It is an unremittingly bleak vision of the future: over the next decade the world’s economy stagnates, fossil fuels ramp up global warming and the gap between rich and poor widens, fuelling nationalist tensions based on resentment of the ‘global elite’.
But, while a major new report by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) warns this appears to be humanity’s current path, it also spells out how to create not quite “heaven on Earth” but a world that is wealthier, more peaceful and fair for all.
And their call for the world to start living up to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals was backed by more than 80 major companies in a joint letter to Theresa May, which urged the UK Government to take this “essential” step to secure “our long-term prosperity and the well-being of generations to come”.
However, Ms May did not respond personally to the letter, with the Department for International Development instead issuing a response on behalf of the Government in an implicit snub to the letter’s call for all departments, “not only” DfID, to get involved.
The UN’s ‘Global Goals’, as they are known, seem at first sight to be almost impossibly ambitious.
There should be “no poverty” and “zero hunger” in the world, universal health coverage, a decent education for all, gender equality, access to affordable and clean energy, action on climate change, the list goes on.
But the BSDC’s report, compiled after a year of research into their effects, says achieving them is actually key to delivering massive growth.
The document, called Better Business, Better World, estimates the Global Goals could be worth up to $36,000bn (£30,000bn) a year in savings and extra revenue by 2030.
They based this on an analysis of four major economic sectors – food and agriculture; energy and materials; cities; and health and wellbeing – which would benefit to the tune of $12,000bn a year. They then estimated the total economic prize would be two to three times higher.
Lifting people out of poverty could bring up to a billion people into the consumer economy. And achieving gender equality alone could add at least $12,000bn to the world’s total GDP by 2025, according to one estimate.
“The overall prize is enormous,” the report says.
“The results will not be heaven on Earth; there will be many practical challenges.
“But the world would undoubtedly be on a better, more resilient path. We could be building an economy of abundance.
“Achieving the Global Goals would create a world that is comprehensively sustainable – socially fair, environmentally secure, economically prosperous, inclusive, and more predictable.”
The report said the way the world had been run over the last 30 years had delivered “unprecedented economic growth” which had “lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty”.
But it added: “Signs of its failure and imperfections in today’s markets are everywhere.
“Natural disasters triggered by climate change have doubled in frequency since the 1980s.
“Violence and armed conflict cost the world the equivalent of nine per cent of GDP in 2014, while lost biodiversity and ecosystem damage cost an estimated three per cent.
10 photographs to show to anyone who doesn't believe in climate change
10 photographs to show to anyone who doesn't believe in climate change
A group of emperor penguins face a crack in the sea ice, near McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Amid a flood in Islampur, Jamalpur, Bangladesh, a woman on a raft searches for somewhere dry to take shelter. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to sea level rise, which is expected to make tens of millions of people homeless by 2050.
Hanna Petursdottir examines a cave inside the Svinafellsjokull glacier in Iceland, which she said had been growing rapidly. Since 2000, the size of glaciers on Iceland has reduced by 12 per cent.
Floods destroyed eight bridges and ruined crops such as wheat, maize and peas in the Karimabad valley in northern Pakistan, a mountainous region with many glaciers. In many parts of the world, glaciers have been in retreat, creating dangerously large lakes that can cause devastating flooding when the banks break. Climate change can also increase rainfall in some areas, while bringing drought to others.
Smoke – filled with the carbon that is driving climate change – drifts across a field in Colombia.
A river once flowed along the depression in the dry earth of this part of Bangladesh, but it has disappeared amid rising temperatures.
Sindh province in Pakistan has experienced a grim mix of two consequences of climate change. “Because of climate change either we have floods or not enough water to irrigate our crop and feed our animals,” says the photographer. “Picture clearly indicates that the extreme drought makes wide cracks in clay. Crops are very difficult to grow.”
A shepherd moves his herd as he looks for green pasture near the village of Sirohi in Rajasthan, northern India. The region has been badly affected by heatwaves and drought, making local people nervous about further predicted increases in temperature.
Riddhima Singh Bhati
A factory in China is shrouded by a haze of air pollution. The World Health Organisation has warned such pollution, much of which is from the fossil fuels that cause climate change, is a “public health emergency”.
Leung Ka Wa
Water levels in reservoirs, like this one in Gers, France, have been getting perilously low in areas across the world affected by drought, forcing authorities to introduce water restrictions.
“We continue to invest in high-carbon infrastructure at a rate that could commit us to irreversible, immensely damaging climate change.
“Social inequality and youth unemployment is worsening in countries across the world, while on average women are still paid 25 per cent less than men for comparable work.”
Average wages had been stagnant in the developed world since the 1980s, “generating deep anxiety … and opposition to more globalisation”, while “total debt remains uncomfortably high”, the report added.
The report warned the world was essentially at a crossroads.
“If a critical mass of companies joins us in doing this now, together we will become an unstoppable force. If they don’t, the costs and uncertainty of unsustainable development could swell until there is no viable world in which to do business,” the report said.
In an interview with The Independent, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UN Deputy Secretary-General and Labour government minister who helped found the BSDC, said the 21st century was shaping up to witness a clash between two great political ideas: nationalism and globalism.
Saying he was speaking personally, rather than as the BSDC’s chair, he admitted that globalisation “hasn’t really worked for many people”.
But he said the swing to nationalists such as Nigel Farage and protectionists such as Donald Trump had been a mistake and the report could be viewed as a “counter-manifesto”.
“Don’t throw globalisation out with the bath water as Trump and some components of the Ukip unit of the Brexiteers appear to have done. But instead embrace globalisation 2.0, or whatever you’d call it, where there is a much greater attention to issues of equality, poverty reduction and sustainability,” Lord Malloch-Brown said.
“The new dividing line of 21st century politics is going to be globalists versus nationalists.
“I do not put myself in the category of those who are declaring the end of the world.
“More nationalists will be coming over the horizon after that because that’s going to be the great debate of 21st century politics. My big message to people is ‘chill out, we are going to have a century of this’.”
He said Mr Trump’s election might be a setback – particularly if the cabal of climate change deniers around him win a looming battle with more mainstream Republicans.
“If we lose that fight now in the US, one would hope the US political system would come back to it down the road,” he said.
“As the costs of not addressing climate change increase and the economy slows, we think ultimately our logic will prevail. The question is when.”
This new political split would “force some degree of political realignment” in which new parties emerge, Lord Malloch-Brown argued.
“You cannot have a party system that is rowing against this great new dividing line,” he said.
“One way or another, politics will reform around it; that would be my argument but I would hesitate to predict how.”
A plea for sustainable development from an organisation led by a former Labour minister might be easily dismissed by a Conservative government.
But the BSDC’s call came as some of Britain’s biggest companies decided to write to the Prime Minister to urge her to ensure Britain was on the right path.
The signatories included supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op, financial firms like PWC, KPMG and HSBC, and various other corporate giants from BT to Coca-Cola and Mars.
“As a group of businesses investing in making our economy fit for the future, we support sustainable development in the UK. This is essential for our long-term prosperity and the wellbeing of generations to come,” they wrote.
“Sustainable development will create jobs, increase competitiveness and secure the natural resources our economy relies on.”
They asked Ms May to “demonstrate to business your commitment to deliver” the Global Goals “in the UK” and get the Government to work with the private sector on the issue.
And they specifically wrote that she should “require all departments, not only the Department for International Development, to work with business and other stakeholders to develop a [Global Goal] delivery plan. Together we can build a fairer, sustainable and more prosperous Britain.”
The Independent contacted the press offices for Downing Street and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
However, in what may be an indication of Ms May’s support for the Global Goals in the UK, the response was issued by DfID.
“The UK is committed to implementation of the Global Goals, both internationally and at home. The goals are embedded in Single Departmental Plans and progress against them will be reported in each department’s annual reports and accounts,” it said.
“The Government believes that delivering the goals will create better opportunities for business in developing countries, leading to stronger trading partners for Britain in the future – this is firmly in our national interest.
“Domestically we are delivering on this by investing in research and innovation, supporting businesses with competitive taxes and adequate financial support, and increasing employment across all sectors of UK society.
“The Government is currently developing a report outlining the UK’s contribution to implementing the goals domestically and internationally.
“The International Development Secretary is working closely with the Cabinet Office to ensure that we have a coherent, consistent cross-government response to achieve the Global Goals.
“The UK was at the forefront of ensuring the UN’s Global Goals focused on eradicating extreme poverty.
“We worked to make sure they not only finished the job of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but went further to address global challenges of our time and ensure no one is left behind.”