20 years back at the 1992 Earth Summit/United Nations Conference on Environment and Development; the United Nations showed a new path for development to the callously growing world- “sustainable development”- a development that doesn’t compromise on the need of future generations to meet the needs of today’s generation; a development in which society and environment are at par with economy, a development that will ensure that the human race continues to thrive without killing the earth and the fellow species. It was appreciated and accepted by many developed and developing nations who signed to commit to sustainable development. But astonishingly, it took 20 years to set goals for the same. After discerning a little progress towards it, the UN at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) decided to set goals called the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2012. These are the most important and talked about outcome of Rio+20; which marked 20-years of 1992 Earth Summit. And what has happened in these 20 years? We have made electricity at the cost of river and people’s lives, raised buildings at the cost of trees and developed cities at the cost of the ecosystem. To be precise, we have reached nowhere close to the ‘sustainable development.’
But there are good things happened as well by the dint of which we have managed to thrive till now. One of them is the signing of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adapted in 2000 as United Nations Millennium Declaration for global development. The new SDGs are being considered to be the follow up of these. These goals focused on eliminating poverty, hunger and diseases; reducing child mortality; promoting maternal health; achieving universal primary education and ensuring sustainable growth with the help of global partnership by 2015. SDGs overlap MDGs in many ways and are supposed to cover the inadequacies of MDGs.
Since, 2015 is not very far and yet more than half of the signing countries are still to achieve more than half of the MDGs; the success of SDGs is also being questioned. Even though people are debating over the potential of MDGs, their worth in providing a vision for development can’t be neglected. The MDGs might not have been able to achieve a hundred per cent result but they have shown positive outcomes in many countries. Countries like China, and India has reduced their poverty by many folds. UN MDG Report says “For the first time since poverty trends began to be monitored, the number of people living in extreme poverty and poverty rates fell in every developing region—including in sub-Saharan Africa, where rates are highest. The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 47 per cent in 1990 to 24 per cent in 2008—a reduction from over 2 billion to less than 1.4 billion.” Also, many sub Saharan countries have shown improvement in primary education. The report also says that “the world has met the target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water.”
Inspired with the success, the UN has set six SDGs that aim to eliminate poverty and achieve harmony with the earth. It includes thriving population by providing ‘sustainable’ food security, secure ‘sustainable’ water, clean energy and healthy ecosystems through apposite governance.
These might seem to mirror the MDGs but the word ‘sustainable’ here is enough to make a difference. Consider the 1960s Green revolution of India, which is an archetypical example of the shortcomings of myopic and ‘unsustainable’ vision. Before 1960s India was dependent on America for feeding its large population. But with the onset of green revolution in 1960s with high yield crop varieties, improved irrigation, use of insecticides and pesticides; India was not only able to meet its demand but also thought of exporting some of its produced wheat. But the then achieved food security has started to threaten the population of today. Over extraction of groundwater is leading to ground water table depletion in many places, misuse of fertilizers and pesticides is rendering land saline and inadequate for cropping and due to their over-use the pests are gaining resistance. Though India achieved food security but is still paying a heavy cost and this is what sustainable development aims to avoid. The goal of ‘sustainable food security’ is expected to seek food not only for current population but also for the future generations without compromising with the nature and its species. It should involve a broader vision, an ability to see the past, the present, and the future.
There are many challenges in the paths of attaining sustainable food security as there is a huge disparity between urban and poor. Equity in allocation of food resources is a huge issue in a world where 25,000 people, including more than 10,000 children, die from hunger and related causes every day and about 854 million people worldwide are estimated to be undernourished mostly in developing world. (UN) Whereas of all the food produced all across the world, 50 per cent of it is wasted. According to UNEP, “the rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes) every year.” It also says that in the developing nations the food loss is mainly at the producing end due to improper harvesting techniques. While in the developed nations, the losses are high at the consumer end. “In the United States 30% of all food, worth US$48.3 billion (€32.5 billion), is thrown away each year.” Thus the sustainable food security goal should not only focus on increasing productivity but also ensure zero food wastage.
While the Open Working Group; a 30 member intergovernmental task force; is still working on the goals, their methodology and implementation; the expectations from these SDGs are only increasing. We can only hope that these ‘action –oriented’ goals might just achieve what the MDGs could not. Though late, they might just lead us to our goal of sustainable development, which apparently isn’t an easy task; but is enough to raise some hopes.