Unless we start producing and consuming things sustainably, global progress in living standards could stop or even reverse. Fostering sustainability has costs, but business as usual could ruin us.
Despite crises and recessions, living standards worldwide have been rising on average over the past 50 years or more. The UN’s Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty over 1990-2015 will probably be attained. Real GDP per capita has doubled or tripled in OECD countries since the Organisation was founded in 1961. We grew used to the notion that the communities we live in will become wealthier, better educated, more enlightened, healthier, and so on. Until recently, just about everybody assumed that children would have a better life than their parents.
One of the most lasting legacies of the recession that followed the 2007 financial crisis may be the end of that assumption. In presenting its Green Growth Strategy in 2011, the OECD warned that if we want to make sure that the progress in living standards we have seen these past fifty years does not grind to a halt, we have to find new ways of producing and consuming things. And even redefine what we mean by progress and how we measure it.
The 2012 OECD Environmental Outlook is equally alarmist. Terrestrial biodiversity is projected to decrease by a further 10% by 2050. Without a significant change in policies, global average temperature is projected to be 3C to 6C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed goal of limiting the rise to 2 degrees. The number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate matter in the air is projected to triple from just over 1 million today to nearly 3.6 million per year in 2050.
Alarm bells are ringing in other domains too. The gap between rich and poor in most OECD countries has widened over the past two decades. Water and various non-renewable resources are being used up at increasing rates. Predictions for when key minerals run out range from eight years for antimony to 80 for aluminium. The sovereign debt crisis drags on. Youth unemployment is almost as high as it’s ever been and there are at least 23 million NEETs in OECD countries – young people not in education, employment or training, more than half of whom have given up looking for work. Health is another area where there are fears that the steady progress of recent decades may slow or stop, due to obesity and other lifestyle factors.
The OECD argues that growth as such will not solve the problems unless it is inclusive, equitable and sustainable. And not just in OECD countries. Natural capital accounts for an estimated 26% of total wealth in low-income countries, compared with 2% of wealth in advanced economies.
The OECD Forum 2013 will look at how economic, environmental and social sustainability can be fostered nationally and internationally. It will provide an opportunity to debate many of the controversial issues surrounding sustainability, such as the relative responsibility of the developed and developing economies and who should pay the costs of moving to a more sustainable approach.