Sustainable Development—The Challenge of our Generation

Bridges vol. 39, May 2014 / IIASA

By: Katherine Leitzell, IIASA’s Science Writer and Press Office 

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network is an expert on economics, development, and sustainability, and a founding member of IIASA and European Forum Alpbach’s Global Think Tank, which is holding its first meeting in Laxenburg this week.

On March 12, 2014 Sachs gave a public lecture on the topic at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.Jeff Sachs speaks at the Alpbach Forum in 2013. European Forum Alpbach

IIASA: Your work spans a large area of research: from economics, to Earth science, to sustainable development. What is the common thread that ties all this together?

JS: The common thread is the challenge that we face on the planet. We can no longer separate economic, environment, and social challenges because we find that if we try to pursue any one of those alone, we end up jeopardizing the others. For too long, economists have focused simply on economic growth, and clearly that strategy by now has put Earth and humanity at great peril. There’s no shortcut anymore. We have to be able to combine a vision that includes all the major dimensions of the complicated global reality that we face. Economics, divided societies, environmental crises, and rapidly changing geopolitics. It’s not simple to integrate all of these different areas. Our traditional intellectual disciplines do not accomplish that.

IIASA has been one of the world’s leading champions of this kind of integrated vision. Systems thinking applied to massive human problems, bringing together very diverse areas of natural science, social science, and I would say ethical considerations as well. This kind of holistic approach is central to IIASA’s whole strategy. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of my connection to the Institute.

What do you see as the biggest problems facing our planet?

We have become an enormously crowded and interconnected global society overnight, because of the technological reach of our economies and because of the remarkable growth of the world’s population during the last century. With 7.2 billion people on the planet now, we are putting vast parts of the biosphere and human well-being at dire risk. We are only slowly waking up to this reality.

All of history, humans have faced local challenges, but we have never faced such a confluence of massive global challenges at the same time. We don’t yet have the institutions, the insight, or the moral outlook to handle this set of challenges, and yet they are bearing down on us very fast.

In your lecture you argue that it is realistic to think we could solve many of these challenges, for example, ending extreme poverty. What would need to be done to accomplish that goal, and why do you think it can be done?

When one thinks about the challenge of ending poverty you quickly realize that while the challenge is great, we also have unique positive opportunities. With the revolutions in communications technology, communities that until five years ago were isolated, impoverished, and with little prospect of escaping from poverty are now connected to global information, as well as to local markets and health clinics.

Schoolchildren can get access to the world of information online. Finance has come to rural areas through mobile banking. All of these are examples of the kinds of breakthroughs that are now possible in addressing what have been extraordinarily tough problems of poverty.

We also see the poverty rate coming down now at an unprecedented speed, even in some of the poorest places on the planet. Major advances have been achieved in East Asia during the past quarter century, and increasingly, Africa too is now finally turning the corner on extreme poverty. I have argued that we could mobilize technologies and use directed investments in public health, education, infrastructure, and agriculture to make a decisive breakthrough within our generation. In my book, “The End of Poverty,” I said that by 2025 we could end extreme poverty. I am afraid that the date is slipping a little because of the lack of concerted effort, but it’s notable for me and gratifying that the World Bank this past year adopted formally the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030. And I believe that the United Nations member states will also adopt such a goal next year when they create the new Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

There are two huge risks that could absolutely defeat this possibility. One is the still greatly excessive population growth in some of the world’s poorest countries. The second is climate change, which left out of control will devastate large parts of the world including regions where many of the world’s poorest people live, for instance the arid regions of the world.

What about climate change? Do you think it’s really possible, at this point, to limit climate change to the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees?

I believe that we are at the very last chance to reach that goal. We have cliff ahead of us, with a sign that says, “Do not go beyond this point.” This point is the 2 degrees centigrade limit. We know from all the physical evidence and all the economic trends that we’re just within a hair’s width of exhausting the possibility of meeting that goal.

And I worry that if we fail to achieve that goal we are going to slide very far and very fast down the mountainside, as it were. The world is negotiating a climate agreement in Paris in December 2015, and I believe that’s the very last chance to achieve the 2 degree centigrade goal.I am not especially optimistic, but I don’t think that all is lost yet. Much depends on a much greater seriousness in the next year and ten months than we have shown in the last 22 years since the climate treaty was adopted.

Your lecture is entitled “The Age of Sustainable Development” what do you mean by that term? Why is now the time to be thinking about these topics?

I argue that we have entered an era when the concept of sustainable development has become the necessary concept for our time. When I say sustainable development, I mean on the analytical side the integrated vision of economic, social, and environmental dynamics; and on the normative side the shared goals of economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. I believe that we have a reasonable chance that this will be formally recognized by the UN member states in 2015, when they formally adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals.

My talk in Vienna is about why the concept of sustainable development is so important, and what it means. It’s not a household phrase, and I think there is a  tremendous amount of public education that will be needed to understand what the opportunities are and what the threats that we face in this generation are. My basic point is that every generation faces its distinct challenges and sustainable development is our distinct challenge.

What do you see as the role for researchers and for institutions like IIASA in solving these global challenges?

IIASAI believe that these problems are inherently complex because they are about managing interconnected complex systems. There’s nothing simple about the world economy, nothing simple about global social dynamics, and nothing simple about interconnected Earth systems. And yet we have to master the risks that attend to each of those and the interconnections among them. It’s quite obvious in that regard that IIASA has a unique role to play. IIASA has been in the forefront of climate modeling, demographic modeling, and agricultural modeling for many years. I’ve been a huge admirer of the Institute’s work, and I look forward to working more closely with IIASA in the future.

I’ve been tasked by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with helping to organize a global network of problem solving on sustainable development. This initiative is called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). IIASA will be a very important member and I would say leader of that effort, and IIASA’s Director General, Pavel Kabat, is a member of the leadership council of the SDSN. We have already begun to strategize on this with Pavel Kabat, IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and many of IIASA’s world class researchers. There’s a tremendous timely opportunity to work with governments around the world and work with the United Nations to help identify safe pathways ahead.

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The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an independent scientific institute that studies problems that are too large or too complex to be solved by a single country or academic discipline. IIASA is based in Austria and its international research covers broad areas of energy and climate, food and water, and poverty and equity.. IIASA is located in Austria near Vienna and is sponsored by its National Member Organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.