In 2015, the UN adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals meant to bring prosperity and to remove economic inequality in the world: zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace, justice and strong institutions and partnerships for goals.
These goals were one of the topics of the 6th edition of the International Government Communication Forum (IGCF 2017) in the emirate of Sharjah, the UAE, a forum that gathered more than 2,500 governmental experts, former presidents of countries and prime ministers, academics, researchers and business people. An international panel expressed their opinions about the short-term feasibility of such a challenging endeavor: turning the current economy into a sustainable one.
An overview of the various standpoints becomes extremely valuable when we realize that the panel originates both in East and West and has a relevant and well-balanced background: academia, business, a Nobel prize winner, public and private sectors, each one bringing the experience of one’s one organization and country.
Jeffrey Sachs, American economist and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, found that greed of the private sector and the weakness of the public sector are the two major risks that hinder the world from being equal and prosperous: “In the US, we have a powerful oil gas market held by 2 very rich infamous individuals, and the inability of the Government to deal with this. Politics in the US is just lying to us! It’s dishonest and dangerous for the world. The current direction of things is not meant for a change towards sustainable development. We should make the change from hydrocarbon fuels because the fossil fuels are becoming dangerous for life, environment, and society. It’s true that, since the discovery of the steam engine, we have progressed a lot, but unfortunately they have a chemical property to absorb the infrared radiation. We don’t create or lose jobs by giving up the fossil fuel, this is not impressive numbers actually, but we must keep the planet hospitable. Unfortunately, we have run out of safety! This is an inconvenient truth!”.
“The current economic direction is producing economic inequality!” said Jeffrey Sachs. “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals promoted by the UN are not just ideas, by 2030 certain objectives should be fulfilled. If we could have Washington discuss SDGs for 5 minutes, we could save the world! I really don’t think that the president of the US has heard of the SDGs”.
Sachs called attention about the risk of discrediting and criticizing Governments. He reminded that people need Governments to make policies, society should a strong stand that could determine Governments to behave properly: ”Don’t close down your Government, train it! We need both the public and the private sector. A book I have recently read was about how some people discredit Governments simply because they are greedy and not at all decent, and they want their interest to be a priority, not the joint interest.”
Perceptions about the actual implementation of sustainable measures that could save the planet seem to be very diverse.
Badr Jafar, Emirati businessman, believes changing economic habits may take a long time: “sustainability, by its nature, is a long-term SDG and it takes long to engage more authentically in the process. It took us 100 years to pass from solid to solar! Do we have time to actually make the transition now?”. He believes that, above all, governments are responsible through their policies: “Governments should act as inspiring for the private sector, but the civil society is also vital. There is a huge amount of philanthropic involvement but can we assess the sort of impact it has in order to change the culture??” Badr Jafar stressed that “in the Gulf countries, this philanthropic involvement in embedded in society”.
On the contrary, “SDGs is a short time goal, especially when we know that 1% of the world’s population own what the others 99% do and only 8 people in the world own what 50% of the world does!” believes Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi economist and banker, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus had a more optimistic view of the possible pace of change towards sustainability and he gave as example his own country which adopted solar energy: ”When we tried to introduce solar energy in Bangladesh, it looked crazy, but we have gradually managed, in small villages, and after 18 years, we have now more than 1 million systems which brought transition to the modern day. Plastic waste recycling also works, we can put science to work in a sustainable way.”
Indeed, plastic recycling has already yielded results in the UAE which seems to be a pioneer in this field, too, after implementing solar energy plants in Southern Abu Dhabi and in many countries around the world and creating the potentially first zero emission city of Masdar near Abu Dhabi. In January 2017, Emirates Airlines, the UAE national airline, introduced the first sustainable blankets on its flights, manufactured 100% of recycled plastic bottles, each fleece blanket being made of 28 plastic bottles.
H.E. John Bruton, former Irish prime minister, reminded that if we want a change, “we must repeat the message very often” because “electorates and elites don’t think the same way” while Khalid Isaa Al Huraimel, Emirati businessman, completed with the remark that “change is a real challenge, if you don’t enjoy the support of the Government”.
The final picture of the current chances that sustainability has is definitely still a puzzle apart. It may still take us a while to give up our inertia and to change our economic habits and above all, the political will to do so. One subtle conclusion in Sharjah was that although sustainability is already being implemented in some places across the world through individual local projects, political will is still unaware of the gloomy future of planet Earth.