What are the implications of trying to articulate a sustainable development future? The Global Agenda Outlook 2013 brought together John McArthur, Senior Fellow of the United Nations Foundation and Wu Changhua, Director of Climate Group, China. James Bacchus, Honorary Professor of Law at the University of International Business and Economics, moderated the discussion.

John McArthur: Since the Millennium Development Goals were formulated, we have had a pretty historic global conversation about how developed and developing countries can partner to achieve an ambitious agenda – to eliminate extreme poverty from the planet, and at least halve it by 2015. We’ve seen a few areas that have really taken off. We’ve seen issues of disease control – including HIV/AIDS, malaria and immunizations for children – really making breakthroughs. In recent years maternal health has also made progress and we’ve seen a lot of success in primary education. In some areas we haven’t seen much success. In hunger, we’re still struggling. On the environment, the Millennium Development Goals actually had a pretty narrow definition and these issues have not been so well addressed.

As we look at the final 1,000 days to 2015, there are a few basic questions. One is how do we make sure that this last stretch goes as well as possible – how do we make sure we really maintain the momentum around doable propositions such as eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV and ending deaths from malaria? Second, while the world has already achieved the first Millennium Development Goal of cutting income poverty by half, how do we finish the job and end extreme poverty altogether?

And even if all countries eliminate extreme poverty below a dollar a day, there are still a couple of billion people living on less than US$ 2 a day. Third, what are the issues that didn’t get addressed in the Millennium Development Goals? How, for example, do we tackle the environmental underpinnings of development? Fourth, what are the issues around inequality? It’s not just about what it looks like to end extreme poverty, but what it means to have a sustainable global society.

A shift to looking at the environmental challenges will need to keep in mind that even the term “sustainable development goals” can be very loaded politically. The words actually mean different things in different parts of the world, yet what we’re trying to do is converge on a common agenda and vision.  We know that many of the poorest people face major environmental strains, and that one way to help them with that is to raise incomes. As Norman Borlaug used to say: “It’s hard to be an environmentalist on an empty stomach.” When countries go from extreme poverty to above a dollar a day poverty, that’s not usually where the bigger global environmental challenge comes in  – it’s at the stage of industrialization.

I am an economist who is pro-growth and in favour of equal opportunity to lifestyles. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell anyone else, at this stage of global inequality, that they should stop growing. I’m for better growth, derived from new ideas and new efficiencies. Ultimately we will only solve the problem through innovation, so we need to think about how to develop better incentives for that – which raises the role of government investment and regulation.

For anyone in office over the next few years, whether it’s a political, corporate or NGO office, this is a time to keep our eye on the ball – so as to deliver results by 2015. If we do so, we could even provide a springboard for tackling the next generation’s challenges.

6Wu Changhua: By putting “sustainable” in front of development issues we have shown that we understand them better, and that we understand the linkages between many issues. This also presents challenges, as the international community tries to figure out  what are the best tools, instruments and partnerships to address solutions with the limited resources at hand. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the health of the global ecosystem, we are not making progress. We are actually moving backwards.

If you look at the West, in the current economic situation, if you do not have or promise growth you cannot be elected. Yet everyone knows all the data telling us we do not have enough natural resources, that the ecosystem cannot accommodate the growth goals being pursued by every country. How we solve that remains a big question.

I have friends in Beijing who tell me that they have three cars. Why? Well, firstly, they are rich enough. Secondly because, there are laws saying you can only drive a certain car on a certain number of days. You need to go to work every day, so what do you do? Among young people today, awareness is very high. But if we ask someone to give up certain things for the sake of the environment, for others, or even just to pay more, you start to see a really significant drop in commitment.

On a different scale, I was attending a seminar and the CEO of a European company was talking about sustainable development and what the company has done to reduce its ecological footprint. After he finished and went out, I saw the CEO of a major chemical company in Taiwan shaking his head. When I approached him, he said, “Sustainability is not multinational companies getting rid of or selling the things they don’t want any more”. And he’s right. Where do these things go? In many cases, heavy manufacturing simply ends up in China and the footprint is shifted to somewhere else.

Unfortunately, we are materialistic and we consume a lot of things – and someone has to make them. If we do not address that fact – if we do not integrate it with a move to innovation and new technology in a timely manner – we will not solve the problem.  I don’t think that change comes naturally. A company needs to make money, so it goes for the low-hanging fruit. That’s why this requires government to set regulation standards and to add a costing issue – if you don’t do this, it costs you more. Business people get that.

That’s also why I think it’s encouraging that in China the direction for the next 10 years in terms of development has been clearly set out. What’s exciting to see in the documents released by the Party Congress, for example, is the use of the term “eco-civilization”. This is being raised to the national agenda, alongside the political, economic, social and cultural. There are the beginnings of an understanding that, in order to move forward, China cannot say, “I’ll just do this on my own”. I’m hoping that China’s new generation of leaders will go to Davos and reach out proactively to other leaders – not just political leaders – to try to figure out how we can achieve a sustainable development agenda together.

Image: Picture of a millipede on a leaf REAUTERS/Babu Babu