Development and the environment must be tackled together

Tuesday, 25 June 2013 08:22 GMT

A man waters beet plants in a garden in Gao, Mali, March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Economic gains that come at the expense of ecosystems or social well-being cannot be considered “growth”

Over the past months, the United Nations has engaged more than 750,000 people from 194 countries in identifying priorities for the next development agenda. One of the main findings is that we cannot have separate environmental, social and economic agendas. Instead we need a single, holistic set of development goals that support an integrated vision.   

The reason for breaking out of our traditional ways of managing economic, social and environmental affairs separately is obvious when we try to address people’s call to restore and sustain natural resources and ecosystems.

This is not a challenge just for environmental protection agencies, but one of the top economic and social issues of our time.

Take Malawi, for example, where the unsustainable use of natural resources results in annual losses equivalent to 5.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to a 2011 government study. That is more than the amount of funding allocated to education and health in the southern African country’s 2009 budget.

The same study suggests that a greater focus on reducing soil erosion could have lifted more than 1.8 million people out of poverty.

These facts, and examples from other countries, highlight the linkages between economic, environmental, governance and social issues.

Despite this, governments often prioritise economic growth at the expense of everything else, including the infrastructure that nature provides.


As a result, investments go into industries, and natural capital becomes undervalued.  Such development patterns have pushed our planet towards its natural limits.

Therefore, I welcome the recommendation of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda to put sustainable development at the core of all our policies.

“We have to integrate the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability,” says the panel’s report, released in late May.

As the example from Malawi shows, economic gains that come at the expense of the other dimensions - such as eroded ecosystem functions and services - cannot be considered “growth”.
Transformative change is needed and begins with adjusting how we talk and think about the environment.  

First, we must move to a discourse focused on how to advance social, economic, governance and environmental benefits simultaneously.

Another important step is valuation. The natural systems that regulate our planet and provide us with air, water, energy, food and medicine require investment, just like any other operating system.  

The good news is that we have a monumental opportunity in front of us to change the way we do things through the post-2015 debate about sustainable development goals.

Olav Kjorven is U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and director of the Bureau for Development Policy at the U.N. Development Programme.