JOHANNESBURG SUMMIT: To Save the World from Itself, We Must Act Now

Article excerpt

LAST SPRING, the UN summit in Monterrey, Mexico, spurred poor countries to commit to improve policies and governance in exchange for promises by rich countries to deliver more aid and open their markets. The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next week gives us the chance to put those words into action.

What should the world expect from Johannesburg? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to imagine what kind of world we want. Are we going to leave as our legacy a poorer globe that has more hungry people, an erratic climate, fewer forests, less biodiversity, and is more socially volatile than today?

According to the World Bank's World Development Report 2003, the next 50 years could see the global population swell by 50 per cent to 9 billion people, and the world's gross domestic product increase fourfold to $140trn (pounds 92trn). Social and environmental strains threaten to derail development efforts and erode living standards unless we design better policies and institutions.

Development policies will need to be even more closely focused on protecting our forests, fisheries and farms - and making them more productive - if the poor are to narrow the equality gap that has emerged in the past 50 years.

If we stay on the road we are on, the signs do not appear encouraging. By 2050, the world's annual output of carbon dioxide will have more than tripled while 9 billion people - 3 billion more than we have today and mostly living in developing countries - will be tapping into the earth's water.

Food needs will more than double. All this in a world where extinction already threatens 12 per cent of all bird species, and 25 per cent of its species of mammals. By 2050, for the first time in history, more people will be living in cities than in rural areas. Without better planning, the stresses from immigration and population shifts could create new social upheaval and desperate competition for scarce resources.

Yet these trends also offer windows of opportunity if world leaders and policy makers muster the courage to pledge - and follow through - bold actions over the next 10 to 15 years.

Most of the capital stock and infrastructure that will be needed in coming decades does not exist. Better standards, increased efficiency, and more inclusive means of decision-making could mean these assets are built in ways that put fewer strains on society and the environment. …