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Scientists call for development goals to protect Earth

JOHANNESBURG, 21 March 2013 (IRIN) - Development can no longer focus exclusively on improving people’s lives. Countries must now link poverty eradication to protection of the atmosphere, oceans and land, said a group of international scientists in a comment piece published today in the journal Nature. They propose six Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that do just that.

The UN has committed to developing a set of SDGs to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which come to an end in 2015. But the UN’s first meeting on defining the SDGs has just ended in New York, with countries still undecided on the way forward.

“It is not enough simply to extend MDGs, as some are suggesting, because humans are transforming the planet in ways that could undermine development gains,” write the 10 scientists in their article, Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. The group is led by David Griggs, the director of the Monash Sustainability Institute in Australia and the former head of the scientific assessment unit of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Co-author Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said in a statement, “Mounting research shows we are now at the point that the stable functioning of Earth systems is a prerequisite for a thriving global society and future development.”

"It is not enough simply to extend MDGs, as some are suggesting, because humans are transforming the planet in ways that could undermine development gains"
Their proposed SDGs aim to ensure: thriving lives and livelihoods; sustainable food security; sustainable water security; universal clean energy; healthy and productive ecosystems; and governance for sustainable societies.

A new model

The authors assert that the classic model of sustainable development, which has served the world since 1987- three integrated pillars: economic, social and environmental - is flawed because it does not reflect reality.

“As the global population increases towards nine billion people, sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth’s life support system, not as three pillars,” said co-author Priya Shyamsundar, of the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics in Nepal.

The scientists have proposed redefining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends”.

But many of the MDGs have not yet been achieved, and some developing countries are concerned that a new focus on the SDGs could divert aid and add additional responsibilities that they are unable to handle.

In discussions in New York last week, a Botswana representative said all possible goals should be treated with equal value, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s reporting services. Botswana's representative added that if a scheduled stocktaking of the MDGs in September 2013 “shows unfinished business, then completing pending issues should be the first priority”. 

But the authors say that the MDGs are the driving force of their proposed SDGs. For instance, the goal on thriving lives and livelihoods seeks to “end poverty and improve well-being through access to education, employment and information, better health and housing, and reduced inequality while moving towards sustainable consumption and production.”

“This extends many targets” of the MDGs, they say, while working towards the longer-term goals of reducing the vulnerabilities of coming generations.

“Goals on food, water and energy security would be designed to deliver long-term - sustainable - provision of these basic needs,” co-author Owen Gaffney, of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, told IRIN. “They must reduce vulnerability and improve resilience.”

Sustainability efforts growing

There is greater awareness of the need for sustainable development than a decade ago, prompted partly by climatic shocks that have become intense and frequent. Increasingly, global forums - such as a recent international meeting on drought - have begun to focus on sustainable development as a way of dealing with these shocks.

"There is a growing realization that adaptation will increasingly become part of development," said Gaffney." There could be more joined-up thinking here. We will see more and more impacts from climate change, and this will hit developed nations and developing countries alike."

A variety of scientific initiatives have emerged to help develop the SDGs, including projects by the UN Environment Programme and the International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). The authors of the Nature comment, for example, are part of Future Earth, a 10-year international research programme that works with scientists and policymakers to generate sustainable development solutions.

And last week, a new international alliance of research institutes, the Independent Research Forum, identified eight major shifts that must take place for sustainable development to be achieved. They are shifts:

- From donor/beneficiary country relationships to meaningful international partnerships
- From top-down decision-making to processes that involve everyone
- From economic models that do little to reduce inequalities to those that do
- From business models based on enriching shareholders to models that also benefit society and the environment
- From meeting relatively easy development targets - such as improving access to financial services - to actually reducing poverty
- From conducting emergency response in the aftermath of crises to making countries and people resilient before crises occur
- From conducting pilot programmes to scaling-up the programmes that work
- From a single-sectoral approach, such as tackling a water shortage through the water ministry, to involving various sectors, like the agriculture and energy sectors, which also depend on water

The abundance of initiatives has sparked concern that the processes are uncoordinated and could lead to a duplication of efforts. To better synchronize the parallel processes, Gaffney said the International Council for Science and other organizations are holding meetings in New York this week.

"More coordination is essential,” he said, “but the process is happening very rapidly."

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Economy, Education, Environment, Food Security, Governance, Health & Nutrition, Natural Disasters, Water & Sanitation,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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