10/20/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Danger of Sleepwalking Towards Environmental Crises

There has been no shortage of evidence in recent weeks that time is running out for heads of states to take a strong lead on tackling climate change. First came the latest IPCC report, which made it clear that global warming is 'unequivocal' and that humans have been its 'dominant cause' since the 1950s. Then, last week, Angel Gurria, Head of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, warned that there will be no 'bailout' if there is a crisis in our climate system.

Despite well-documented and clear evidence, leaders the world over still seem to think that future generations will find a solution to the environmental crises that this generation seems determine to store up as its lasting legacy. Countries that have previously taken a lead on the drive to reduce CO2 emissions are starting to 'wobble.'

A lack of action on emissions and other critical issues -- such as threats to biodiversity, the increasing burden of chronic disease and our collective failure to address poverty -- prompted me to join The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. Drawn from diverse political and geographical backgrounds, this group of leaders, chaired by Pascal Lamy (until recently Director-General of the World Trade Organization), shares a deep concern about the gridlock that stalls too many processes and negotiations that are supposed to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges.

The result of our year-long project of research, analysis and debate is a practical agenda for action. Now for the Long Term, published on 16 October, sets out a number of recommendations for change, including a proposal for a creative coalition that will bring together countries, companies and cities to accelerate action on climate change, with measurable targets for initiatives that include energy-efficient buildings, faster market penetration of efficient vehicles and tracking emissions. Such a coalition would also be useful to address the other, related challenges to our, and our planet's, well-being.

While recent debates have focused on greenhouse gas emissions, we must remember that living sustainably also requires us to manage the world's resources much more effectively. Governance of and research into resources such as water (both freshwater and oceans), forests, energy and food have historically been isolated into silos, which prevents close coordination of policies that impact all of them. Now for the Long Term calls for this barrier to be removed; for practices to be integrated and ultimately incorporated into systems designed to maximize resource efficiency, and to minimize waste and environmental damage.

Creating a sustainable future also means preserving the variety of natural life - biodiversity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species currently contains records for over 70,000 species, 29 percent of which are threatened with extinction. Our sample indicates how life on Earth is faring, how little is known, and how urgent the need is to know more. Biodiversity loss threatens clean water provision, food production, climate stability and water regulation, reducing the resilience of the natural environment in adapting to change. Work is being done to enhance mapping and modeling of biodiversity and ecosystem services, create mechanisms for their protection and ensure fair exploitation.

Considerable work remains to be done, however, so that governments can understand and appreciate the solutions offered by nature to our well-being. Both the public and private sector will need to make difficult choices. It might not be possible to save all species, but the interests of future generations and the need for careful stewardship should be kept closely in mind.

This careful stewardship will only be meaningful if the future we secure is inclusive. The Millennium Development Goals formed a blueprint agreed to by all the world's countries and the leading development institutions. They have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world's poorest. Following on from the global acceptance of MDGs, the process is now well underway to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals to succeed them. It is vital that clear, concrete and attainable targets are maintained. Encouragingly, the UN Secretary General's High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has already set out comprehensive recommendations to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to deliver more sustainable development, whilst the UN Open Working Group of 30 member countries and associated taskforces are working to ensure that the new goals complement national development priorities.

The MDGs showed that setting out clear goals could lead to progress on challenges previously thought insurmountable. Let us hope that leaders across the world will wake up to the pressing need to apply the same clarity and intent to climate change and to the loss of biodiversity, our life support on this planet. The Commission's report is a wake-up call for all of us; we must heed it instead of continuing to sleepwalk towards an unstable and unsustainable future.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, in conjunction with the release of the latter's report, Now for the Long Term, published by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. The report's recommendations aim to break the gridlock that undermines attempts to address the world's biggest challenges; to bridge the gap between knowledge and action; and to redress the balance between short-term political pressures and a need to secure a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future. To see all the posts in the series, click here. For more information on the report, click here.