Thursday, December 02, 2004

The fundamental choice facing us all


By Dr Jeffrey Sachs, Director, Earth Institute at Columbia University, in a speech at quadrennial IUCN World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, Nov 17-25, 2004
(This speech was delivered extempore, and has been edited slightly for clarity).

There really is cause for optimism. Although optimism also shaped by realism. There is no doubt that the work you (the IUCN) are engaged in protecting the world’s ecosystem, in conserving the world’s biodiversity is extraordinarily hard work. The work that all of us are engaged in managing the worlds environment in a way which supports the excruciating, almost unimaginable, suffering from poverty is also hard work. But the hard work is worth it because it will deliver results.

The most important thing is that the world is changing. The World Bank is changing, private business is changing, the world is changing because it has to change and more and more people around the world by the tens of millions and hundreds of millions appreciate (it).

We’re not in the bind we are in because people are evil or because business is greedy. We are in the bind because we’re in the middle of an unprecedented historical situation when viewed from any perspective. The whole era of economic development is only two centuries old. And change has been more rapid and more dramatic than we’ve been able to accommodate with our institutions and even our scientific and intellectual understanding.

Since the beginning of the industrial age just two centuries ago, the world’s population has gone up six-fold. Per capita economic activity perhaps 8- to 10-fold, the impact of human beings on the planet perhaps 50-fold. And this change has come more dramatically than our understanding has been able to accommodate and certainly than our institutions have been able to accommodate.

But the reason the world is changing is that we’re beginning to catch up on our understanding, thanks to the magnificent efforts of IUCN and other institutions like it. We know, we see and we feel what’s happening on the planet, and people of all sectors in all parts of the world know that change has to come, and indeed there is also some deep reason to believe that change can come if we’re clever enough in the coming years.

One piece of very dramatic good news is that what has been a six-fold increase in population, certainly one of the two fundamental drivers of anthropogenic change on the planet, is finally reaching a peak. We will most likely have a levelling of world population by mid century. The UN Population Division, in its first long term population projection ever upto the year 2300, released last week, very fascinating to look at, estimates quite reasonably that by mid-century perhaps by the year 2072 or 2075, population peaks and begins to actually decline gradually.

And this is one of the real hopes that environmental sustainability in the long term can be achieved. And we also know that more technologies are available to us if we use them wisely to help see our way through.

What we’re facing now is a bottleneck, a bottleneck of the next decade. If we can find our way through this bottleneck, we will find our way to sustainability, where population has stabilised and technologies enable us to manage a global economy and ecosystems in a long term sustainable manner. But we also know that it’s much too glib to think that somehow that things will save themselves.

The reason the world is changing and your voices are being heard is that the world is not saving itself right now. Environmental threats that used to be talked about as hypothetical are with us every day. Climate change is not a scientific hypotheses. It’s a daily occurrence. Last year’s heat wave in Europe took around 25,000 lives, and the best signs is that it is a one-in-2,500-year event unless you believe that climate change has come.

Last month’s report on the polar ecosystems shows that the rate of icesheet melting is vastly faster than was estimated earlier. The US West is experiencing its worst drought in centuries which recent science taking place at the Earth Institute among other centres is (inaudible) to be most related to overall global warming patterns.

Even the disasters which are viewed as political, like Darfur, Sudan, are as much or more ecological disasters. Those who know the situation in Darfur know that it is not a question of bloody-mindedness, literally and figuratively, in governance but the result of 25 years of declining rainfall through the Sahel which has pitted together increasingly desperate populations of camel herders and farmers and created the tinder for conflict. And that in turn seems to be related to the warming of sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean.

Everywhere we look around the world we see the evidence of anthropogenic climate change not as a hypothesis but as our current challenge and our current struggle and one that we know will intensify in the future.

Importantly for us, the world is responding.

Of course, one of the great distresses is that my own country’s government, the US, has been absent during this past decade from the challenge. But perhaps equally or even more important is that the world didn’t just turn back and say, well, the world’s largest country has abandoned its efforts, we will abandon it as well. On the contrary, the rest of the world, we moved forward.

And in early February (2005) the Kyoto protocol will be ratified and come into force. This is a tremendous accomplishment of profound of political significance. The world is moving forward and creating a framework to manage carbon. We all know that this is only the beginning of a decade-long effort but it is a marked remarkable beginning and all of the pressures of lobbyists and all of the misinformation that we get daily from the Wall Street Journal, the editorial page I might add, and elsewhere was unable to derail the ICCC (the International Convention on Climate Change), it was not able to derail the inter-governmental negotiations.

Truth has prevailed here. Science and the reality that we feel has prevailed over narrow interests. And we are establishing a framework of action.

Now what I want to suggest is that next year is perhaps a critical year for us. And I hope, as a community, we can act with the degree of attentiveness, responsiveness, aggressiveness and policy demands that 2005 requires.

There are at least two issues that are simultaneously right at the top of our agenda.

First, 2005 is the make-or-break year for the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals). I am sorry to say it, I wish I didn’t have to say it. The MDGs will not be achieved on a business-as-usual path, not even close. But our analysis, in which so many in the IUCN have played a critical role, has shown that the MDGs can be achieved all over the world if the effort is made. We do have the tools, the science, the technologies, to dramatically reduce poverty in an environmentally sustainable manner.

But we are not doing it now.

When the MDGs were adopted in September 2000 at the Millennium Assembly, the world’s leaders wisely called for a five-year review. That’s what’s coming up in 2005. Five years since the goals were enunciated, and 10 years left to achieve them, since most of the goals are dated for the year 2015.

Ten years! Barely, barely enough! We need to kick into high gear this coming year. That is the political, the operational imperative if we are not going to become a world without development goals at all.

The MDGs centrally place environment and poverty alongside each other. These (two) communities have stopped fighting, have understood that they each depend on each other. There will be in September next year a summit that will probably bring together more world leaders than any other meeting in the history of the world. It’s at that point that the commitments to Rio achievements of the MDGs need to be made.

The other rendezvous with destiny 2005 is on climate change. Kyoto has started but the host of the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the UK government, has said that climate change together with poverty are the two great agenda items for the G8 summit. This is the time when the US has to get back on the agenda.

The world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases must not be allowed to continue to turn its back on an entire world! (applause)

So what is there for us to do in the coming critical 12 months?

First, we have to insist on one basic point: No more new promises! Just fulfill the ones you’ve made!

The Millennium Project which will submit its report to the UN Secretary General in January 2005 will stress the point that we are not asking for one new statement, one new promise, one new anything. The promises have all been made repeatedly. The three top issues therefore are implementation, implementation, implementation! And that’s what we need to demand!

What we need to do is to get right in the face of authority at every level. Within poor countries and rich countries, governments all over the world have responsibilities and commitments that they are not keeping with their citizens and with the global community.

We must not see even one more poverty reduction strategy paper that fails to put environment right at the centre of the strategy as opposed to the dozens that have come and gone almost without mentioning biodiversity conservation and the threats that environmental degradation pose to the poor.

We must not allow, ladies and gentlemen, the IMF executive board and the World Bank to approve any more of these strategies that are completely unambitious and unaligned with the very promises that the world community has made.

Take a look at the poverty reduction strategies voted repeatedly by the IMF and World Bank. They don’t even fit the goals that the world has professed. There is not a chance that the MDGs could be met within these poverty reduction strategies. And yet the boards of the Bretton Woods institutions repeatedly approve these documents.

I said to both boards in another matter of concern, not the environment but in health, that every time you vote to approve the programme of a country where the health spending is four dollars per person per year, you are voting for mass death.

You are not voting for survival! You are not voting for health! You are not voting for poverty reduction! You are voting for a continuation of mass suffering and early death!

We have to let the Bretton Woods institutions boards know that we are watching. These institutions are much more transparent than in the past. These programmes are posted on their websites. Why don’t you write your executive directors every time every week (and say) how could you support such a programme? Where is the environmental sustainability? Where is the biodiversity conservation? Where is the support for health and education promised? What are you doing?

Because right now that’s where the system breaks down, in the gap between the words and the actions! And accountability is the way to make the commitments turn into reality.

Now what’s also true and vital for all of this agenda and the way we stop fighting between development and the environment is to understand that in the poorest countries, these goals cannot be achieved without considerable increase in development assistance and a considerable increase of debt cancellation. This is absolutely essential.

And this is also promised after the Millennium Declaration was voted and adopted in the Millennium Assembly. The world’s leaders again got together in March 2002 and then of course again in September 2002, first in Monterrey, Mexico, at the conference on International Financing for Development and then at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Both times they adopted the following declaration, ladies and gentlemen, and I quote paragraph 42 of the Monterrey Consensus: “We urge all developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts towards (achieving) the target of 0.7% of GNP in Official Development Assistance.” We are not at 0.7%. A measly .7 of one percentage point of income of the rich world is not yet devoted to development. We are at about one third of that, roughly .23 of one per cent.

And the US is the stingiest of all donors in the world, at .14 of one percent of the GNP. If the US was (fulfilling) its responsibility under its own commitments made in Monterrey, that would be an extra 55 billion dollars a year for development aid.

Now that would start to achieve some biodiversity conservation, wouldn’t it, ladies and gentlemen? (applause).

We’re calling, in the Millennium Project, for the average level of development assistance to at least double between 2005 and 2015 from 0.23 per cent approximately to at last 0.5 per cent of GDP, and for every donor, the US included, to reach the 0.7 target by the year 2015. This can be done. This is minimally necessary and this is a little bit like (inaudible) for our governments to do it. Less than one per cent of GNP to do what could be done to eliminate extreme poverty on the planet and get back on to the path of sustainability in our environmental management.

Now I have to say one of the most painful experiences for me was being in Johannesburg in late August (2002), as the (World Summit on Sustainable Development) was getting underway, and looking up at the monitor, and watching Vice President Cheney give a speech….I never love that, by the way, but that’s just a personal matter….giving a speech to the (inaudible) to support wars, to start the campaign for the war in Iraq. The world was talking about sustainable development, and the US was going off to war!

This I think encapsulates the real choice fundamentally that we face as a global community! Right now, it’s not as if the US could not afford 0.7 pc of GNP instead of 0.14. We are spending 4.5 per cent of GNP, that is, 450 billion dollars, for the military, compared with 15 billion dollars for development assistance of all kinds! The ratio of military to development spending is thirty to one. Thirty to one!

When we lack the funds, we fight amongst ourselves. I’ve seen the tuberculosis specialists attack the idea of increased spending on malaria; I’ve seen malaria specialists criticise the “overspending on AIDS”. I’ve seen the poverty community criticise the focus on environment. This is of course the most treacherous trap for us of all. There are ample resources in this world to achieve sustainable development, to end the poverty and to protect our ecosystems.

Indeed, we need to do nothing less. We can do both -- the elimination of poverty and the preservation of the environment. Indeed we need to do nothing less.

But in order to do so we do have to make one fundamental choice.

We have to chose peace over war!

Thank you very much.


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