A Google search for the word “sustainability” gave 970 million hits in English and 12 million in Arabic. The difference between the two reflects much more than just disparities in levels of awareness and usage.
In 1987, the UN defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition is based on a concept of intergenerational justice developed by the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired at the time by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
In 2000, the UN announced a set of eight “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) that focused on the fight against poverty, improving healthcare and education, and promoting gender parity. Environmental sustainability came seventh, and, like the other goals, it had some subsidiary aims such as the preservation of environmental diversity, reducing emissions harmful to the climate, providing clean water and sanitation services, and the reduction of slums.
As modest as the goals were, when it came time for the final evaluation in 2015, many developing countries fell short of the mark, particularly when it came to the environmental goals. Among the reasons for this were a lack of resources, poor policies and the incompetence of the institutions responsible for carrying them out, and the lack of follow-up programmes and of the data needed to guide policy-making, identify priorities, determine the feasibility of projects and to assess their performance.
On the other hand, there was exceptional progress in terms of international understandings and agreements, the way to which was paved by high levels of polarisation and tension, albeit lower than those we see around us today.
Even so, the world could now easily be on the threshold of another landmark year for international consensus. The geopolitical situation has worsened, economic disparities between the advanced industrialised nations and the developing nations have increased, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, and dissonance has spread within the developing world. Under these circumstances, a new consensus is of the essence.
I am basing the above on my own experience as a participant at the Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 and as a contributor to discussions in various UN forums over the next three years on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that have been set for 2030. This new set of goals was announced at a special summit meeting in New York in September 2015. Before this, the framework for financing development was adopted in Addis Ababa in July 2015, and in December 2015 the first international climate accords were signed in Paris.
The politicisation of sustainability and the international polarisation over how best to implement the SDGs will cause enormous problems that will hit the poorer developing nations the hardest. The person mainly and unwittingly responsible for politicising climate change as never before and propelling it to the top of the world agenda was former US president Donald Trump. His decision, within months of taking office, to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, despite all the scientific evidence on the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions on the climate, precipitated an outcry among broad segments of the US public.
City mayors, state governors and the heads of major companies in the US all defied Trump by adopting measures in compliance with the Paris Agreement, thereby offsetting the detrimental effects triggered by the US federal government. It was not surprising that present US President Joe Biden made returning to the Paris Agreement one of his main campaign pledges and one of his first acts upon coming to power.
As serious as the threat of climate change is, it would be wrong to reduce the question of sustainability to this issue alone and to champion only certain measures as the keys to saving the planet and the quality of life on Earth from the ravages of environmental deterioration.
The unprecedented, and as yet unrepeated, international consensus in 2015 made the fight against climate change only one of 17 SDGs. “Climate action” is the 13th goal, and it is followed by “life below water” (14th) and “life on land” (15th). Together, they form a multidimensional action plan for the preservation of environmental health and diversity in accordance with the provisions of the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, they also tend to reduce the SDGs to one goal and to impose the very generous assumption that prioritising climate-change mitigation will bring mutual benefits that will realise development aspirations. This will prove counterproductive. Above all, it threatens to entrench disparities by fostering two separate tracks: a fast track that attracts greater attention and funding because it is promoted by developing nations that favour a concept of sustainability confined to climate change, and a slow track with poor funding and inhabited by developing nations struggling to order their priorities and marshal their meagre resources to meet all the SDGs, when these will never be met with the leftovers and hand-me-downs from the promised “mutual benefits” from investing in climate-change mitigation.
Of course, investing in action on climate change will help to bring some of the SDGs within closer reach. Obvious examples are the sixth and seventh – “affordable and clean energy” and “clean water and sanitation” – because of the investments needed to bring polluting industries in line with the climate goals. However, poverty elimination, zero hunger, healthcare, quality education and gender equality are another matter. It is difficult to see how these causes can be advanced through a narrow approach that has effectively de-prioritised these concerns, especially in terms of funding.
It is indisputable that climate change causes mounting poverty due to reduced employment, the destruction of productive sectors and forced migration. However, it is equally obvious that job creation and fighting poverty require a more comprehensive approach to sustainable development, and this is embodied in the 17 SDGs. We have only to implement them, even if that is easier said than done. As Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley asked in her address to the UN General Assembly in September, “how many more times will we have a situation where we say the same thing over and over and over, to come to naught?”
Mottley’s speech was an impassioned critique of the international community’s inability to deal with the global Covid-19 pandemic, to make sufficient vaccines available worldwide and to live up to its word due to the lack of political will. How right she was. But there are still major obstacles at the government level to a comprehensive approach to development.
One, which I mentioned above, is poor policy-making, which comes from insufficient awareness of the political economy, culture and popular expectations of the target country. The second is the inability to communicate the purpose, substance, costs and anticipated benefits of a proposed policy in comparison with the potential alternatives. The third is the poor marshalling of resources or the lack of appropriate mechanisms for securing local and foreign financing and participation in development projects. The fourth is poor implementation, which, at least in part, is due to insufficient information or insufficiently accurate data needed to support a programme and its follow-up processes.
This problem was summed up by Peter Blair Henry, professor of economics and business at New York University in the US, under the heading “To build back better, we need better data about the developing world” on the US Fortune magazine Website. The article speaks of the problem of outdated information for infrastructure in the developing nations and the lack of a sufficient body of infrastructure estimates to enable governments and private-sector investors to make fact-based decisions as to where investment would be most efficient and profitable.
In this regard, in a work on the costs of sustainability, economists Dora Benedek and Edward Gemayel have cited studies that found that public spending on infrastructure can come to as high as 34 per cent of GDP in developing nations compared to 15 per cent in developed nations.
The Arab countries have a number of opportunities during the remainder of this year and next year to lay out their priorities and approach to sustainable development and profitable ways to invest in it. The Expo 2020 in Dubai, which has just had a very impressive launch, has profiled issues related to food, energy and water in the framework of the SDGs, for example.
On 25 October, Saudi Arabia is scheduled to host the Middle East Green Initiative, the first regional coalition to invest in and promote innovation, knowledge-transfer and environmental oversight mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions from the production of oil and gas by over 60 per cent. The project also aims to expand green spaces and contribute to land reclamation.
This Initiative could not be more timely, coming as it does before the forthcoming Glasgow Climate Change Conference, the COP26 meeting, in November. Another opportunity is forthcoming in Morocco, home to one of the world’s largest solar energy plants, in Ouarzazate, which will be hosting the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank in October 2022. As for Egypt, it will host the 27th Climate Change Summit, the COP27, in November 2022. Over the past few years, Egypt has developed yet another one of the largest renewable energy projects in the world, the Benban Solar Park in Upper Egypt and, to the east, its wind energy farms are expanding rapidly. Moreover, Egypt has embarked on a very ambitious initiative, Decent Life, for localising SDGs, benefitting 60 per cent of the population.
These important events in the region will offer platforms for interacting with the rest of the world in the various fields of sustainable development. They will also invite suggestions for practical alternatives to attain the SDGs by 2030. Steady progress is of the essence, and there is no time for backsliding.
*An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.