Sustainable development is a concept that aims to meet the economic, social, and environmental needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
However, in these uncertain times, even many among the present generation (mostly in developing and underdeveloped countries) are finding it tough to meet their needs.
A lot has changed since the world agreed to achieve the ‘millennium (MDGs)’ and then ‘sustainable’ development goals (SDGs), including the very definition of the word sustainable. In the past, it was commonly understood to refer to a balance between consuming natural resources and their replenishment rate; today, it suggests that something needs to be done urgently to save this planet and the life it supports, before it’s too late.
This is because the earth’s natural resources are running out at a pace much faster than we could anticipate a few decades ago, and the resilience of developing countries to cope with these economic and environmental challenges seems to be touching its limits. The human footprint on everything from polar ice caps to coral reefs and from tropical forests to river basins has proven to be so immensely disastrous that the end seems to be nigh – much nearer today than it was when the MDGs and SDGs were agreed upon.
These uncertain times are further fostered by a pandemic that has been around for nearly three years and continues to hover, like a dark shadow, above human society. China’s strict zero-Covid policy and the discontent it is creating among the Chinese population could lead to the world’s second-largest economy losing steam and engulfing all its business partners, including Pakistan, in a downward economic and financial spiral. The sporadic but persistent outbreaks of coronavirus raise a highly uneasy question: when will this pandemic be over – that is, if it will ever be over at all? That we don’t have an answer – at least not yet – means that the unusual times ushered in by Covid-19 might be here to stay in the foreseeable future.
And that, I am afraid, is not all.
The global spread of Covid-19 has also created the fear of some other pandemic originating from some little-known corner of the world and becoming a global menace in no time. If and when that comes about, we will be in for more – and possibly prolonged – uncertain times. Given the devastating impacts Covid-19 has had on national and global economies, on the sustainability of life as we had always known it, and on the war against poverty and global interconnectedness that we had achieved in the last 30 years or so, the outbreak of any new pandemic would only create more uncertainties than Covid-19 has.
The second major source of uncertainty we face today is a series of conflicts that risk becoming a global conflagration. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has left global energy and food supply chains in tatters. And, for the first time in several generations, the fears of a nuclear showdown between the world’s biggest nuclear powers look more real than ever. While this leaves states like Pakistan with tough choices to make in the international arena, it has all the wherewithal to further divide a world already struggling to forge common bonds for the resolution of common problems like the transition to affordable, equitably accessible and, most importantly, sustainable sources of energy, such as dwindling water supplies across the world, or environmental pollution that no single country can now handle on its own. The list of common problems requiring common action is endless and is being ignored.
Nobody can say when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will end – or how. While this conflict is affecting energy security in the EU and most of the developing world, it is affecting the food security of millions. The World Food Programme reckons the number of people facing acute food insecurity jumped from 282 million at the end of 2021 to a record 345 million in 2022 (an addition of 63 million in the last ten months). As many as 50 million people will begin 2023 on the brink of famine.
Until now, the problem has largely been spiraling prices rather than availability. In conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, farming and humanitarian aid are disrupted. Climate change means extreme weather events, like floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa, are becoming more common. Global nitrogen fertilizer production has collapsed as Russian natural gas exports, a crucial ingredient, are squeezed. Farmers are using less fertilizer, switching crops, and cutting production. That is why Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, has warned that the world may shift from struggling with food-price inflation to simply not having enough food.
This brings us to the last major source of our current uncertain times: climate change. It is here; it is happening now – right in front of our eyes, first in the form of Pakistan losing its entire spring season and then in the form of a super flood. Similar disasters are in evidence everywhere. Even in places like Germany, we can see how flash floods and the drying up of rivers have been witnessed in just a few months.
The biggest problem with climate change is that because of the uncertainty it creates, it erodes the human capacity to tackle it. We do not know and cannot predict the nature of the next climatic disaster and whether we can tackle it. Rapid climate changes are forcing us to deal with such disasters in a firefighting mode rather than being able to mitigate and avert their frequency and intensity.
These three factors – or the three Cs of Covid, Conflict, and Climate Change – are forcing states across the globe to question and rethink everything, from their healthcare systems to economic and financial policies to ways and means of producing and consuming food. Yet all this questioning and rethinking has so far produced no concrete action plan but a lot of quibbling and blame game, both within national boundaries and at multilateral forums, over who is responsible for what and how. We have still not decided what to do about the problems facing the planet and humanity and how best – and how quickly – to resolve them.
This indecision seriously hurts the global efforts to achieve the SDGs. A vast part of the world is so seriously occupied with immediate problems – such as inflation and food and energy shortages, which are being made worse by the Triple C crisis that I have outlined here – that it finds little time, resources, and energy to focus on attaining these SDGs by 2030 as we have all agreed to.
Our present today is so fraught with all kinds of uncertainty that it is well-nigh impossible for us to look ahead and think of a future.
Yet, paradoxically, the less we act to attain the SDGs, the more urgent the need to attain them – and to do that on time. Outside of the Conference of Parties (COP27) process that seems so riddled with differences, the SDGs process is one with which no state or global institution has any dispute. So, if we have to move forwards from our present state of uncertainty to a possibly certain and secure future, we can only do so by investing our time, resources, and energy in attaining them.
The way out is to adopt a futuristic and problem-solving approach rather than getting bogged down by our present state of indecision. This, incidentally, holds true for the challenges that Pakistan is facing today.
The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets @abidsuleri
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