In the middle years of the last decade, when political concern over climate change was at its height, politicians liked to boast that they had broken the link between economic growth and greenhouse-gas emissions. They hadn’t, as the impact of the global financial crisis and the tentative recovery showed: emissions in some places slowed temporarily but have now resumed their worrying rate of increase.
Although countries such as the United Kingdom did manage to reduce their carbon pollution, this was a product of specific policies such as a shift from coal to gas for electricity generation, and not a more fundamental sign of a shift in the economic sands. Protecting the environment is an added cost that many politicians and business leaders would prefer to avoid. Not to bother makes things cheaper. And despite the rhetoric of environmental campaigners, that remains an uncomfortable truth, at least in terms of the climate problem. Carbon emissions are a hallmark of energy use — and it is cheap and available energy that has made the modern world.
The antagonism between protection of profit and protection of the environment will continue for as long as the two are seen as separate pursuits. And although there are signs that people in China are starting to question their nation’s pursuit of the first and not the second (see Q. Wang Nature 497, 159; 2013), the rapid economic development of countries such as China, India and Brazil raises the stakes and the risk to a sustainable future still further.
Development is a right, of course. Poorer nations are entitled to follow the path to prosperity, especially when their economic growth is measured in terms of reduced childhood mortality and increased access to clean water, as well as industrial output. But it is in all of our interests to find a more sustainable way for them to do so.
Global goals, international targets and multilateral pledges in this arena can sound hollow. There is little evidence, for instance, that the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals have achieved what they set out to do. When these goals expire at the end of 2015, should they be renewed? And, if so, with what? The answer to the first is an unequivocal ‘yes’. A goal is something to strive for, as well as a result. Targets set agendas and steer policy. A possible answer to the second has just been published on the website of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (
The group proposed ten new Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years, each with three draft targets. Some of the language is vague and some of the goals sound like platitudes. But drill down only a little and there are some well-informed suggestions. And some brave ones: a “rapid voluntary reduction of fertility” to address overpopulation, and reform of business accounting and tax regimes among them.
Perhaps most importantly, the draft goals fuse the economic and environmental agendas in a way that the Millennium Development Goals do not. The measure of a national economy, the goals say, is meaningless without a sense of how that bottom line has been achieved, and how it affects people and the planet. The economic currency of gross domestic product, for so long used as a benchmark of a country’s performance, could be tweaked to include social indicators and how well a country respects environmental criteria, such as the concept of planetary boundaries that should not be exceeded. The draft report is open for comments until next week.