Our House is on Fire: On Greta, our Goals, and the Need to #SolveDifferent

All images furnished by GGKP

Blog by Steven Stone, Head, Markets and Resources Branch, Economy Division, UN Environment

Ulysses tied himself to the mast so that he would not hear the sirens; or if he did, he would at least not change course.

As I pulled into Delhi earlier this month for the Indo-German dialogue, I wondered if we ourselves have tied ourselves to the mast.

The atmosphere in Delhi was shocking - despite all best efforts to come to grips with air pollution, a dull haze blanketed the city, the particulate matter almost palpable with every breath.   

Well beyond the World Health Organization standards, the quality of the air in winter in Delhi has reached epic proportions, and one that goes well beyond an environmental question. It is affecting everyone.

During the dialogue, we touched upon the issues like these that are now becoming commonplace around the globe. The subtle and not so subtle erosion of public goods like clean air and water that we once took for granted - and how to face up to them.

One of the more riveting moments happened when someone in the audience asked, where is the drama? Where is the emotional force we need to tackle these issues?

My thoughts went immediately to Greta Thunberg, the courageous young teenager from Sweden who has singlehandedly started a movement to contest the status quo and the belief that we can do little.

Traveling to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month (by train, over 32 hours!) she delivered a wake-up call, under the heading of «Our House is on Fire ». And indeed, it is.

Like the air in Delhi, the statistics are shocking. The last five years are the hottest on record, the warming oceans are creating polar vortexes, and extreme weather events exceeded USD 155 billion last year according to Swiss Re. The data all points in one direction, and it one of continuous erosion and draw down of our common wealth.

So what to do? Clearly innovation and human ingenuity is a renewable and renewing resource that needs to be brought into play. And equally, we need to create a safe operating space for business and entrepreneurs and society to flourish and create value, while aiming for a « social floor » that meets the basic needs of all.

Fortunately we have a plan that can take us there - the sustainable development goals.  

Universal in nature, agreed by all governments, and covering a rainbow of basic needs for humans to flourish and thrive in the future, the goals also provide a symbol of our diversity and strength in going forward.

First, they come as a package: there is hardly one goal that can be achieved in isolation from the others.

Second, they provide a yardstick for measuring progress: the 17 goals and 187 targets and indicators provide a roadmap with milestones, and countries - all countries - can track their progress.

And third, they provide a metaphor. This struck me as I gazed on the symbol of the global goals on my colleague’s lapel.  A circle, the 17 goals are arrayed to form a colorful entry point to meeting basic human needs in the 21st century. 

And as a symbol, it is quite powerful, because apart from the evident diversity that mirrors our own diversity of cultures and peoples from around the globe, one can easily visualize the inner circle representing a social floor that Economist Kate Raworth has positioned at the center of our economies, to leave no one behind in terms of access to clear air, water, food, and shelter - the basic elements of human dignity and survival.

And the outer ring could easily represent the limits of our safe operating space, the planetary boundaries within which we must operate to create opportunity, income, prosperity and profits.  If we exceed the boundaries, we erode the base of our common wealth.

Reaching the goals will require courage, creativity, and clarity of purpose. It will require collective and individual efforts to align our actions and our investments. In short, it will require us to rethink our patterns of how we consume and produce, how we save, and spend, and invest.  

Fortunately, there are at least two or three major windows opening where world leaders of all stripes and sizes can come together to nurture and foster our collective ownership and progress on the goals.

The first is the next UN Environment Assembly, coming up in March in Nairobi, Kenya. The theme is on target: innovating to solve environmental challenges, by consuming and producing differently. We are challenged to live within - and think beyond.  

And to do this, we will need to #SolveDifferent. This is essentially about our lifestyles and how we produce and consume - which sits at the core of the sustainable development goals. 

The second is the World Circular Economy Forum, where a strong private sector focus guarantees that business leaders who understand the opportunities from enhancing resource efficiency and circularity have a chance to show their wares - and help shape the growing market for greener and more inclusive growth.

And third, our very own High Level Political Forum in July 2019, when the focus will be on SDG 8 and 17 among others - inclusive and sustainable growth with decent work; and partnerships to get us out of our silos. We expect heads of state to gather and focus their attention on not only their national agendas and commitments and progress but also the fragile state of our global commons.

Because in the end, the goals and the wider UN system itself will only be as strong as the commitment each of us and our nation states devote to it. The sustainable development goals need to be nurtured, stewarded, sustained, and invested in. They need to be embraced and upscaled. They need to be translated and owned by all if they are to serve their purpose.

2030 is not so far off. The future we were warned about, the sirens we heard earlier, have told us about the dangers many decades ago. Time to unbind the ropes and change course.    

And put out that fire in our common home.

This article was originally published on the Green Growth Knowledge Platform (GGKP)'s website.