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For twenty years, the international community has aspired to integrate the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability, but no country has yet achieved patterns of consumption and production that could sustain global prosperity in the coming decades. A new agenda will need to set out the core elements of sustainable lifestyles that can work for all.

EXAMPLE This story from the World Bank shows the power of green growth.

The Panel is convinced that national and local governments, businesses and individuals must transform the way they generate and consume energy, travel and transport goods, use water and grow food. Especially in developed countries, incentives and new mind-sets can spark massive investment in moving towards a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, while promoting more sustainable and more efficient consumption and production. Developing countries, when they get access to new technologies, can leapfrog straight to new, more sustainable and more efficient consumption and production. Both approaches are simply smart public policy.

It is sometimes argued that global limits on carbon emissions will force developing countries to sacrifice growth to accommodate the lifestyles of the rich, or that developed countries will have to stop growing so that developing countries can develop – substituting one source of pollution for another. We do not believe that such trade-offs are necessary. Mankind’s capacity for innovation, and the many alternatives that already exist, mean that sustainable development can, and must, allow people in all countries to achieve their aspirations.

At least one-third of the activities needed to lower global carbon emissions to reasonable levels, such as switching to LED lighting to conserve electricity, more than pay for themselves under current market conditions. Consumers will pay more up front if they can see future savings clearly and if the right incentives are in place to make the switch. Examples abound of smart, feasible, cost-effective, green economy policies: improved vehicle aerodynamics, constructing buildings for energy efficiency, recycling waste, generating electricity from landfill gas—and new technologies are constantly coming on-stream. But concerted efforts are needed to develop and adopt them.

There are other ways to reduce carbon emissions at very little cost; for example restoring soil, managing grasslands and forests in a sustainable way.18 Healthcare costs can fall significantly with a switch to clean transport or power generation, helping offset the costs. But incentives – taxes, subsidies and regulations – must be in place to encourage this – incentives that are largely not in place now. With the right incentives, and some certainty about the rules, many of the world’s largest companies are prepared to commit themselves to moving to sustainable modes of production on a large scale.

In developing countries too, the benefits of investing in sustainable development are high, especially if they get access to new technologies. Small investments to allow cross-border trading in electricity could save sub-Saharan Africa $2.7 billion every year, by substituting hydro for thermal power plants.19 Sustainable production is far cheaper than “Grow now, clean later.”

Already, some industries have developed global standards to guide foreign investment in sustainable development. Examples can be found in mining, palm oil, forestry, agricultural land purchases, and banking. Certification and compliance programmes put all companies on the same footing.

As more industries develop sustainability certification, it will be easier for civil society and shareholders to become watchdogs, holding firms accountable for adhering to industry standards and worker safety issues, and being ready to disinvest if they do not. Today, however, only 25 per cent of large companies report to shareholders on sustainability practices; by 2030, this should be commonplace.