On the occasion of the recent United Nations Day, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that humanity had entered the age of sustainability, and called upon all of us to do all in our power to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. These seventeen goals are a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals that the international community drew up in 2000.
Many of these had been realized by 2015. Extreme poverty may not have disappeared, but it has been halved. Ninety percent of children of primary school age are receiving education, and every day, 17,000 fewer babies are dying. Nonetheless, six million children aged five years and younger die every year. Much work remains to be done, which is why we have set new goals for the next fifteen years.
Why are we not doing it?
The good thing about these UN goals is that they are not just aimed at developing countries. In industrialized nations, too, much needs to be done in order to improve sustainability - sustainability with regard to the climate, employing the elderly in work, fair international trade, and indeed, sustainability of all our business activities in the long term. It surely must be clear that living sustainably benefits everyone. But why are we finding it so difficult to achieve?
There is already a great deal of knowledge and sustainable technology at our disposal. For example, consultancy firm McKinsey has calculated that by 2050, the Netherlands can reduce CO2 emissions by 80-95% compared to 1990 by using existing technology. To do this, the country will have to fit solar panels on just 33% of roofs, build 47 wind farms in the North Sea, replace four thousand cars with electric cars, have all lorries running on hydrogen, and have every house heated geothermally or with biogas. A solution is available when it comes to feeding people, too. There is sufficient food produced to feed everyone in the world; it is simply a matter of improving logistics and distribution, and of building roads and organizing refrigerated transport.
“It surely must be clear that a sustainable life is to everyone’s benefit. But why are we finding it so difficult to achieve?”
Solving world problems is an expensive matter. Significant funding is needed in order to achieve our sustainability ambitions. Jeffrey Sachs has calculated that we need 175 billion dollars to eliminate poverty from the world in a sustainable manner. This could easily be raised if the thirty richest OECD countries were to pledge 0.7% of their GDP, but unfortunately only five countries actually do so. America, for example, allocates just 0.18% of its GDP. This will probably be even lower if Trump is elected this week. However, money is not the problem - to rescue Greece, for example, the EU stumped up more than 250 billion dollars.
So why are we not doing it? It involves sacred cows and there is an inability to act quickly. Large innovative transitions are being resisted by vested interests. It is also about thinking in terms of risk - we envisage too many problems ahead for our own position and business. Let us look at the bigger picture and work together with partners in the supply chain to set up new business with potential. And let us be flexible, so that anyone with a bit of courage is able to develop new business propositions. Let us commit ourselves to businesses with impact that contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals. There is now a greater focus on the societal impact of international trade links, and the first covenants are already being signed in the textile, banking, and foodstuffs industries.
Many sectors in Africa are not yet well organized. An advantage of this situation is that there is ample scope for sustainable transitions and for enterprise on the part of local and Dutch companies. With leap-frogging innovations, we can make an impact more quickly in Africa than we can in Europe. This is important for these fast-growing economies, especially if we are careful to involve people on the lowest incomes in the process. Need more inspiration? If so, make your way to the Museon in The Hague, which is hosting a large-scale exhibition on initiatives relating to the Sustainable Development Goals. Recently opened and featuring a video message from Ban Ki-moon, the exhibition includes TNO-led innovations and transitions.