Saturday, May 10, 2014

What does the future hold?

There's a very interesting chapter about what the future holds in the RIO+20 working papers from the UN Division of Sustainable Development (UNDESA). Here’s an extraction of this very alarming description of our future:

What does the future hold?

No one knows which path the world will take in the next 40 years. But there has been a strong consensus among experts about the major sustainability issues and the broad direction of trends. In contrast, big differences exist on the suggested policy solutions arising from different world views, grounded in different values.

Many “business-as-usual” (BAU) scenarios have explored the potential consequences of the world’s continuing its dominant development model. Most recent scenarios of this type are “dynamics-as-usual” (DAU) scenarios that assume across the board incremental improvements in technologies, for example for energy efficiency, following past dynamics. In principle, these scenarios are the closest to future projections. They provide a sketch of what the world could look like in 2050, if we were to continue the historical path of incremental improvements in reaction to perceived crises, instead of a shift toward a long-term perspective that aims to anticipate and avert serious – possibly catastrophic – environmental disruptions to human societies and economies.

Given the available evidence and scenarios, what can be said of the role of international cooperation in finding solutions to sustainable development challenges? First, a framework for international cooperation that aims to support sustainable development would necessarily put a heavy emphasis on three dimensions: (i) the need to eradicate poverty and hunger; (ii) the global ecological footprint of humanity; and (iii) the management of global commons.
Ideally, such a framework should be adapted to the challenges of the future. This raises a number of difficult questions, the answers to which all condition what international cooperation should look like. For example, what can we reasonably say about the extent and location of extreme poverty and hunger in the next 20-30 years?

7 Centers of poverty have shifted over time and are likely to continue to shift from middle-income countries to least developed countries and those in fragile situations. Another question for consideration is, how to break through current deadlocks in cooperative management of global commons? Yet another question is, how to integrate sustainability at all levels in the delivery of international cooperation (e.g., in international financing institutions)?

From this brief discussion, it follows that specific recommendations on changes needed in the framework for international cooperation are quite hard to produce, unless backed up by clear visions for the future and goals for sustainability.

This DAU world in 2050 is a more crowded, urban world, in which poverty and hunger persist among riches. While great progress is expected on making not only primary but also secondary education universal, one billion people remain without access to basic services.

Gross world product quadruples to US$300 trillion in 2050, with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) alone accounting for 40% of the world economy. Income convergence across countries continues rapidly. However, some of the most vulnerable and poorest economies remain marginalized. This world would still be energy-hungry and powered by fossil fuels. Two thirds of world population would be living under water stress.

Competing demands for freshwater resources would pose increasingly difficult allocation problems and limit the expansion of key sectors, in particular food and agriculture. Major environmental trends would be accelerated: increase in GHG emissions and global warming; decreasing forest area and more land for agriculture at least until 2030; and unabated loss of biodiversity. By its sheer scale, human activity will have transgressed the majority of the planetary boundaries as defined by J. Rockström and colleagues in 2009, with unknown effects but increasing the long-term risk of global collapse of the earth’s ecosystem.

Sustainable development scenarios produced for Rio+20 by various research groups have explored a broad range of sustainability goals, most associated with major international development and sustainability goals that are either agreed or have been under discussion.

They are also grounded in (subsets of) existing mainstream scientific sets of goals, but clearly leave out elements of wider sustainable development perspectives that typically include community or society aspects, such as peace and social capital. The sustainable development scenarios describe a much “better world” than BAU/DAU, a world that is more sustainable in important environmental and social dimensions. Yet, even this world is not free from contradictions and confronts decision-makers with a number of unresolved trade-offs. They highlight the enormity of the global sustainable development challenge, and suggest that at some point in the future we may be forced to make much more drastic behavioral changes.

Rio+20 working papers (Nov, 2012)
Issue 1: Development cooperation in the light of sustainable development and the SDGs: Preliminary exploration of the issues

Division for Sustainable Development, UNDESA

View the full report here:

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