Why the People’s Agenda for Sustainable Development is also the Business Agenda

Sustainable Development September 2015 English infographic

The 193 member states of the United Nations last month unveiled a new global agenda for sustainable development. The 15-year plan, titled Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development, is set to be formally endorsed by world leaders in New York later this month and will come into force at the beginning of next year.

It certainly is an ambitious vision. According to the United Nations, the plan’s 17 goals and 169 targets “aim to end poverty, promote prosperity and people’s wellbeing while protecting the environment by 2030”. Building on the Millennium Development Goals, which are reported to have helped lift more than 700 million people out of poverty since 1990, the new agenda is underpinned by a bold pledge that “no one will be left behind”.

There is nothing new about sustainable development. Without embarking on a lengthy history, the term dates back at least as far as the Brundtland Report of 1987. However, the UN believes that what makes its 2030 plan unique is that “it calls for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income” to make sustainable development a reality. In fact, its member states have indicated that a business as usual approach will not get the job done and have called for “intensified international cooperation on many fronts” to help implement the new agenda.

It is worth considering where the countries of the Middle East fit into this. After all, ours is a region that defies easy categorisation. Poor, rich or middle income? We can be all of the above. Peaceful, tense or in conflict? It depends on where you look. Stable, unstable or crumbling? It depends on where you stand. The bottom line is that these distinctions cannot alleviate our obligations to future generations, and once the agenda is formally adopted, all nations will be expected to contribute to the extent that they can. For the peaceful and prosperous countries of the GCC, that capacity is significant.

The five pillars of the new 2030 agenda are People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership. I believe the sixth P should be the Private Sector, because governments and multilateral organisations cannot solve all of the world’s problems on their own. A step in the right direction was the creation of the UN Global Compact in 2000 to help companies align their strategies with the global sustainability agenda. With more than 8,000 businesses and 4,000 non-business participants recruited in the past fifteen years, the UN Global Compact represents a deep well of private-sector energy that could be rallied behind the new vision.

With this in mind, I’d like to highlight some of the most important elements of the new global agenda for 2030 in which the business community can have the biggest impact:

One of the most obvious is the empowerment of women. According to the 2030 agenda, “women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making.” The strong business case for increasing female participation in the workforce has been well-documented. Despite the overwhelming evidence, we still have a long way to go.

For example, as the Pearl Initiative highlighted in a joint report with the UN Global Compact published earlier this year, although more females than males are enrolled in higher education in the GCC, their ratio of participation in the workforce is significantly lower. It is not hard to pinpoint at least one cause for this, with the study finding that while 50 percent of GCC women surveyed aspire to a senior or board level position, only 27 percent believe their organisation is committed to having women in senior roles. Business leaders must work harder to address this gap in expectations if they are to unlock this immense value.

The environment has always been at the heart of sustainable development. The 2030 agenda envisions “a world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable.” With the writing on the wall, businesses and governments in many countries are making important changes to improve the sustainability of their natural resource use. In fact, a report published this year by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects renewable energy targets announced across the GCC will reduce the amount of water used for power generation by 22 percent by 2030.

The drive for sustainability is also creating massive commercial opportunities. According to a report published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in 2013, global business opportunities in the sustainability sector could be worth between US$3 trillion and $10tn annually in 2050. Abu Dhabi-based Masdar, which is driving the development and commercialisation of renewable energy technologies, is just one example of a home-grown enterprise that has been built to leverage the economic potential of sustainability both now and in the future.

Finally, there is a unique role for business in helping to spread the benefits of sustainable development to all. The 2030 agenda envisions “a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination”. It draws a direct link between “the full realization of human potential” and the elusive goal of “shared prosperity”. This is the essence of inclusive growth, ensuring that all people have meaningful opportunities to benefit from economic development.

All people, countries and regions can do better at fulfilling this promise. We must accept that some of the volatility that our region is experiencing could have been avoided if social and economic opportunities had been more widely available. The deepening refugee crisis confounding governments and NGOs today is also symptomatic of a world in which many see no light at the end of the tunnel for themselves or their families. These are complex challenges, but as job creators and catalysts for economic activity, well-governed businesses must be a big part of any solution.

When the new global vision for sustainable development was unveiled last month, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon referred to it as “the people’s agenda”. It truly is a call to people all over the world to make the small and large choices today that will benefit future generations. However, it is also a business agenda. After all, any business is ultimately a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. As we look to the future within our region and beyond, forward-thinking businesses that can embrace this ambitious vision will be the first to reap the benefits of a more sustainable world.

As featured in The National on 14 September 2015.

1. http://cleantechnica.com/2015/01/22/gulf-cooperation-council-energy-targets-will-reduce-water-consumption/

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