
and the promotion of sustainable development on a global scale.

He highlights the impacts of global climate change but reminds us that there is also hope. Organizations like the IPCC have fought long for this cause. Furthermore, climate change denial can be diminished and global agreements be concluded through the cooperation of organizational and governmental actors. Innovation and creation, changes in the ways of consuming and breaking away from the current model of growth can help the world to get away from the current destructive cycle.

The key message of the conference was that sustainable development is not just one option amongst many; in the long run it is the only viable option. Sooner or later economic models will have to adjust to a new way of prioritising. The more we wait, the more difficult it will be.

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