Over the years, there has been much debate about what sustainability means and what measures can track sustainable progress-or lack of it. In 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio took a broad view that sustainable progress must cover all three dimensions that affect people's life chances-social, economic and environmental.
Clearly, sustainability has to go beyond the protection of the environment. As the 2014 Human Development Report highlights, a more fruitful approach is to focus on the sustainability of people and their choices. Environmental degradation, wasteful consumption patterns, climate change all threaten the long-term survival of humanity. The challenge of sustaining human progress is thus about ensuring that present choices and capabilities do not compromise the choices and freedoms available to future generations.
But there is much worry globally and regionally that leaders and engaged citizenry are not producing economic and social outcomes that can be considered sustainable. The decade long Global Climate Change negotiations have proceeded fitfully. While recovering from the dismal outcomes at Copenhagen in 2009, the COP meeting in Paris last year represents a rare success in producing commitments to address the urgency of global mitigation and adaptation strategies so that the world's climate can stay below the 2 degree threshold.
Equally, the agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UNGA Summit in September 2015 in New York represents potentially far-reaching progress with consensus on 17 global goals (with 169 targets) covering a broad range of sustainable development concerns. These SDGs covering the next 15 years, to 2030, are the successor goals to the Millennium Development Goals (till end 2015). This agreement builds on the principles agreed upon at the UN in an earlier GA resolution popularly known as The Future We Want. The 17 goals include ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests. And, for the first time, goals 1-6 directly address disparities among nations and between peoples.
The Paris agreement on climate change and the global commitment to the SDGs are major steps forward in righting human society and the balance between man and nature, even if there remain critical voices that the goals are insufficiently ambitious and that they may remain aspirational. SDGs and the Paris agreement are major milestones in the global imperatives of moving towards a sustainable world. That represents the 'what', what is necessary now is to work on the 'how'. There has been much less debate so far on 'how' to achieve these goals.
We know little of the specific policies that are now required to shift the current business models to one that promotes a sustainable economy and society. Economic policy for instance continues to be driven by the metrics of GDP growth rates. How will policies work in an integrated sense-can economic, social and environment policies work together? How can we devise incentives to guide consumption and investment behavior towards products and services that sustain progress? How do we harness technology more directly sharing norms and standards and for improving lives? Both the Paris agreement and the SDGs highlight that global commitment has to be followed by global and national action. More so, efforts have to be made to influence individual behavior and action. How do we balance the three? Who takes the lead? Who is accountable to whom? What the ethics of sustainability?
All questions which require collective debate and action. There is now a pressing need for people themselves to push for sustainable pathways through their actions and decisions.
And, how do we measure sustainable progress? A critical test would be the institutional and goal tracking arrangements. Tracking that is amenable to citizen engagement and accountability. The SDGs, unlike the Millennium Development Goals, are for the first time universal in character, applying to both developed and developing countries. They are also profoundly interconnectedprogress in one area can have large consequences for the other goals. Achieving the SDGs requires nothing short of a dramatic shift in consumption and production patterns. It may well require as the June 2015 Papal Encycilical highlights 'an ethical and economic revolution' to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality.
All this means that these issues require continuous engagement- not just as preparatory exercises for specific events or milestones, but also long term political advocacy and civic engagement.
A sustainable, stable world benefits everyone.