Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability

United Nations University Midday Forum, 
UN Headquarter New York

Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability

June 27, 2011

What has changed since the Brundtland Report?

Issues arising from the work of the Global Sustainability Panel


In 1983, the United Nations convened the Brundtland Commission to address the serious deterioration of the environment and natural resources. Twenty eight years, multiple conferences and several international agreements later, what has the international community been able to achieve and what are the issues today?  The UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability is made up of renowned world figures, and has been tasked with formulating a new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity along with mechanisms for achieving it. The final report is due at the end of 2011 and will look at the issues that have arisen since the Brundtland Report.

The Panel was established in August 2010 with President Zuma from South Africa and  President Halonen from Finland  as Panel Co-chairs, plus 20 other high level members. Included in this diverse and multi-stakeholder membership is Mr. James Balsillie, Co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM) and Ms. Julia Carabias, an environmentalist and former Secretary of Environment of Mexico.  NGO’s are also supposed to be consulted through Non Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS)

The Panel is dealing with the problem of how to better implement sustainable development in its totality of environment, social development, and the economy. The Report is intended to provide useful inputs to various forthcoming intergovernmental processes such as Rio+20, G-20, UNFCCC. The Panel is open in its work, consults widely with experts from various UN agencies, governments, NGOs, academia and the civil society.

The feeling today is that the Brundtland Report is good but not implementable.  The concept hasn’t been picked up by the economic pillar, while environment and social development has been dealt with well.  The Report doesn’t deal with the extra cost for sustainable development?

Today the world is more complex, as for example, many poor developing countries are now emerging economies and some developed countries don’t have the same level of economic power. Nowadays, there is more political effervescence and momentum.  Governance is more difficult for institutions working at the global level.  Also, markets today are weak and resource allocation fragmented. Issues are interconnected, but the interconnection is more difficult: ex., sustainability in relation to poverty.

The Panel agreed on a goal: ‘To eradicate poverty and reduce inequality, make growth inclusive, and production and consumption more sustainable while combating climate change and respecting the range of other planetary boundaries’. The Panel also agreed on the following sectoral priority areas: access to energy and clean water, food security and employment. Cross-sectoral priorities have also been identified to address linkages: gender and women’s empowerment, markets and finance, innovation and technology, education and capacity building, and governance.****

Some issues arising from the work of the Panel:  trade-offs, linkages, and synergies. For example, in agriculture it is a question of water use versus clean drinking water and sanitation. We have also seen massive price rises in food, because of biofuel subsidies.

The Panel believes in people-centered goals and in promoting simultaneously synergies to meet these goals.  Examples of issues that it is looking include the promotion of smallholder sustainable intensification of activities, improved water and energy use, promotion of a social protection floor as a way to provide safety measures for the unemployed. Recommendations in the four priority areas identified above will be clustered around the following: access to basic services, sustainable production and sustainable consumption. There is a lack of a global entity for action on these issues.

In financing the transition to meet these needs is the challenge of providing necessary cash flow. Today sustainability as a criteria isn’t sufficient as we can’t manage what we can’t measure.  Looking at GDP isn’t sufficient, or adequate. We need to be able to measure sustainability to meet such challenges as global population growth and shifts of populations from rural to urban living.

As governance functions today, UNEP is where Environment Ministers meet and the World Bank is where Development Ministers meet…..separately. In the future it would be desirable to have these high level representatives meet together in dealing with sustainability issues.  The Panel also has to deal with question of where the private sector best fits in the above configuration.  It is also reaching out to academia.

When considering growth we can’t decouple GDP figures from the environmental impact and the quality of growth.