The greatest challenge of the century is to meet the needs of current and future generations, of a large and growing world population, while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of the natural environment. The current development model places unsustainable pressures on the natural resources – forests, land, water and the atmosphere – and an increasing frequency and intensity of natural and humanitarian disasters. The paper agrees with increasing evidence that business-as-usual is not an option, but it takes issues with many of the suggested policy responses. Human wellbeing is inseparably linked to economic growth, and economic growth inevitably has environmental implications. While it is impossible to decouple these linkages, countries can promote more sustainable development pathways by altering these linkages. To this end, they have three principle policy levers, which will need to complement each other: Efforts to promote more inclusive economic growth, efforts to increase resource-efficiency, and efforts to address and harness demographic changes.
Michael Herrmann, Senior Adviser on Population and Economics with the United Nations Population Fund addresses that efforts to promote sustainable development depend on three principle policy interventions. In his article ” The challenge of sustainable development and the imperative of green and inclusive economic growth” published in Modern Economy, 2014, No. 5
Although the current discussion often suggests that the promotion of green economies will also make a contribution towards more inclusive economies, the author is skeptical. He argues that there are no reasons to assume that green economies are more or less inclusive than brown economies. This does not make the green economy less important and desirable; it just means that efforts to encourage more inclusive economies will remain important as well. The promotion of the green economy will change the patterns of consumption and production – what we consume and produce, how we consume and produce, and how we use natural resources and recycle waste – but the shift towards green economies does necessarily mean lower levels of consumption and production. There are transitory costs, associated with the contraction of old industries and the expansion of new industries, but there does not need to be a negative net effect on economies.
But efforts to promote greener and more inclusive economies are not enough to ensure sustainable development pathways, if they are nor complemented by efforts to address and harness demographic changes. Michael Herrmann takes issue with the perception demographic change cannot be determined by policies, or that it can only be determined through policies that infringe on fundamental human rights and freedoms. Whether the world population will indeed grow to over 9 billion by mid-century and level off at about 10 billion by the end of the century, or grow instead to over 10 billion by mid-century and to about 16 billion by the end of the century depends on policies that countries pursue today. He says that countries can shape future population trajectories through policies that not only respect, but strengthen fundamental human rights and freedoms. They include assurance of sexual and reproductive health and rights of people, efforts to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care information and services. Every woman everywhere must have access to such health care services, including voluntary family planning, and all couples everywhere should be able to decide on the number, timing and spacing of their children. These measures, together with education beyond the primary level, and the empowerment of women, will make a world of difference for families and societies. Michael Herrmann says that such measures will help to curb infant, child and maternal mortality; the spread of communicable diseases; unintended pregnancies of adolescents; the psychological, physical and financial burden of diseases; and that these measures will also contribute lower fertility, slower population growth, demographic transition and more sustainable development.
But population dynamics do not only pose challenges to sustainable development, they also provide important opportunities. A fall in fertility levels and slower population growth creates an opportunity for countries to realize a demographic dividend; and an increasing concentration of people in urban areas provides opportunities for countries to benefit from economies of scale. In urban areas people, adjusted for their income levels, have lower energy consumption than in rural areas, and in urban areas, authorities can provide essential goods and services at lower costs per person than in rural areas. Furthermore, migration enables people to adjust to changing and adverse social, economic and environmental conditions and seek for a better life elsewhere. While these population dynamics can provide important opportunities for sustainable development, countries will need to take an active role in realizing these opportunities. Unplanned urbanization, for example, can also turn out to be a major challenge for sustainability. It is therefore important that countries use population data and projections for planning of rural, urban and national development.
While there is a growing recognition of the importance of greener and more inclusive economies, there is so far little recognition of the importance of rights-based population policies. Yet, without decisive policy changes in all three areas, Michael Herrmann argued, sustainable development remains an elusive objective.
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