Without immediate action and a global shift in priorities, the world will not be able to feed its growing population in the coming decades, according to a new report from a United Nations panel. The UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability released its report, titled “Resilient people, resilient planet,” this week.

The report’s authors note that the world's population is likely to grow to nearly 9 billion by 2040 from 7 billion now. Also, the number of middle-class consumers will increase by 3 billion over the next 20 years, creating rapid growth in global food demand. By 2030 the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water, according to the report.

The panel writes its long-term vision “is to eradi­cate poverty, reduce inequality and make growth inclusive, and production and consumption more sustainable, while combating climate change and respecting a range of other plan­etary boundaries.”

The authors note that an earlier report, 25 years ago, argued that sustainable devel­opment could be achieved by an integrated policy framework embracing three pillars of sustainable development -- economic growth, social equality and environmental sustainability. “The Brundtland report was right then, and it remains right today,” the panel says. “The problem is that, 25 years later, sustainable development remains a generally agreed concept, rather than a day-to-day, on-the-ground, practical reality. The Panel has asked itself why this is the case, and what can now be done to change that.”

Noting that sustainable development is not a destination, but a dynamic process toward recognizing, understanding and acting on interconnections, particularly those between the economy, society and the natural environment, the panel maintains the world is not yet on this path. “Progress has been made,” they write, “but it has been neither fast nor deep enough, and the need for further-reaching action is growing ever more urgent.”

The panel offers a list of 56 specific recommendations under three broad categories.

Empowering people to make sustainable choices

Today, the panel says, globalization and the pressures on natural resources mean that individual choices can have global consequences. “For too many of us, however, the problem is not unsustainable choices, but a lack of choices in the first place. Real choice is only possible once human rights, basic needs, human security and human resilience are assured. Priority areas for empowering people include:

  • Deliver on the fundamentals of development: international commitments to eradi­cate poverty, promote human rights and human security and advance gender equality.
  • Advance education for sustainable development, including secondary and vocational education, and building of skills to help ensure that all of society can contribute to solu­tions that address today’s challenges and capitalize on opportunities.
  • Create employment opportunities, especially for women and youth, to drive green and sustainable growth.
  • Enable consumers to make sustainable choices and advance responsible behavior individually and collectively.
  • Manage resources and enable a twenty-first-century green revolution: agriculture, oceans and coastal systems, energy and technology, international cooperation.
  • Build resilience through sound safety nets, disaster risk reduction and adaptation planning.

Moving toward a sustainable economy

Achieving sustainability requires a transformation of the global economy, the panel maintains. “Tinkering on the mar­gins will not do the job. The current global economic crisis, which has led many to question the performance of existing global economic governance, offers an opportunity for signifi­cant reforms. It gives us a chance to shift more decisively towards green growth — not just in the financial system, but in the real economy.”

Policy action, they write, is needed in a number of key areas, including:

  • Incorporate social and environmental costs in regulating and pricing of goods and services, as well as addressing market failures.
  • Create an incentive road map that increasingly values long-term sustainable develop­ment in investment and financial transactions.
  • Increase finance for sustainable development, including public and private funding and partnerships to mobilize large volumes of new financing.
  • Expand how we measure progress in sustainable development by creating a sus­tainable development index or set of indicators.

Strengthening institutional governance  

To achieve sustainable development, the panel stresses a need to build an effective framework of institutions and decision-making processes at the local, national, regional and global levels.

Priority areas for action include:

  • Improve coherence at the sub-national, national and international levels.
  • Create a set of sustainable development goals.
  • Establish a periodic global sustainable development outlook report that brings together information and assessments currently dispersed across institutions and anal­yses them in an integrated way.
  • Make a new commitment to revitalize and reform the international institutional frame­work, including considering the creation of a global sustainable development council.

The report is available online from the United Nations.