In our ideals are seeds for green future

Mahmoud Mohieldin says it can guide goals -and bolder actions - for the health of our planet

Achieving a more sustainable world presupposes a worldview that considers well-being not only in terms of income, but also in terms of human security and opportunities for every person to thrive. It is worth considering what the world would look like from such a perspective.

For starters, it would be a world in which people live free from conflict over land, water and space, and that ensures food security for the 739 million people who are hungry or malnourished today. Such a world would preserve the animals and plants that face extinction; draw us back from the brink of unstoppable global warming; protect sites of extraordinary natural beauty; and, for future generations, it would be a world that is more sustainable than ours.

Many people consider this idealistic. But economic growth alters the political economy of decision-making, creating space for new ideas to thrive. And one of those ideas is that growth is unsustainable unless it is inclusive and green.

We need to break the myth that greener growth is more costly. Smart policy can help us overcome short-term constraints, deeply entrenched behaviour and social norms, and develop innovative financing instruments.

Similarly, we need more comprehensive wealth accounts. Countries have long used national income accounts to describe economic performance. A more accurate portrait must also account for natural and social assets.

We must also protect our oceans, mangroves and grasslands. With less than 1per cent of ocean space protected, and only a small fraction affected by well-considered policies or international treaties, opportunities abound to improve the oceans' health.

Likewise, the need for concerted action to limit greenhouse-gas emissions is beyond doubt. While the politics of global agreements plays out, we need to take action. More thoughtful urban planning, more efficient transport systems, better management of forests, agricultural techniques that help to sequester carbon, cleaner and more affordable energy, and appropriate pricing of dirty fuels can all move us in the right direction.

Above all, we must use goals to focus policy. And once we set goals, we need reliable information systems to assess progress towards achieving them.

"Think globally, act locally" has long been a useful rallying call for the health of the planet. But the magnitude of the problems that we face also compels us to act globally. As the agreements reached at Rio+20 are implemented, the global community should resolve to take even bolder action in the next 20 years to foster sustainability.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Idealism provides the seeds for a green future