THE BLOG

Global Cooperation in the Age of Sustainable Development

ANTONIO SCORZA via Getty Images

Vuk Jeremic, the president of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), served as Serbia's foreign minister prior to being elected president of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Jeffrey D. Sachs, the UN Secretary-General's Special Advisor on the Millennium Development Goals, is the director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet professor of sustainable development, and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University,

Achieving sustainable development will be the overriding strategic challenge of this generation. Throughout most of history, the tasks of integrating economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability were local or regional. In the 21st century, however, they are indisputably global. Only through global cooperation can individual nations overcome the interconnected global-scale crises of extreme poverty, economic instability, social inequality, and environmental degradation.

The crises of sustainable development have already become crises of national and global security. Every country faces increasingly complex challenges of energy, food, and water security. Every country faces the crisis of rising frequency and intensity of natural disasters, with a soaring number of floods, droughts, heat waves, extreme storms, and forest fires. Many countries face the unsolved problem of creating jobs for their young people, and many poor countries have populations growing too fast to meet their respective education and employment needs. Many of the today's conflicts -- in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, Syria, and Western Asia -- are being stoked by droughts, famines, mass migration, and other manifestations of economic, social, and environmental unsustainability.

This is no time for despair, but for resolve. The United Nations must become the functional center of the global sustainable development effort, one that draws on every stakeholder through the UN's unique convening power and universally-recognized legitimacy. Sustainable development must become the daily work of UN Member States, private businesses, non-governmental organizations, universities and research centers, international financial institutions, and the UN organs themselves.

SETTING THE STAGE

At the June 2012 Rio+20 Summit, world leaders charged the United Nations General Assembly with three key missions: to define a set of ambitious and universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); to identify the means for their fulfillment, including financial and technological; and to identify the needed inter-governmental machinery in the General Assembly for the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.

The practical problem -- a challenge of historic dimension -- is how to support countries at various levels of economic development to work together to end extreme poverty, transition to a low-carbon world energy system, ensure food and water security, reduce high fertility rates where those still exist, and make the world's cities productive and resilient to environmental stresses. The SDGs need to create a new era of change, rooted in global solidarity, optimism, and the sense that humanity can solve the many difficult problems of a crowded and environmentally stressed planet.

This complex challenge is commonly referred to as the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. At an institutional level, success will require a new focus by the General Assembly, one which will likely shape the UN's work for decades to come.

The General Assembly will need to adopt a series of concurrent, aspirational and bold measures, embraced at the global level by heads of state and government, and involving leaders across the various sectors of society. Problem-solving will need to operate at all scales, from the most local to the global.

MOVING FORWARD

With a few notable exceptions, however, most statesmen have not yet fully grasped the enormity of the task ahead.

We have to capture the public's imagination, so that in turn, the global public demands actions and solutions from the world's political and business leaders. This is the only way the post-2015 agenda can become a core interest of every nation on Earth.

We believe sustainable development should become embedded in the worldview of all who formulate and execute not just domestic but also foreign policy: achieving sustainable development must assume its necessary place at the heart of the conduct of international relations in the 21st century. It must be the subject of global summits as well as multi-stakeholder meetings in cities and rural communities.

"Achieving sustainable development must assume its necessary place at the heart of the conduct of international relations in the 21st century. "

.

Notwithstanding all its imperfections, the General Assembly is the sole international institution of indisputable global legitimacy. Hence, it is the most commonsensical venue for regular global summits of political, business, scientific, and development leaders.

The commitment by heads of state to sustainable development, and the monitoring of progress (or regress) by the General Assembly on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, will help to ensure that the UN lives up to its potential as the unique venue for international cooperation at the highest levels for economic, social, and environmental matters.

This does not mean the General Assembly can be transformed into a multilateral panacea capable of solving all the world's problems. But it also means we cannot afford to let the UN devolve into a high-priced forum for invective -- a sophisticated debating society for professional diplomats who will just fiddle as the world burns.

If we make a decision to truly harness its matchless convening power, then the United Nations can become a vital functional center for mobilizing and coordinating mankind's response to a set of challenges more insidious and complex than any we have previously faced in history.

BROAD-BASED ENGAGEMENT

A crucial pillar for the General Assembly's leadership on sustainable development will be an effective bridge with the G20, the current forum for the world's major economies and with the international financial institutions, including the Bretton Woods institutions and the multilateral development banks. Another crucial pillar will be a bridge to state-of-the-art scientific knowledge on sustainable development, both for guiding the work program of the General Assembly, and for advising individual states on best practices and building local capacities. In this regard, the new UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) should play a key role.

During the 67th Session of the UNGA, Member States took several important steps in this direction, showing it could work in practice. For instance, the first ever thematic debate on the UN and global economic governance, which paved the way for the adoption of a landmark resolution that set the baseline terms of flexible and regular interaction in the General Assembly between the rest of the UN system, G20 and non-G20 countries, as well as international financial organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank.

REDOUBLING OUR EFFORTS

We hope these UN initiatives will encourage world leaders to act on the imperative to rapidly establish a cohesive, overarching framework for achieving sustainable development -- one which will trigger policies aligned with humanity's long-term needs. Otherwise, we risk seeing all across the world economies slumping, social tensions rising, and adverse climate change galloping ahead with no control.

The international community faces the need for important and specific decisions to be taken on a tight timetable. But at the speed we are currently moving, we risk failing to make it even to the starting line on time. We need to accelerate the pace of our response, matching it to the accelerating pace and scope of the crisis itself.

This is why we argue for the necessity of leadership at the very top, with the personal and sustained engagement of heads of state and government.

Above all, we emphasize the importance of world leaders agreeing on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda on the timetable they've set, culminating in the adoption of the SDGs at a world summit at the UN in September 2015. As the first of these SDGs, the General Assembly should affirm its commitment to end extreme poverty by 2030, a goal recently adopted by the World Bank. The UN members must also be ready to tackle more novel problems, including the transition to low-carbon energy by 2050; the protection of endangered biodiversity and ecosystems; the improvement of farm yields with reduced environmental costs; and the reshaping of cities to be much more energy-efficient and resilient to rising temperatures and sea levels.

The wonders of modern science and technology and our generation's opportunity to forge a shared commitment for human betterment are reasons for optimism and reasons to redouble our efforts.

Subscribe to the World Post email.