This lecture seeks to practically address two major global challenges – sustainable development and climate change. Developmental problems such as poverty-inequality, hunger, illness and resource scarcity are already formidable. Climate change is a potent risk multiplier, exacerbating the other crises too. It is highly inequitable that the worst climate impacts fall on the vulnerable poor who have emitted the least GHG. These multiple global problems driven by unsustainable activities, increase vulnerability and undermine resilience.
Inequality is a major driver that increases vulnerability and decreases resilience. The nexus of overuse of resources, inequality and poverty illustrates this point. Humankind is already over-consuming planetary ecological resources equivalent to 1.7 Earths. And by 2030, we will need the equivalent of two planets to sustain our current way of life. Secondly, it is the richest 20% of the world’s population who consume more than 85% of planetary resources, which is 60-70 times more than the consumption of the poorest 20%. Furthermore, just 1% of the rich emit 175 times more greenhouse gases per capita than the poorest 10%. Third, we have not been able to eradicate poverty in the past, because the overconsumption of the rich uses up more than one planet, and there are no resources left to help the poor. This is a major reason why many promises to eradicate poverty by world leaders have not been kept.
The IPCC definition of resilience implies that what we need is to strengthen adaptation and mitigation capacity and build more resilience to restore socioeconomic and ecological systems to the existing state. Yet climate is only 1 out of 17 comprehensive sustainable development goals (SDG), and managing only climate risk is inadequate. Integrated solutions and multi-stakeholder cooperation that simultaneously address multiple sustainable development issues (including climate change) are urgently required, to lead us to a 21st Century Earth Eco-civilization. The global governance system needs to be changed and made more sustainable. The Sustainomics framework including the sustainable development triangle and balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG) path, first presented at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, provides one effective solution.
Key elements of sustainomics start with the first principle for making development more sustainable that empowers everyone to take action now, without waiting for instructions from above. The second principle requires harmonization of the three dimensions of the sustainable development triangle – economic, social and environmental. The third principle encourages us to transcend traditional mental boundaries that limit us in terms of value systems, disciplines, time and spatial scales, stakeholder viewpoints, etc. The final principle sets out a practical implementation framework based on sustainomics tools and the BIGG path to sustainable development.
Sustainomics helps decision-makers to make the structure of development more sustainable, by going beyond the focus on economic growth (e.g., based only on material consumption or GNP). The BIGG path facilitates the incorporation of ecological and social concerns into the existing economic decision-making process. The first step in the BIGG approach is to integrate environmental issues into economic policies and projects, to achieve green growth – a win-win outcome. The second step, is to incorporate social aspects by selecting green growth paths that are more pro-poor, equitable and inclusive. This integrates the sustainable development triangle and completes the BIGG model, that will help implement the SDG and achieve the UN Agenda 2030. Ultimately, the Earth Eco-civilization will require responsible citizens to lead sustainable lifestyles based on sustainable consumption and production society.
Overall, the ongoing trend towards a multi-polar world will be helpful – based on many alternative economic (soft) power centres and multiple global currencies, which is gradually replacing the hegemonic uni-polar system based on a single militaristic (hard) power centre and one world reserve currency (US dollar). Such a multi-polar world could help reduce huge wasteful military expenses and wars to acquire scarce resources, while facilitating use of science, smart technology and social innovation to harmonize economic prosperity, environmental protection and social inclusion, built on multi-stakeholder cooperation among governments, businesses and civil society. This trend towards a more sustainable and conflict-free planet will be universally welcomed, given the depressing current realities. For example, the world in 2020 spent almost US$ 2 trillion on armaments, while only US$ 161 million (a fraction of that amount) was spent on development aid to help the poor. Furthermore, even while COVID-19 ravaged the world in 2020, the world’s billionaires increased their wealth by 11%, while billions starved.
Switching resources from armaments to help the vulnerable poor will be a major step forward in increasing resilience. Most importantly, it will move us away from the threat of nuclear war – the ultimate catastrophe to be avoided at all costs, since it will destroy human society and make the very concept of resilience meaningless. Such trends need to be accelerated. Thus, competition for economic influence by different global power centres is already emerging that could benefit the poor and vulnerable countries – for example, the recently announced $600 billion assistance programme of the G7 would never have materialized if the $4 trillion Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SC)), and the BRICS Group had not existed.
I have several concluding thoughts. First, we can be more effective by integrating climate adaptation and mitigation policies fully into overall sustainable development strategy, and improving resilience on a broader front. Second, we need to restructure international governance away from militaristic and punitive approaches, while encouraging trade, economic interactions, cultural understanding, and peaceful negotiations. In particular, nuclear war is an existential threat to humanity. Third, education worldwide should emphasize ethical values and sustainability principles, from an early age.
* Chairman, Munasinghe Institute for Development (MIND) and MIND Group; Vice Chair of IPCC that shared 2007 Nobel Peace Prize; 2021 Blue Planet Prize Laureate; and Distinguished Guest Professor, Peking University.