Making growth sustainable

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Jeffrey Sachs discusses a new approach to solving sustainable-development problems.

Jeffrey Sachs.

The sustainable development of the world’s rich and poor nations is a hot topic for debate, as world leaders meet at the United Nations general assembly in New York from 25 September to 1 October. A panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met for the first time on Tuesday to begin defining a new approach to sustainable global growth. Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University, New York, is launching a worldwide knowledge network that will bring together businesses, academics and leading thinkers to help find hi-tech solutions to the development hurdles that the panel and others identify. Sachs spoke to Nature about the network's goals.

Why does the world need a new approach to sustainable development?

The current diplomatic track, including climate treaties and multilateral environmental agreements, is stuck because there is not enough practicality involved. It relies largely on international law. I believe in international law but it absolutely cannot carry this burden. These problems are very complex and practical, and the diplomatic process cannot accommodate this. The transformation we need has to be innovative and technology based, solving local problems. There need to be new ways of decision making with more expertise at the table. This network aims to support all that kind of change.

What will the network do?

It will be the go-to place for the intergovernmental UN processes that are under way now, including the one defining new sustainable development goals to begin in 2015, by providing organized information on technological topics such as energy or agriculture. It will work closely with Ban Ki-moon’s panel, which will no doubt ask questions about nuclear power or genetically modified organisms, for example. It will also respond to requests from cities and governments for help in thinking about how they can be more resilient and sustainable; for example, whether self-drive vehicles will improve the sustainability of their transport systems.These technological possibilities are very poorly understood in most parts of the world. The network will help organize a more intensive flow of information, and thoughtful and integrated responses to those questions. This is a short-term goal. The network will last four to five years.

And what are its long-term goals?

In five years I hope that cities such as Shanghai in China or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil that are grappling with questions of green transport or waste management, have as a natural part of their policymaking strong links with their local and national universities. Hopefully, the network will have helped bring about high-capacity, high-quality thinking within the participating universities. For example, if the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro is part of the network for five years, its research and teaching would be strengthened as a result, and it will then sit at the table with the metropolitan government to brainstorm and put in place some innovative solutions.

Universities have a major role to play but in most of the world that role is not recognized. The idea of the network is to support a lot more policymaking, policy analysis and early-technology demonstration projects, and to create a way for universities to be part of an active analysis network. This is a work in progress and will begin to be put in place next year.

How will it be organized?

The network will comprise ten working groups which will be made up of academics, businesses and civil-society experts to work on topics including agriculture, nutrition, ecosystem services and universal health coverage. The groups will define what the current technology choices are in their particular field, and where technologies might evolve.

Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, will co-chair one of the groups. Paul Collier, an economist at the University of Oxford, UK, will also play a major role, as will Ted Turner, founder of the cable news channel CNN. This initial skeleton group met for the first time on 22 September for a brainstorming session with the UN leadership. A meeting of the network’s core participants is set for the end of October to further define the mission.

Who will provide the funding?

I am finishing fundraising now. The model is a light-touch core operation that will comprise a worldwide secretariat. The working groups will be given a modest budget to carry out their work. I hope that when the network is up and running, funding will come largely from within the regions — from multilateral agencies, development banks or local foundations. It will be a decentralized funding effort.

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Gilbert, N. Making growth sustainable. Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature.2012.11496

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