As David Cameron meets today to discuss the Millenium Development Goals, he must not forget the environment

We have made progress on world poverty, but if the environment continues to suffer, thousands will be put at risk

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The past twenty years have seen solid progress in terms of international development, with the number of people worldwide living in absolute poverty falling from 2 billion to around 1.3 billion, an achievement spurred by the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs have also ramped up progress on child mortality, primary school enrolment, access to clean water and other human development targets.

But the same period has also seen greenhouse gas emissions rising by 2-3% a year, while water scarcity, biodiversity losses, and land degradation have all increased. We are left with a contradiction: progress on human development is now being threatened by the deterioration of our environment.

As the High-Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda convenes in London for their second meeting, there is still debate on the appropriate focus for their discussions (see the website for recommendations). One thing that most agree on is that the post-2015 goals should finish the job of the MDGs. But in doing this, they must not lose sight of is the sustainability of development.

Lessons from current climate negotiations reveal that long-term action on the environment and climate is essential

The panel is tasked by the UN Secretary General to recommend "how to build and sustain broad political consensus on an ambitious yet achievable Post-2015 development agenda around the three dimensions of economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability". These three ‘pillars’, have underpinned thinking about sustainable development for more than three decades.

However, this has encouraged people to see each pillar separately, and to address each dimension of sustainable development in isolation. The difficulties in reconciling approaches to development and to the environment have reinforced this tendency. Most starkly, single-minded focus on GDP growth (the economic pillar) has actively contributed to environmental deterioration.

Current understanding of the deep interconnectivity – indeed, inseparability – of the economy, society and the environment suggests that the pillar metaphor has passed its use-by date. More apt, perhaps, would be to see the three dimensions of sustainable development as intertwined, forming a triple helix – the ‘DNA of development’.

Embedded in this triple helix is the need to address climate change, the economy and society together.

The challenge

What’s the scale of this challenge? According to one recent study, climate change already costs the world $1.2 trillion, a figure that looks set to keep rising, with drastic results for the world’s poorer countries. Economic losses due to such disasters amount to over $100 million a year. Energy consumption is predicted to increase by 50% by 2050 at a time when more prosperity for more people will put even greater pressure on the environment in the future.

With accelerating climate change, and its associated impacts on livelihood opportunities, disasters, food prices, health, biodiversity, and the risk of conflict, coupled with increasing resource consumption, it would be strange indeed if these challenges were not embedded in the post-2015 development goals.

This adds, however, to the political complexity of reaching an agreement. A key area of tension is that consumption goals or targets for richer countries, as part of a wider framework of goals, would be necessary to stay within environmental limits and to provide a safe space for poverty reduction in poor countries.

We need long-term goals

One thing is clear: the goals must be at once universal and particular. They must address levels of resource use and efficiency worldwide as well as reflecting differences between countries (in levels of development, wealth and resource endowments). Any other agreement would be unfair.

As for the HLP, the diversity and sheer complexity of the many issues they are expected to address could lead, at one extreme, to a restrained focus on clearly achievable, and therefore politically acceptable, specific goals, or, at the other extreme, to ambitious all-encompassing goals that are impossible to deliver because they are the responsibility of everyone (and therefore of no-one).

Lessons from current climate negotiations reveal that long-term action on the environment and climate is essential, with short-term injections of resources unlikely to generate the progress required. It is essential that post-2015 goals look ahead to 2050 and beyond. Countries can help to shift public-policy concerns from the short to the longer-term, and scientifically backed environmental targets (such as a 2 degrees centigrade rise in global temperatures) can create political momentum and a focus for mobilising action.

An integrated set of goals is an opportunity that cannot be missed. Without acknowledging the triple helix, we will delay, perhaps indefinitely, the realisation of sustainable development for all.

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