Implementing the outcome document of the Rio+20 conference, The Future We Want, presents different challenges for governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders. At the conceptual level, the acceptance of sustainable development as a core organizing principle in the UN system is the result of a long political process that started in the 1980s. At the institutional level, Rio+20 completed the years-long process of reforming the system of global environmental governance. Reform measures for UNEP and the new institutional architecture for sustainable development are now being implemented and will require regular and systematic monitoring, reporting, and assessment.
At the operational level, the United Nations system will face coordination issues if the SDGs and the post-2015 processes remain disconnected. Mechanisms to connect the two agendas are necessary in order to ensure a comprehensive approach to a global development agenda. Ultimately, the goal of these two processes is the same: the attainment of long-term human prosperity. In this context, the SDGs recognize explicitly that such prosperity cannot be achieved without safeguarding the ability of the planet to maintain the conditions critical to the well-being of humans and the other species with which we share the planet.
Box 13–1. A Policy Mechanism for Ensuring Sustainable Development: National Resource Sufficiency Evaluation
Recognition is growing globally that strong action is needed immediately to move toward environmental sustainability. A global high-level panel recently warned that, “We must act now to halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation, which pose unprecedented threats to humanity.” But that sense of global urgency needs to be translated into global action. The gap between what political leaders want in terms of development (the “political mandate”) and the resources that are realistically available to accommodate that development (the “reality mandate” often put forth by the scientific community) appears to be wide.
Although most concrete efforts to promote sustainability have focused on technological evolution and resilience in the face of a changing environment, a strong case exists that bridging the gap will require absolute reductions in consumption and a reversal of population growth, or else measurable progress toward global sustainability may never occur.
The current debate on the United Nations' post-2015 development agenda, including the work of the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), offers an opportunity to begin to close the gap between politics and the reality of the human predicament. The SDGs are expected to set goals and targets needed to facilitate and ensure progress in human development, while at the same time fostering a global transition to an “inclusive green economy” and “a sustainable century.”The “S” (or sustainability) factor implicitly acknowledges the need to conduct humanity's future global development programs in balance with planetary limits. The OWG process, which is expected to be completed by September 2014, will play a key role in determining if the next human development agenda will represent economic development “as usual,” or whether the SDGs will form a new point of departure that leads to a more sustainable world.
Much depends on whether the proposed SDGs recognize the biophysical limitations to economic growth and the need for governance at all levels to consider the implications of such limits for efforts to eradicate poverty and reduce income inequality. Although it is implicitly understood (and sometimes even explicitly stated) that long-term human prosperity can be attained only by safeguarding environmental assets, the operational mechanism needed to accomplish this task—especially at the scale of the global socioecologic system—has not been proposed nor agreed upon.
One idea being offered to the OWG is Resource Sufficiency Evaluation (RSE), the use of established metrics to determine whether the current and projected demand for natural resources is sustainable. Scientifically based accounting methodologies such as life-cycle assessment (LCA) or input-output (I-O) modeling are already available to conduct resource sufficiency evaluations in a universally applicable manner. These methodologies, and the biophysical “balance sheets” that are generated, offer policy makers and the public a clearer understanding of ecological sustainability and what is needed to achieve it.
In contrast to the end of the twentieth century, natural resource scarcities and costs are now becoming an increasingly significant economic factor for most countries, and this significance will only grow as resource demands increase. By adopting RSE, countries can proactively address resource constraints and better plan for their economic future. Countries that understand their natural resource assets and limitations, and reduce their reliance on scarce resources, acquire a competitive edge in a now globalized world.
RSE provides an appropriate analytical framework and policy response to the growing global imperative to better manage the balance between human activity and the natural resources required for long-term well-being.
The Sustainable World Initiative, a nonprofit project associated with the Population Institute in Washington, D.C., is working with United Nations, governmental, and civil-society leaders to stimulate a discussion of RSE in the context of environmental governance. If that governance is ever to succeed in achieving true sustainability,it must begin with recognition of planetary limits—and efforts to reconcile them into economic development plans.
Countries will never know if they have enough resources to maintain human development—or can realistically expect these resources to be available externally—unless they first evaluate their resource demands and compare them to what is available. No one would think of driving a car or flying a plane without a fuel gauge. By the same token, policy makers at all levels of governance cannot adequately plan for the future without knowing whether they have the natural resources needed to realize their development agendas.
—Ed Barry Director, Sustainable World Initiative,
swinitiative.org Source: See endnote 22.