A new report from the United Nations Development Programme argues that development, equity and environmental sustainability must be addressed together in order to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the world today, such as poverty, rising food prices, deforestation and climate change.

Similar to the international advice given in the World Risk Index, it is ambitious in scope and presentation.  Many developed and developing countries alike have been struggling to work out an economic and environmentally sustainable plan for the future that mitigates climate change and other environmental crises.  What this report emphasises is that such a strategy should not be separate from equity — fairness and social justice and greater access to a better quality of life.

Some countries have provided model examples in developing their economies through environmentally sustainable initiatives including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nepal, Chile, Cameroon and many others.  The Report argues that ‘health, education, income, gender disparities and energy production, combined with protection of the ecosystem’ are part of ‘environmental sustainability’.  As I’m sure many of you are aware, the term ‘sustainability’ is often ambiguous and frequently exploited, such as for ‘green washing’ campaigns by some private companies whose aims may be anything but ‘sustainable’.  Yet the UNDP argues for the importance of sustainability, perhaps helping to breathe new life into an environmental movement that has been incorrectly interpreted as promoting ecology at the expense of economic development.

Sustainable human development is the expansion of the substantive freedoms of people today while making reasonable efforts to avoid seriously compromising those of future generations. 

The Report looks at sustainability in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and deforestation.  Furthermore, it explains how new development can and should be moving towards equality.  The decrepit argument that pits economic development against the preservation of environmental resources is simply too narrow in context for today’s rapidly changing world.  Interestingly, development, environment and ecology are viewed more as inextricably linked, instead of separate.  For people who rely on forests and agriculture for their livelihoods, this is well-known because it is the experience they live with every day.

As countries develop, this does not mean that they must go the same route as much of the western world has; in fact it could be argued that there are more methods (both high and low-tech) available to developing nations today that make it more likely for them to craft a future for themselves that need not lead to the mistakes of the past.  One vital example is microgeneration of renewable energy, an opportunity for many people living in developing countries that will likely continue to be less costly and in some cases more effective than centralised generation of electric power.  Finding alternatives to current methods of agriculture is also of special concern, especially regarding global food prices and livelihoods.

Adverse environmental factors are expected to boost world food prices 30–50 percent in real terms in the coming decades and to increase price volatility, with harsh repercussions for poor households. The largest risks are faced by the 1.3 billion people involved in agriculture, fishing, forestry, hunting and gathering.

Today, around 350 million people, many of them poor, live in or near forests on which they rely for subsistence and incomes. Both deforestation and restrictions on access to natural resources can hurt the poor. Evidence from a range of countries suggests that women typically rely on forests more than men do because women tend to have fewer occupational options, be less mobile and bear most of the responsibility for collecting fuelwood.

Many of the resources that are easily affordable to rich countries, such as advanced health care technologies, are usually not within reach of the poor, but this does not mean wise investments cannot be made in preventable heath care, local health research on disease as well as the production of generic medicines that are affordable and available to those who need them the most.  These along with sanitation are some of the most important factors in preventing the spread of disease.

…environmental factors, including unclean water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene are among the 10 leading causes of disease worldwide. Each year environment-related diseases, including acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea, kill at least 3 million children under age 5—more than the entire under-five populations of Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland combined.

The holistic perspective that guides this report is most welcome, including its emphasis on resilience and preparing for extreme events: Understanding the risk of extreme events.  However small the probability, it is essential to consider the huge adverse consequences of extreme weather events, especially for the most vulnerable—and to reduce the risks.

In many cases developing countries could very well lead the rest in combining sustainability and equity with how they develop over time.  They may also be able to better prepare for hazards caused or accelerated by climate change, for the simple fact that they must do so in order to survive.  While most rich countries today have the luxury of choosing whether they want to act or not, it may not last for long.  Adapting to future extreme hazard events is not only necessary for present generations, but those living tens to even hundreds or thousands of years from now.  The further we attempt to look into the future, the blurrier it gets.  But the more we focus on the present, the more we realise that if no action is taken there may not be any future to worry about.

 Further Reading

Human Development Report 2011 Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All. UNDP