The Real Issues Behind Sustainable Development

Construction of a structural column in Indonesia, 2010. (Shanghai Daddy/Flickr)
Construction of a structural column in Indonesia, 2010. (Shanghai Daddy/Flickr)

During a recent speech to the World Trade Organization, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that sustainable development will be the United Nations’ top priority during his second term. What have been the United Nations greatest contributions to the area of sustainable development under Secretary General Ban Ki-moon? What steps can the organization take to better address the variety of issues surrounding sustainable development, such as climate change, food security, alternative energy, and water?

Adam Moser is the China Environment Fellow at Vermont Law School's US-China Partnership for Environmental Law and he blogs at China Environmental Governance.

In recent years the UN has done substantial work to promote sustainable development. This includes the publication of numerous quality reports that help define sustainable development as a poverty elevation tool and highlight the major issues that confront sustainable development. Much of this work has been undertaken in preparation for the Rio+20 Earth Summit next year, where sustainable development will be the focus.

But it is worth considering the extent to which sustainable development can be separated from climate change mitigation; or what sustainable development really means if there is no plan for addressing global greenhouse gases (GHGs). Many of the same issues that have hampered climate change negotiations will be issues in adequately promoting sustainable development.
Limiting eco-system destruction and protecting local livelihoods while improving the quality of life is central to sustainable development and this requires adequately protecting forests and  ecosystem services. The inclusion of the REDD+ program within the UNFCCC's Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreement was a highlight, but realizing forest protection and stopping deforestation will be a bigger challenge.

UN-led climate change negotiations have been difficult because it is realized that adequate mitigation will require major changes to the global economic value system; and that cash-strapped developed countries bear most of the responsibility. Does a real shift to sustainable development require anything less?

The UN is right to focus on providing guidance and resources to help nations draft plans for sustainable development. However, the issue of sustainable development is much bigger than domestic policies.

Rio+20 will address the issue of international investment in sustainable development, and this is critical. The UN should focus on encouraging the adoption of model bilateral investment treaties, of which there are thousands globally, that are integrated from start to finish with sustainable development goals; this includes new rules for investor-state dispute resolution provisions.

Doing this is not as easy as it sounds; the issues of international investment and trade are complicated and not controlled by the UN. But the UN needs to focus at the same time on the promotion of a more equitable global trade regime.

Currently the U.S. and many other developed countries generate more revenue from tariffs on goods from developing countries than they do from goods originating in developed countries — even though the volume of trade with developing countries is far less. This restricts the amount of trade with developing countries, and makes them more reliant on foreign investment, the terms of which are often dictated to benefit investors over the protection of the environment and human health.

UN Secertary General Ban Ki-moon is right to focus on sustainable development, it along with climate change (if they can be separated) are the defining issues of our time. But I caution against the belief that real sustainable development can be achieved without addressing the underlying issues of global economic inequity.