The State of Sustainable Development According to Professionals

The Regeneration Roadmap project recently released their report entitled, “Global Expert Perspectives on the State of Sustainable Development.” The report contains the results, with commentary, of an online survey, conducted by project partners SustainAbility and Globescan, in which 1,603 experts in 117 countries drawn from corporate, government, non-governmental, academic/research, service/media, and other organizations responded to a series of questions on the subject of Sustainable Development (SD). The survey was timed to coincide with the Rio+20 Summit in June. (Disclosure: I was a participant in the survey).

The report was divided into five major sections including: Progress over Past Two Decades, Global Institutions and Obstacles to Progress, Leadership, The Road Ahead, and  Rio+20 & the Green Economy.

There were quite a number of interesting findings, let’s look at some of them, organized by section, below.

Progress over the past twenty years.
More experts believed that economic wellbeing improved than didn’t (46% compared to 30%). The same was true for progress made on protecting the environment (45% compared to 34%). But fewer (29% compared to 44%) felt that progress had been made on creating healthier and more equitable societies.

It’s worth noting that corporate respondents had a generally rosier outlook. Overall, experts had a more optimistic view than the general public on economic progress though less so on social equity. Of seventeen specific issues, only the following three: empowering women, improving human health, and ensuring access to adequate water supplies had more “good progress” votes than “poor progress,” and not by much. The majority rated progress as poor in the issues of: Improving citizen participation in governance of SD issues, Mobilizing youth to address SD, Reducing GHG emissions, Creating more equitable societies, Educating the public on climate change, Preparing for climate change, Sustainable personal transportation, and Sustainable transport of goods and commodities.

Global institutions, nations, and obstacles to Progress
An overwhelming majority (78%) of respondents feel that the current economic system needs to change substantially in order to make significant progress toward sustainable development. Support for this item was less strong among North Americans and the corporate sector. Among countries, Scandinavia, Germany and the EU received the highest percentage of votes for managing the transition to Sustainable Development well. The fewest votes went to China, India, and the U.S.

When the same question was asked with regard to sectors, the highest percentage went to NGO’s, Social Entrepreneurs and Independent Research and Academic Organizations. Lowest on the list were private sector, multilateral organizations, international financial institutions, and national governments. Respondents from both government and the private sector rated themselves higher than the overall average. Lack of political will was listed as the largest barrier to progress, followed by vested interest in current approaches, and the complexity of the issues. Only 14% blamed the poor economy and 4% cited inadequate technology.

Despite the fact that so few respondents felt that National governments were doing a good job of managing the transition to SD, the highest percentage of respondents (44%), felt that national governments should lead the SD agenda compared to the private sector, which came in second, multi-sectoral partnerships and collaborations, or the UN. At the same time, NGO’s, which were seen as doing the best job of managing the transition to date, were ranked near the bottom of this list of suggested leaders.

What will it take to get national governments mobilized? A solid 77% of respondents felt that there will have to be major catastrophes before national government will address these entrenched global issues. If that turns out to be true then we’d best hope that those catastrophes come sooner rather than later, lest conditions continue to worsen rapidly.

The Road Ahead
When asked about setting priorities for the next five years, the top five issues were:  ensuring access to adequate water supplies, creating more equitable societies, improving resource efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and ensuring food security were nearly tied. However, all but one of these were among the top six in perceived level of difficulty in achieving progress.

The fact that these top priorities are among the most difficult to achieve points to procrastination and resistance on these issues, which has left them to fester. Only improving resource efficiency and improving citizen participation were considered both important and relatively easy to achieve. Economic instruments were assessed to be the most likely approach for furthering SD, outpacing citizen engagement, regulations, and several others.

The best ways for the private sector to contribute were judged to be through innovation and working with government to establish regulations. Finally, 81% felt that NGO’s could accomplish more by working with businesses than confronting them.

Rio+20 and the Green Economy
Respondents were primarily looking for Rio+20 to secure renewed political commitment for SD, and provide support for developing countries towards a green path for development. Substantial majorities felt the a transition to a green economy would be effective in meeting the following challenges:

  • Creating a better future for children
  • Decreasing environmental degradation
  • Changing consumption to more sustainable patterns
  • Improving quality of life
  • Increasing long term economic growth

Only 20% felt it would increase short term economic growth, or create low-paying jobs. Both of these were rated below today’s economy.

Finally, 66% of respondents felt that a fundamentally new approach to the global governance of SD is needed. This means something different than the current system which is led by the UN, with agreements between governments and inputs from business and citizens.

These are just opinions of people who work in the field, but I think they provide a pretty good snapshot of the state of sustainable development. The train is very heavy with not enough engines to pull it up the hill at any kind of speed. But despite that, a measurable amount of progress has been made, thanks to a relatively small number of very dedicated people who apparently know how to say, “I think I can.”

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: