A climate-neutral world free of hunger and poverty is a distant proposition. Still, it is achievable. If, by means of redistribution and global cooperation, we manage to create prosperity for all, democracy will profit too.
On 18 July of this year, I had the great honour to address the United Nations in New York and the heads of government that were meeting there. My feelings, on this occasion, were however decidedly mixed – I was not the bearer of good news. The great vision of the Agenda 2030 – a world without hunger and with productive, equitable, and environmentally-friendly economies – this vision has faded into the background.
That is one of the key messages of the World Sustainability Report, which, since 2020, I have been compiling for the United Nations in a joint effort with other scientists. Recently, because of COVID-19, as well as wars and conflicts, poverty and hunger have been on the rise again. Subsidies for oil, gas, and coal have doubled and the environment is being degraded through overuse, pollution, and climate change.
What is to be done? Our report presents a three-step answer: First, we know what measures need to be taken to achieve sustainable food production, renewable energies, or effective social safety nets also for the countries of the Global South. Measures that tackle more than one aspect are especially potent – such as, for example, a CO2 fee whose revenue would be used to redistribute wealth and profit the budgets of poorer countries.
Secondly, such measures have to be part of an ambitious long-term transformation strategy. Small steps will not do. Thirdly, we will have to learn how to build and sustain robust political and social support – because otherwise, we will not be able to overcome the conflicts and resistance that will naturally arise during the transformation towards a sustainable world.
For this, national and local action alone will not suffice – not even if it happens around the world. Rather, we will need to infuse the sustainability goals through international efforts into tough policy areas such as trade, finance, tax, and economics. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, head of the World Trade Organization, said as much in September 2023 in Berlin, and for this, she gave the following reasons: In the future, we will still need global economic cooperation. Globalisation, however, in order to produce prosperity for all, will need to be reconfigured in the named policy areas.
I am convinced this is true. The stupendous concentration of income and property that is a global as well as a national problem needs to be addressed by political means. What we need is an international tax accord overseen by the United Nations, an accord that regulates the global taxation of profits and prohibits the transfer of profits to low-tax countries. Plus, we need debt relief to enable countries to invest in climate adaptation and climate change mitigation.
The German government has the means to promote equitable and sustainable economies in other countries. Examples are bilateral partnerships for the extraction and processing of natural resources and climate and energy partnerships that promote renewables. Regarding fair trade with green hydrogen, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Brot für die Welt have produced a catalogue of criteria that should apply.
Democracies manifest themselves by sustainably improving everyone’s standard of living – and even more so that of those who are unable to achieve this on their own. That is true for us today, as well as for future generations. To make this a reality we will have to agree on certain transformations – and do it honestly. Some growing pains will be unavoidable.
If we achieve this aim, political parties and public institutions will be able to regain the trust they have lost by ignoring and minimising the necessary changes. Change or transformation is not an end in itself – it is necessary to protect our livelihoods.
If Germany and Europe promote an equitable reconfiguration of globalisation, it will become possible to boost the international standing of democracy and multilateral cooperation. It’s high time.
Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.