Sustainability Agenda in Retrospect and in Prospect


At a time when mega crises in economic activities, social life, and natural environment are becoming "the new normal" for mankind, it is only wise to search for a way out of this new normal by taking an integrated approach, revealing the essential value of sustainable development in combining economic, social, and natural considerations.

Since the adoption of Agenda 21 in 1992, the United Nations has been pursuing sustainable development in the economic, social, and environmental fields, and at the local, national, and international levels. Due to efforts of the past two decades, the United Nations has been successful in spreading the concept of sustainable development far and wide, carrying out various forms of relevant activities on a regular basis, and establishing numerous international political commitments. As countries become increasingly interdependent, the desire for sustainable development has become stronger in a concerted way. It would be fair to say that an era of sustainable development is being ushered in right now.

However, while achievements are encouraging, the overall development work of the United Nations is still fragmented. For example, institutional capacity building has yet to be enhanced. Many Member States have incorporated sustainability in their overall national development strategy, making sustainability a critical merit of economic efficiency. Nevertheless, the monitoring and evaluation of these countries' progress in sustain- able development by the United Nations is quite soft and lacking in clear-cut standards, especially in setting up reasonable authentication regimes and employing appropriate legal tools.

As a result, the sustainability agenda is still vulnerable, and at times the sustainable development goals seem elusive. For instance, according to estimates by the World Bank, due to the serious fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis, the world population stricken by poverty will increase by 263 million by 2015. This anticipated trend is in stark contrast to the poverty alleviation goals set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).


In 2007, when Ban Ki-moon assumed his first term as Secretary-General of the United Nations, his strategy was to focus on specific areas of sustainability. His priorities included reaching a global pact on climate change, campaigning for nuclear disarmament, and achieving the MDGs.

In order to expand global outreach of the MDGs, under Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations initiated some innovative action plans, including the bold global effort Every Woman Every Child. It also established the High-level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis in 2008, and in August 2010, set up the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, whose aim was to provide a final report on poverty alleviation while protecting the natural system by December 2011.

During Mr. Ban's first term, environmental cooperation of various types did bear some fruit. The United Nations responded swiftly to the global H1N1 pandemic, floods in Pakistan, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and the catastrophic earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. In July 2011, the UN Security Council even issued the first-ever Council statement recognizing climate change as one of the most important challenges to international peace and security. Although many questions remain as to whether the UN could have the adequate means, resources, and expertise to tackle the issue of climate change, the statement is significant and a major step forward, considering the fact that the Council failed to arrive at this same consensus in 2007.

However, since early 2011, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has implied, on more than one occasion, that during his second term efforts will be redirected to include a broader agenda for promoting sustainable development. This shift of focus could be attributed to what was learned in the past few years.

Mr. Ban's initial optimism in climate change work was seriously dampened by the failed 2009 Copenhagen Summit. The Summit was hailed by some scholars as "the last chance for human self-salvation", and yet it witnessed protracted wrangling between developing and developed countries on issues of emission reduction targets, financial aid, technological assistance, etc. The Summit also revealed that it was difficult to forge political consensus in the near future.

Ironically, the greatest contribution from the United Nations to the area of sustainable development during Ban Ki-moon's first term was that it tested the approach of seeking a single grand deal on climate change. When that failed, it learned to reconcile with reality and is now exploring new intervening strategies for sustainability.

The onset of the international financial crisis in late 2008 further exposed the danger of unsustainable economic growth. At face value, the three dimensions of sustainable development, i.e., economic, social, and environmental, unfold along different trajectories. Deep down they correlate substantially with each other. Therefore, it is far from enough to merely manage financial flows with ethics and responsibility, and a massive scale of counter-cyclical fiscal stimuli could only play a transient role in shoring up the economy. There is a pressing need to conduct fundamental and structural policy reforms with an economic growth pattern, social welfare, and environmental sustainability.

In the Chinese ideogram, "crisis" is a combination of "risk " and "opportunity". While growing uncertainties and fears of a prolonged recession have made the global development agenda more difficult to achieve, the economic down- turn, in parallel with climate change, offers a real opportunity for achieving sustainable development, albeit against strong odds.


Poverty alleviation, environmental threats, and human rights have been widely suggested as challenges to the United Nations for the next five years.

It is natural that pursuing sustainable development will raise the cost of economic growth. In the future, it will be feasible to pursue small steps in separate fields, rather than aiming for one sweeping pact.

Firstly, Governments shoulder a primary responsibility to lead the process of sustainable development. Indeed, efforts could be tried in a bottom-up way to get everyone on board, and to create extensive partnership among Governments, businesses, and civil society. However, national Governments must contribute more to strategic planning work in general, and to proactive policies regarding employment, social welfare, and environmentally friendly economic growth.

Secondly, while it is vital to maintain global unity in the pursuit of sustainable development, the United Nations needs to refrain from imposing a single model on each and every country of the world. Countries need to independently choose the path of sustainable development suited to their own national conditions. And in that process, it is natural that countries will not be immune from practical and cost-benefit calculations, including how much it will cost to upgrade traditional industries to a "green" level, how deep the green mode can soak into modern production and lifestyle, and what competitive edge the green economy will bring for them. Special attention needs to be given to vulnerable countries, including the least developed countries and small island States, to address their concerns.

Thirdly, it is important to coordinate the different dimensions of sustainability, without allowing one dimension to override and squeeze out another. For example, developing countries are facing enormous risks and challenges in achieving the green economy transformation, due to their relatively limited resources and expertise in this field. If new bargaining politics such as "green assistance" or "green barriers" were imposed prematurely from outside, it would create new hurdles, add more frustrations and prove counterproductive to their overall efforts.

Fourthly, the United Nations work on sustainable development needs to be strengthened. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development needs to prepare an institutional framework on sustainable development for the Rio+20 which will be held in June 2012. Previous pledges of financial aid from developed countries to developing ones on various issues of sustainability, such as climate change and a green economy, need to be honoured. The United Nations should focus on achieving goals already set regarding the MDGs and climate change, which is always more fundamental, important, and practical than delineating new, elusive frontiers to conquer.