The fates of humanity and of the environment are two sides of the same coin. That is why we must focus increasingly on not just development but sustainable development. To do that, we need to form global coalitions to work for progress on a range of challenges.
Over the past few decades, humanity has made unprecedented progress. Extreme poverty has been halved. Child mortality has been halved. In just 15 years, deaths from malaria have been halved. The poliovirus that used to maim thousands of people was eradicated from India last year and now exists in only three countries. Today, the world is more peaceful than ever before, and its people are in general richer, healthier and better educated than at any time in history.
If only we could say the same about our environment. Today, plants and animals are being driven to extinction at a rate not seen since the age of the dinosaurs. Water, soils and many natural resources, like fish stocks, are overexploited. Our carbon emissions have the potential to cause catastrophic climate change.
For too long, the environment and development were seen as separate issues. This is nonsense. What is good for the environment is almost always good for humans. People will not have the capacity or the will to protect the environment if they live in poverty or if nations are in conflict. The fate of the planet and the fate of humanity are in reality interchangeable. That is why the environment and development must be seen as a single issue when it comes to policy and financing.
The new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to be agreed later this year will recognise this reality. For the first time, the world will commit to eradicating poverty and promoting development without destroying the planet.
For a number of reasons, there has never been a better time to make this happen, not least beacuse we may be approaching peak destruction of our environment. Global carbon emissions stalled in 2014 for the first time in 40 years without the presence of an economic crisis. India’s tiger population has increased by 30%. The United Nations has started a process of protecting large parts of our magnificent oceans. Brazil has reduced deforestation by an incredible 80%. The condition of nature in my home country, Norway, is in most respects better than at any point since the industrial revolution. Success is contagious!
In addition, and for the first time ever, we now have the knowledge and resources needed to end poverty and green our economies. We just need to identify policies that work and implement them on a global scale. That means that over the next 15 years, a much larger share of the estimated $20 trillion that will be invested annually in infrastructure worldwide needs to be directed towards greening our economies.
Success will only come if we work together. That is why coalitions for actions are needed to address specific sustainable development challenges. Here are five coalitions that would have an immediate and positive effect on people and the planet. It is all about leadership and mobilising political will.
1. Initiate a global coalition to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies.
Around $550 billion is spent on fossil fuel subsidies every year, most of it in developing countries. Some poor countries spend more on subsidising cheap petroleum than on health and education combined. Fossil fuel subsidies are expensive, mainly benefit the upper middle class and increase pollution. A financial frontloading mechanism would allow governments to provide benefits like cash disbursement schemes and better public services for the poor before removing the inefficient, but sometimes popular, fuel subsidies.
2. Strengthen the UN-REDD rainforest coalition.
The UN initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) was initiated by Brazil, Indonesia, other rainforest nations and a few donors to reduce destruction of rainforest. Deforestation causes around 15% of global carbon emissions. Around 20 million people live in the Brazilian Amazon, more than in the Scandinavian countries combined. Rainforests house at least 10% of all plants and animals. UN-REDD aims to reduce deforestation and provide employment in tourism, manufacturing or bio-prospecting for people living in rainforests. UN-REDD has, under Brazilian leadership, contributed to an 80% reduction in deforestation in the Amazon. Wilmar, Asia’s largest palm oil producer, has promised not to contribute to any further deforestation. It has been an incredible success. Let us make it bigger and better!
3. Green the global agricultural systems.
We need to produce more food for a future population of 9 billion people without destroying the planet. Half of the world’s important top soil has already been lost. More than one-quarter of the world’s agriculture grows in highly water-stressed areas. And climate change is predicted to increase droughts as well as floods. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest depend on agriculture.
Better policies and investments are essential to transform and green the sector. Vietnam went from being a big rice importer to the second biggest exporter in the world by implementing property rights, building roads to markets, making loans available and introducing better rice varieties. Grow Africa is a coalition of the World Economic Forum, African governments and multinational companies working together to grow and green Africa’s agricultural system. Improving seed varieties and irrigation techniques can increase farmers' yields and incomes while decreasing environmental impact. Grow Africa has so far mobilised $10 billion from 200 companies. More such coalitions for action are needed!
4. Lead a global ocean coalition.
A global coalition is needed to protect our oceans from the threats posed by climate change, pollution and overfishing. Developing countries are losing billions of dollars from illegal and unreported fishing while sustainable fishing could increase the value of global fisheries by more than $60 billion. The beautiful coral reefs are home to many species and protect coastal communities from extreme weather. But reefs around the world are threatened by climate change and pollution. Protecting the oceans is a win-win for humanity and the environment.
5. Fund green energy in developing countries.
President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative and the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All coalition led by Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon aims to provide clean electricity for the 1.3 billion people with no access to electricity and the 2.6 billion people who depend on dirty biofuels for cooking. Such contributions are complemented by many strong domestic actions, such as Brazil’s Light for All programmes. China is the world’s biggest investor in green energy. Ethiopia is determined to become a middle income country without increasing carbon emissions.
The billions of dollars needed for green energy investments in developing countries will mainly be covered by private investments. Development assistance can be used more effectively to alleviate risk and mobilise more private resources. Pension funds and sovereign wealth funds are sitting on thousands of billions of dollars. Funds like the Rockefeller fund that divest from fossil fuels and invest in green energy should be praised. Sovereign wealth funds like the Norwegian Oil Fund (Government Pension Fund of Norway) that do not should be asked pertinent questions.
What is good for the environment is good for development. Cutting fossil fuel subsidies, protecting forests and oceans, and investing in green agriculture and green energy would be a good start. Let us get to work!
Erik Solheim, Chair,