How to Build a Sustainable World: Practical Guidelines to Change How We Live and Work How to Build a Sustainable World: Practical Guidelines to Change How We Live and Work


The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has recently released a practical strategic analysis that provides a “greenprint” to shift us from our collective environmental crises toward a sustainable future.


Entitled “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication – A Synthesis for Policy Makers” it highlights the economic opportunities, which emerge if we shift away from our exploitative patterns of business as usual.


This analysis was written as a policy guideline in the run-up to the Rio+20 meeting on sustainable development. This is the 2012 anniversary conference of the groundbreaking first Earth Summit, which was held in Rio de Janiero in 1992. There, global leaders agreed to take collective action to stem our destruction of the natural resources upon which we depend for our lives and which provide the foundation of economic activity.


The Rio Earth Summit was followed by the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development held in 2002, which was fundamentally compromised by the rampant power of the corporate-political alliance. Rio+20 provides a fresh opportunity to agree on a way forward. The trick is for both businesses and the governments they sponsor to firstly agree to sufficiently robust targets, and then to implement and meet them.


A central point made by the UNEP Green Economy report is that if we direct just two percent of global GDP toward projects, which enhance environmental sustainability, we can generate increased wealth across the board. This would particularly benefit the poor while conserving the global ecological commons. Importantly, this two percent would not be removed from global growth but would actually enhance it.


The report deals with how the transition toward a green economy improves not only our ecological capital, from which a large proportion of wealth and livelihood is derived, but also, over time, enhances employment in many new job sectors that open up as a result of pursuing this path.


A major human shortcoming is our temporal perception and how this relates to various cycles. Climate and ecosystem change are so gradual that they are not easily perceived from year to year. On the other hand political cycles are extremely short – usually 4 or 5 years.


Climate change needs records of thousands of years from ice, silt and tree cores. Business cycles are often calculated in months – such are the pressures of profit. These temporal disconnects are dangerous and underline the fact that unless the changes to our world are perceptible they are easy to deny and difficult to manage.


Ten specific areas of focus are covered. These will initiate the growth of the green shoots of change outlined in the UNEP report. They aim to position us to “where a far more intelligent management of the natural and human capital of this planet finally shapes the wealth creation and direction of this world.”


The report provides detail on issues such as managing our fresh water, de-forestation and reforestation, protection of our marine resources, improved agricultural sustainability, transitional finance models and the creation of green jobs.


The challenge is to provide suitable conditions for these changes to occur. They should be as globally uniform as possible, otherwise some nations or regions may be compromised as others continue with destructive, business as usual practices.


This is a dilemma central to many multilateral negotiations; from the compromised Copenhagen Accord on climate change, to the stalled the WTO Doha Round. Multilateral forums inevitably place powerful and entrenched interests at loggerheads with the increasingly vocal and organised developing nation blocs such the G30 and the BRIC group, which refuse to be bulldozed by the established old order of the G8.


Corporate power remains a key roadblock to change. Of the top 100 economies on earth, more than half are corporations. The richest are involved in damaging practices like producing and processing fossil fuels. However, the reality is that we all – people, nations and corporations alike – are indivisible in the face of the crisis we collectively face. We can no longer continue to compromise our inherent altruism to the alter of mammon. What matters is not whether but how we collectively manage the changes.


While global wealth has quadrupled over the past quarter century, 60% of our natural systems have become seriously degraded. That wealth was disproportionately accumulated by the already wealthy while the poorest half of the world’s population has become yet poorer, increasing social and environmental pressures.


As the UNEP report says, we have failed to properly allocate our increased wealth. With predictable UN diplomacy, it does not directly state that vast amounts of money have been misplaced in speculative investments in our global casino economy but it may as well have.


If we fail to manage our collective responsibility to steward our natural resources – our water, atmosphere, oceans, terrestrial environments, species and genetic resources – then we humans, as one part of the web of life, are as compromised as the elements that sustain us.


Greener economic practices improve economic sustainability as well as social and ecological resilience. If we pursue agro-ecology instead of industrial farming we not only feed more people a more diverse diet (thus improving health), but we simultaneously shift away from our highly destructive farming model toward a more stable, labour intensive and participatory agricultural production and supply system.


The most comprehensive agricultural analysis ever undertaken, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, has clearly shown how we can increase employment, reduce water consumption and contamination, reverse soil erosion and chemical inputs, all while instituting a far more resilient agricultural model in times of climatic instability.


There are many other excellent analyses and solutions covered in the Green Economy report. Some deal with the challenges of sanitation, others in increasing urban and rural forest covers. We can reverse the decline of fish stocks; we can halt and in many cases reverse desertification. By shifting away from centralised, fossil fuel reliant energy sources we can both create jobs and make the world a better place.


The UNEP report sets out the economic adjustments required to manage these changes. It is certainly not some starry-eyed, greenie, tree-hugging wish list but a hard analysis of best practice to make the necessary shifts. Models such as micro-finance, locally adaptable renewable energy solutions and overarching complimentary investments by private and public sectors are all examined in some detail.


While no single analysis is perfect this report goes a long way to providing realistic and practical solutions to some of most pressing problems we face. It is now up to our political leadership to back up promises and rhetoric about creating green jobs. If we actively pursue the “greenprint” described in this important report the journey should not daunt us but entice us.


Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at


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