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Two Top-Level "Post-2015" Reports to the UN Call for "Transformations" to Curb Climate Change and Secure a Sustainable Future

Jacob Scherr

Posted June 17, 2013

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This last weekend, hundreds of diplomats and others flew home from Bonn after the latest round of UNFCC talks on the next climate treaty.  At the same time, hundreds more from around the world were traveling to New York for the start of three days of discussions at the UN on new set of goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (“MDGs”).  Right now these two processes, both culminating in 2015,  are generally viewed as separate, but two recent major reports to the UN on the "post-2015 development agenda" make their connection very clear.  They both call for transformational changes to tackle global warming and to end extreme poverty and achieve other human development objectives.

high level panel image courtesy of the UNBoth of the reports to the UN Secretary General – the first by the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (made up of mostly leading political figures and chaired by the Presidents of  Indonesia and Liberia and the British Prime Minister, including John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff) and the other by the Leadership Council of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (made up of top scientists, economists, and business and civil society leaders, including Frances Beinecke, NRDC President)  –  reached the same conclusion:  Business as usual  - our civilization’s current path -  is not sustainable. 

The Panel said:

We must act now to halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation, which pose unprecedented threats to humanity….

The Panel is convinced that national and local governments, businesses and individuals must transform the way they generate and consume energy, travel and transport goods, use water and grow food.

Both reports found that the MDGs provided a much needed focus for efforts to assist developing countries and that they spurred real progress on the ground.  As pointed out by the Panel, there have been widespread improvements in human well-being in many poorer countries since the adoption of the goals in 2000.  Just for starters, there are now - a billion fewer people in extreme poverty; about three million children’s lives saved each year.  Yet the Panel was critical of the MDGs for their lack of attention to the growing environmental and social pressures caused by unsustainable consumption and production patterns.  The Panel, along with the Leadership Council,  recommended the world adopt a single set of sustainability goals for all nations to replace the MDGs .

Both of the reports reflect a broad consensus that the first priority must continue to be reducing the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day with the goal of the eliminating extreme poverty in the next fifteen years.  The Panel recognizes that this and other potential sustainability goals will not be met unless we address climate change.  “Above all, there is one trend—climate change—which will affect whether or not we can deliver on our ambitions. 

sdsn image courtesy of unsdsn.orgThe Council goes further in suggesting two new sustainability goals that would address the new reality of 7 billion people (and growing) on a planet already under great stress.  The Council’s proposed second goal would be to Achieve development within planetary boundaries:

The entire world must recognize that growth along the current trajectory using today’s technologies is bound to fail.  It would trespass on planetary boundaries and lead to environmental degradation that will stop growth and even threaten major reversals of living standards….

For more details on the "planetary boundaries" concept first proposed in 2009, see this Stockholm Resilience Center webpage.   

Humans are  already exceeding the capacity of our planet to absorb our carbon pollution; and the Council proposed a sustainable development goal on climate change and sustainable energy,  which reads in part:  Curb Greenhouse gas emission…to ensure a peak of global CO2 emissions by 2020 and to head off the rapidly growing dangers of climate change.   The Council did not propose any specific or quantified targets for emissions reductions, noting that it is up to the UNFCC climate treaty negotiations to set "targets among nations."   

I fully agree with Christina Figueres, UNFCC Secretary General, who in commenting on the Council report, said: The year 2015 is a crucial next step for creating sustainable development and addressing climate change.  Increasing action on climate change with ambition and determination is key to sustainable development.  We will also need, as suggested by the Panel (and discussed in my next blog), a new framework  in 2015 to encourage a rapid transformation to a sustainable global economy and society.

(The assistance of Sam Reynolds, Chelsea Phipps, and Samantha Beckerman is gratefully acknowledged.)

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