World Environment Week: Our choices of today will define the future of humanity and the planet

As we celebrate the first World Environment Week since the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were put into effect, we take a step back to reflect on the significance of the new global development agenda to mainstreaming environmental sustainability. The evolution of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which gave environmental sustainability only one general goal, into the SDGs, which now have five specific goals related to the environment, as well as multiple indicators, demonstrates that society has acknowledged that the environmental, economic and social dimensions are intrinsically linked, and must be considered in conjunction in order to transform development towards a more equal and sustainable world by 2030.

Humanity is now faced with the challenge of implementing a comprehensive agenda that champions the needs of the marginalized and the poor and gives proper value to the natural resources. Several routes exist to attain this new agenda. Our choices of today will directly reflect in the future of humanity and the planet. For instance, policymakers could take an easy route, attributing more weight into low-hanging fruits or achievements that can be visualized in the short term. But by doing so they are unlikely to address the deep-rooted problems that have created the current unequal and unsustainable pattern of development. In addition, we must avoid conservation at the cost of equality, or socio-economic development at the cost of the environment.

Taking advance of the celebrations around the World Environment Week, we raise three crucial questions to be recognized in designing policies that work towards achieving the SDGs, minimizing tradeoffs between the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental):

  • How to address the issue of conflicting time scales without drastic tradeoffs?

The extensive coverage of environmental issues by the new development agenda gives us an opportunity to bring about a longer-term perspective that was lacking in the MDGs. But this also has the possibility of bringing in conflicting time horizons. Short-term human needs will need to be considered when implementing programmes that address long-term environmental issues. On the other hand, there is the risk of social and economic progress being undermined and even undone if long-term environmental costs are not properly considered in planning economic and social policies. Climate change is the best example of this threat, as there could be more than 100 million additional people in poverty by 2030 if climate change is not correctly mitigated, according to the World Bank.

  • How can policymakers use environmental indicators to advance sustainable uses of natural resources, particularly by the excluded and marginalized groups?

The issue here is around new ways to re-couple the environmental and the economic dimensions in order to successfully achieve the SDGs, while at the same time decoupling socio-economic development from resource abuse and environmental degradation. The Global South is already applying innovative tools to address these questions, leapfrogging in some way the environmental challenges experienced by the Global North. For instance, solar panels in rural areas not only have a role in low-carbon development, but also provide decentralized electricity to those who did not have access to centralized-grid power before.

  • How can the existing international environmental agreements be aligned with the 2030 Agenda?

Because the success of the SDGs depends on the progress in all dimensions of sustainable development, it is crucial that international environmental commitments are properly aligned, such as the Paris climate agreement. After all, climate change is also a development issue directly related to production, consumption and human well-being. For example, climate finance, adaptation and loss and damage, are all aspects of the Paris Agreement that are directly related to many of the SDGs, including SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 11 (sustainable communities), and SDG 13 (climate change).

As less progress has been made in achieving environmental goals in comparison to the other dimensions of development, balancing the three dimensions will require more effective knowledge sharing, creative policy design and coordination with civil society, researchers, and policymakers alike. These questions are fundamental in the global debate around the 2030 Agenda implementation. The RIO+ Centre will play its role as a UNDP Global Policy Centre in sharing the most recent and innovative experiences of the Global South in tackling these issues and support policy integration towards the SDGs.

Do you know of any examples of experiences related to these questions that you would like to share? We welcome your say. Tweet at us at @RioPlusCentre or comment below:

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