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Editorial

Radical and far-reaching

by Hans Dembowski

Opinion

Waste collector scavenging metals from torn-down houses in Shenyang, China.

Waste collector scavenging metals from torn-down houses in Shenyang, China.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have proved successful in many ways. Though they will not be entirely met by the 2015 deadline, there has been reasonable progress on many fronts. This global agenda helped to focus international attention on social indicators instead of merely on economic growth. It influenced policy makers and raised public awareness. Moreover, promoting the common MDG cause served the public standing of the UN.

The MDGs were brilliantly designed. Each goal was self-evident. Who would argue for hunger, maternal deaths or dirty water? Accordingly, the agenda got unanimous UN approval. At the same time, the goals added up to an implicit agenda of boosting education and health. Both are needed to make development happen. Had the UN proposed an explicit and binding agreement on expanding social infrastructure, consensus would have been impossible.

Agreeing on the next generation of goals will be more difficult. The MDGs were drafted in secret and presented to the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 as a surprise. That can only be done once. In view of the MDGs’ broad appeal, debate on the next generation of goals had to involve as many parties as possible early on. Civil-society organisations, moreover, demand enforceable rights to social services. They point out that the non-binding nature of the MDGs was a weakness. Another challenge is economic inequality. It is now at the centre of debate, whereas the MDGs merely focused on fundamental needs, not the equitable distribution of resources.

Tacking inequality is obviously very controversial. Those who are better off have a lot to lose. The topic has not been on the international agenda for many years. One important reason was that the standards of living, in many countries, were rising for a majority of people in the 1990s and the first years of the new Millennium. Few people bothered about a privileged few prospering in particular. 

The global financial crisis has changed perceptions. In rich nations, it has become obvious that, while average standards of life are stagnating at best, the wealth of the richest people continues to increase. In emerging markets, the boom years seem to be over. Many people’s newly won prosperity is still quite modest – and many others haven’t prospered at all. 

Another huge issue is climate change. Humankind cannot eliminate absolute poverty unless it also prevents the kind of environmental damage that would perpetuate such poverty. Accordingly, the next goals will be called Sustainable Development Goals. If the term is to make sense, humanity’s carbon emissions must be reduced to a level that will keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees on average.

It would suit the principle of equal opportunities to entitle every human being to the same amount of emissions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed herself in support of this approach in the past. Scientists reckon that the limit would be about 2.5 tons of carbon emissions per person and year. This 2.5 ton limit would be a radical and far-reaching global goal. It would mean huge reductions in the rich world, and considerable scope for more emissions in the least developed countries.

Multilateral consensus on this matter is unlikely. But whether policy makers like this goal or not, it results from a planetary boundary imposed by nature and the equality principle. 

Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooepration / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit. [email protected]