The Millennium Development Goals aimed to substantially diminish the global injustice of climate change by 2015. Yet the current state of affairs highlights serious flaws, which Europe and the other industrialised countries have to learn from, if they are to demonstrate that they are serious about tackling global challenges.
Global inequality is rising. A new study by Oxfam shows that the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened in the last 30 years. While hundreds of millions of people still live in poverty and lack adequate food and access to safe water, the number of the world’s billionaires has more than doubled since the start of the financial crisis. As the Oxfam report makes clear, this social inequality poses a serious threat to our entire global society. Inequality has an immensely destabilising effect, amplifying other social problems. Murder rates, for example, are almost four times higher in very unequal societies. Social inequality can destabilise entire political systems and risks spreading conflicts that can quickly engulf an entire region. Syria is an obvious example, according to the Oxfam study: alongside various other factors, Syria’s rapidly growing inequality before 2011 did much to destabilise the country. Clearly, given the scale of the civil war in Syria today, this is not the decisive explanation, but there is no disputing that reducing social inequality always has a powerful conflict prevention effect.
2015 is a crucial year in the fight against rising global inequality. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire at the end of the year. The process to forge a follow-up agreement at the UN level is well underway. Last summer, a United Nations working group proposed a set of 17 goals for consideration by the United Nations. The UN General Assembly is expected to adopt the new sustainable development agenda (Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs) in September 2015, based on a set of goals which will be much more ambitious than those adopted at the United Nations Millennium Summit 15 years ago. This time, sustainability and development goals will merge to form a universal agenda, thus addressing one of the main criticisms of the MDGs.
Progress on the MDGs themselves has been mixed. On poverty reduction, for example, some impressive successes have been achieved. In 1990, 43 percent of people in the developing world lived on less than US$ 1.25 a day, but by the end of 2015, this is expected to have fallen to just 15 percent. Major progress has been made on access to safe water as well: in 1990, 30 percent of people living in developing countries had no access to drinking water, but by 2008, these figures had already halved. Similar progress has been made on access to primary schooling and reducing child mortality.
The development progress achieved in recent decades has been accompanied by ever-increasing environmental degradation.
Despite these important global advances, there are stark differences between regions. Progress on the individual Millennium Development Goals has been uneven. What’s more, the rise of the newly industrialising countries is likely to have clouded the statistics. The economic ascent of countries such as China and Brazil, which would undoubtedly have occurred even without the MDGs, has boosted the statistics, whereas only very limited development progress has been observed in other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, since 1990. So it is right to take the criticism of the MDGs seriously and factor it into work on formulating the new sustainable development goals. I would like to take a closer look at two of these criticisms in particular.
Poverty: Not Just A Lack of Income
One of the fundamental flaws in the Millennium Development Goals, it is often claimed, is their narrow interpretation of the Global North’s responsibility: they focus too much on development aid instead of addressing structural inequality between the industrialised North and the Global South. Viewed through the lens of the MDG agenda, poverty primarily meant a lack of income. There was a failure to recognise that there are other causes of poverty, such as the denial of rights and lack of access to land, education and social infrastructure. For example, a fair and equitable opportunity for people to work the land themselves is an important factor in preventing famine.
Social inequality can destabilise entire political systems and risks spreading conflicts that can quickly engulf an entire region.
Studies have shown that 50 percent of all people affected by famines live in smallholder families whose land suddenly ceases to sustain their subsistence economy. The causes are, in most cases, social and political. For that reason too, there has been a growing awareness in recent years that sustainable development is only possible if it also facilitates people’s access to public goods and rights. The war on hunger begins, then, by empowering smallholders in developing countries to assert their rights against their governments and major corporations, instead of delaying action until long after a famine has broken out. Let’s hope that the new sustainable development agenda agreed in New York in September will recognise that poverty does not just mean income poverty, thus opening the way for a broader understanding of development.
Joining Up the Social and Environmental Dimensions
Another omission in the Millennium Development Goals was the absence of any joined-up thinking on the social and environmental dimensions of development. It was recognised at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992 that our current model of development is incompatible with planetary boundaries. More than 20 years on, these fears have proved correct.
The development progress achieved in recent decades has been accompanied by ever-increasing environmental degradation. The problem is not the world’s growing population but the rapid expansion worldwide of an affluent middle class with, currently, one billion people who aspire to typical middle-class consumption patterns centred around cars, smartphones and designer clothing. Their hunger for resources, land and energy is driving the planet to destruction. If we continue along this development path, especially in industrialised countries, this will inevitably result in ecosystem collapse. Some regions of the world are already feeling the effects of climate change. Droughts, floods and other extreme weather events mainly impact on the world’s poorer and less developed countries. Those who have done least to cause the problem of global climate change are hardest hit by its effects.
And this creates a major conflict which must be addressed successfully in the post-2015 agenda. Many developing and emerging countries aspire to follow the same development path as the industrialised countries, including excessive consumption of fossil resources. If they do, however, it will be impossible to meet the target of limiting global temperature rise to 2°C and thus avert climate catastrophe. This conflict of interests has to be resolved in autumn – but the industrialised countries must make the first move. The European Union and its Member States in particular must take a leading role instead of applying the brakes. The industrialised countries have used the atmosphere as a dumping ground for their CO2 emissions to a disproportionate extent. They must assume global responsibility now and set a course towards sustainable development. In essence, it is about fair and equitable distribution of social and environmental resources.
The Northern countries bear historical responsibility for the exploitation of the Earth’s resources and for climate change and continue to be mainly responsible for the overuse and destruction of the biosphere and atmosphere.
Taking Global Responsibility Seriously
The industrialised countries must meet their global responsibility by allocating at least 0.7 percent of GNI to official development assistance. In 2013, only a handful of OECD countries managed to meet this target: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden. The net contribution of Development Assistance Committee (DAC) countries stood at only 0.3 percent of GNI. In this respect, the industrialised countries have to do much more. But it is not just a question of allocating 0.7 percent of GNI to official development assistance. The Global North must also reduce their ecological footprint and cut their C02 emissions. In order to do so, it is necessary to reduce C02 emission globally to 2 tons per capita a year. According to the World Bank Germany, for example, is now consuming approximately 9.1 tons per capita every year. All the worse, C02 consumption in the USA amounts to 17.6 tons per capita a year. While in Senegal the C02 consumption averages only 0.5 tons per capita a year. These numbers show that the industrialised countries have to lead the way and cannot shy away from their responsibility.
The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities has been well-established in international environmental law for some time. As far as equitable and sustainable development is concerned, this can be spelled out very clearly with reference to distribution issues. The Northern countries bear historical responsibility for the exploitation of the Earth’s resources and for climate change and continue to be mainly responsible for the overuse and destruction of the biosphere and atmosphere. So the industrialised countries must pursue a credible course, without denying the Global South scope for development. However, the emerging and developing countries, too, must make a contribution to the fair and equitable distribution of social and environmental resources within their own societies. Everyone has a role to play.
Global inequality, which has risen alarmingly in recent years, and the global climate crisis are interconnected. The major challenge facing the present generation is to join up these two issues and develop a common agenda with viable solutions. It remains to be seen whether the sustainable development goals adopted in autumn have the normative power to initiate a shift in global mind-sets. That will depend, above all, on how seriously the industrialised countries take these goals.