From the early 2000s, sustainability has emerged as a central policy-making consideration as climate change and population growth have heightened concerns about already-stretched natural resources. With governments, business and civil society frequently clashing at the intersection of economic policy and conjecture over future livelihood viability, sustainability has asserted itself as a precondition, a license to operate, or simply a moral imperative.

World leaders meet at the UN in New York 22 April formally to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change. The European Union is already translating the agreement into action, says Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, in this article for the OECD Yearbook 2016.

Click to enlarge

The Paris Agreement on climate change signals the end of business as usual for energy industries. For the first time in history more than 150 developed and developing countries have promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But how binding are these agreements? And do they provide impetus for local action in Africa?

China was among the near-200 countries to adopt the Paris Climate Change Agreement (Paris Agreement) at an historic UN conference in Paris, France on 12 December 2015. As an emerging economy and one of the world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases, how China implements the Paris Agreement will be important. We asked Dr Xuedu Lu of the Asian Development Bank for his views.

Citizens demand action at the UN climate change conference in Paris in November-December 2015 ©GDE AGUNG/Citizenside/AFP

The Paris Agreement is a landmark in collective efforts on climate change and is the result of many years’ hard work. It must now be implemented.

How will workers’ current skills match new requirements for labour in a green economy? So far, few countries have put in place real plans to address this question, yet there is risk of a significant mismatch between skills and jobs. Would you know who to call if your geothermal system crashes? Should construction workers learn new skills for retrofitting buildings?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions worldwide have been trending upwards for decades. A small group of large countries is responsible for the lion’s share of these global emissions.

Major floods and droughts have prevailed in many countries throughout 2015. South Africa saw the emergence of its worst drought in 30 years, Ethiopia is threatened with a major food crisis, and California suffered its fourth consecutive year of drought. Floods caused over 2 000 deaths in India last summer, while England, Paraguay and South Carolina reported unprecedented flood damage. The trouble is, climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of such extreme weather events in the coming years.

Freshwater is essential for life, yet makes up only a tiny fraction of all water on earth. In many areas, especially arid and dry regions, underground aquifers are the only source. Even in less arid regions, groundwater provides an essential resource: in fact, some 2.6 billion people worldwide rely on groundwater resources. Farming is one major reason: over 60% of irrigated agriculture in the US uses groundwater, and in Spain more than 70% of irrigation comes from below ground reserves.    

©Reuters/Stringer

The human economy is a physical system embedded in society, which itself is embedded in a finite global ecosystem. The primary goal of the economy should be to meet basic human and social needs, now and in the future, without degrading the global ecosystem services upon which all life depends. How can this be done?

Policy makers should do much more to encourage pension funds and other institutional investors to put their ample assets into sustainable energy infrastructure. The wins would be significant. The question is how? 

Click to enlarge.
See StatLink for further breakdown: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/data-00735-en

In tackling climate change, it makes sense for policymakers to know which sectors greenhouse-gas emissions are coming from. Our chart shows the main sources for European carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, including electricity supply, manufacturing, households and transportation. Household emissions are largely generated from fossil fuel energy used to heat dwellings, but some of the other industry sources are more complex.

©Romeo Gacad/AFP Photo

For many years one of the predominant conventional wisdoms in both business and policymaking circles was that cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions necessitates a sacrifice in economic growth. We now know, through the experiences of both developed and developing countries, that economic growth can complement environmental conservation and transitioning to a low-carbon economy can go hand-in-hand with increased access to economic opportunity and higher levels of well-being. 

In my first climate change lecture, nearly two years ago, my key message was that meeting the challenge of climate change required us to achieve zero net greenhouse emissions globally by the end of this century. 

OECD

A warming planet and a flat world economy have propelled the issue of investment in clean energy to the top of the policy agenda. The question has become all the more crucial in view of the landmark global summit on climate change to be held in Paris in December 2015. 

If the world is to make a dent on climate change, breaking the arm-lock of fossil fuels is inevitable. After all, limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2°C by the end of the 21st century demands curbing greenhouse-gas emissions between 40% and 70% by 2050 compared with 2010 levels, which means replacing fossil fuels–coal, oil and gas–with low-carbon energy sources and developing technologies to capture and store CO2.

©Charlotte Moreau/OECD Observer

The fates of humanity and of the environment are two sides of the same coin. That is why we must focus increasingly on not just development but sustainable development. To do that, we need to form global coalitions to work for progress on a range of challenges. Over the past few decades, humanity has made unprecedented progress. Extreme poverty has been halved. Child mortality has been halved. In just 15 years, deaths from malaria have been halved.

©Rights reserved

For the past decade or so, there has been a lot of debate in policy circles on how to get governments and the private sector to work together more collaboratively in order to catalyse the transition to green growth. The good news is that in that time many factors have come together to make this more of a reality. Governments, including in developing countries, are increasingly committed to a low-carbon future; there is, in theory, adequate capital available to finance the transition; and there has been a recent boom in the technology needed to make green growth more affordable and feasible. 

©Vandana Shiva

The year 2015 is the International Year of Soils. It is also the year the UN Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 expire, and are to be replaced by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals and their 169 targets cover a vast range of issues, but care for the soil is the foundation of sustainability and is central to practically every SDG. 

A transition to a low-carbon economy is achievable, but will require a concerted, more consistent effort across a range of policy areas, from tradeable permits to stringent norms.

Over the coming months, the world will be preparing for what is heralded as an historic meeting for climate change negotiations. If the right decisions are taken–with the aim of making a sustainable energy future a reality–we will be able to reap enormous, multiple benefits deriving not only from decarbonisation, but also from reduced air pollution, better energy access, energy security and economic prosperity. But as we all know, clean energy deployment is not where it needs to be. It is now crucial for governments and other stakeholders to take effective decisions for energy sustainability. 

Stakeholder in Virunga National Park ©Riccardo Gangale/AFP

Is it possible for 9 billion people to live on this planet and enjoy a good standard of living? And on such a planet, is it possible for economies to grow, businesses to profit, and communities to prosper without undermining the natural systems that support all life? And without destroying some of the planet’s last great wildernesses? At WWF, we believe the answer to these questions is simple: yes. We believe this even though our own Living Planet Report shows so clearly just how humanity’s use of resources is affecting our planet. It does not make for cheerful reading. Since 1970, populations of species have declined by around half. Each year, we consume 50% more resources than the planet can replenish. 

©Charlotte Moreau

Climate change and, more generally, environmental damage have quantifiable economic and health costs, which weigh on long-term growth and well-being. If left unchecked, climate change is projected to decrease global GDP by 0.7 to 2.5 % by 2060. At the same time, the costs to society of air pollution already appear substantial–equivalent to some 4% of GDP across OECD countries and even higher in some rapidly developing economies. Yet global action in the environmental domain proceeds only slowly–too slowly to be up to the challenges we face. Why is it so?

Click to enlarge. By StiK, especially for the OECD Observer.

©Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Can a durable recovery come from greener growth? That largely depends on the policies. In 2011 the OECD will deliver its Green Growth Strategy. Here are some early pointers.

“The Red Arrow”, a poem by Paul Durcan, an Irish poet, opens with the line “In the history of transport–is there any other?” Anyone looking at innovation in transport would do well to consider this line. Is history really the history of transport, more than, say, the history of wars and kings, as some would have it? It is a tempting proposition.

Japan is widely regarded as a leading innovator on the environment. We asked Japan’s Parliamentary Secretary of the Environment, Nobumori Otani, who was in Paris in early May, for his insights.

Managing local ecosystems can help create jobs and spur sustainable economic growth.

Economic data

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • COP21 Will Get Agreement With Teeth: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Bloomberg

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.

  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Unemployment
Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming
Other

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016