”Global Sustainability” Aalto University Student Union: International Week, 15.11.2012

First of all, let me say how glad I am to have the opportunity to participate in the Aalto University’s international week. Universities conduct much of the research that is needed to understand the challenges and devise solutions leading to sustainability.

As the Minister of Foreign Affairs I attend yearly quite a number of international meetings, conferences and negotiation events. This year I have been in Rio de Janeiro at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the so called Rio + 20, in New York participating in the United Nations General Assembly,  UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) high level session and ministerial meetings, and many others.

Of these the greatest expectations were focused on the Rio + 20 Conference. Given the state of the world today it is my conciction, that even in the best case we may have only a few decades to reach ecologically, socially and economically sustainable development. No one can know for certain if this will be possible at all.

Before the Rio + 20 Conference I said I will refrain from given my judgement on whether this is possible or not. After the Conference I am sorry to say that I can still give no better answer, because the Conference, for all the fine words of the Final Document, did not reflect the sense of urgency needed to assure us that the engagement necessary to meet the challenge of sustainability is there.

Three issues in all of these meetings tower over the rest: 1. Degradation and precarious state of environment; 2. Economic crises and 3. Social distress and inequality.

1. Degradation and the precarious state of environment

Several interlinked processes are currently affecting our environment and the conditions which the human race depends on:

Greenhouse gases are concentrating in the earth’s atmosphere and the average global temperature is rising. This is because the world economy is built on fossil fuels; they constitute over 80% of the primary energy use globally, and contribute significantly to the global warming.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the average temperature of the earth’s surface is expected to go up 1.8°C to 4°C by the year 2100 if no action is taken. Of the last ten years nine have been the hottest on record (the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

This lays a great burden on the ecosystems. The biodiversity of our planet is in peril. It has been estimated that about 20-30% of plant and animal species face a higher risk of extinction if the global average temperature goes up by more than 1.5 to 2.5°C – which now seems plausible. Many species are already now lost, forever. The nature’s capacity to provide us with ecosystem services, such as for example turning carbon dioxide and sunlight into water and nutrients has come under pressure.

Add to these problems the unsustainable water use, unsustainable agriculture, polluted cities, deforestation, and the depletion of ocean fisheries, and you start to get the picture: We are depleting our non-renewable, even renewable resources in a rate that is beyond their replacement rate, and that threatens both equality and the rights of the future generations to make their living of these resources. It threatens the viability of our whole economic model and social infrastructure.

2. Economic crises

The financial crises on 2008-2009 and the latest sovereign debt crisis have hurt economies all over the world. They have abated demand and caused countless layoffs. Globally approximately 200 million people are currently unemployed. Hundreds of millions can hardly sustain themselves and their families with their incomes. The current economic model, especially when it contracts, seems to offer safety, opportunities and stability for only a few.

The crises have exposed the weaknesses in the mechanisms of global economic governance. And – perhaps for the first time – we in Europe have been on the defensive, being accused of first living beyond our means and then paralyzing the international economy and spreading the malaise globally by our fiscal consolidation.

Slow growth is detrimental especially to the poorest countries; they need sustained, robust economic growth to raise the living standards of their citizens and to be able to provide them with the basic social services. Many of the Least Developed Countries are still off track in the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals. 75 % of their population still lives in poverty. This is not a good time for them to experience economic constraints. Actually no time is.

3. Social distress and inequality

The economic and environmental challenges add to the factors, inherent in many societies that deprive millions of people of their basic human rights. During the last 10 – 15 years we have seen an unprecedented rise in the living standards around the world. The recent World Bank statistics tell us that the number and share of the population living on less than $1.25 a day has been falling in every part of the world in the last years – even after the 2008 financial crisis. Most of the credit goes to China, where hundreds of millions of people have been raised from the poverty. But good news comes also from other continents. In Africa the share of poor people is less than 50 %, for the first time.

Simultaneously, however, the absolute number of poor people has increased and the point of gravity of poverty has moved; three-quarters of the world’s poor now live in middle income countries. Inequality has increased globally, even in countries known for their egalitarian societies, such as Finland. It can be seen in U.S., and in many European countries. Actually only in Latin America the governments have recently been successful in reducing disparities between rich and poor, thanks to measures such as determined investment in education and pioneering conditional cash transfers. 

The three dimensions of sustainability, the economic, environmental and social are to a high degree interlinked, and they add to the momentum of other developments affecting peoples’ lives, like volatile energy and high food prices and involuntary migration. They contribute to the polarization of politics and increase tensions between and within societies. Disputes are on the rise on the possession and use of scarce natural resources like water and land.


International efforts to strengthen sustainability

Sustainability is a key issue especially for you, the younger generations. It will affect your lives and future.

It has to be admitted that we, the preceding generations have not been particularly good custodians of our common planet. But some reasonable efforts have recently been made to strengthen the global sustainability.

The first UN Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, twenty years ago and the most credible effort so far to contain the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Kyoto protocol on its implementation, has its roots in the Rio conference of 1992.

After that the global sustainability has been given ever more attention by the international community.  For example the recent work of UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability– co-chaired by Presidents Tarja Halonen and Jacob Zuma of the Republic of South Africa – is of immense importance.

In June this year the so called Rio + 20 Conference was held in Brazil. As I indicated at the beginning it did not meet our expectations. Plenty of things were left open and to be agreed on in future. But something was achieved:

– An international negotiations process was agreed to be launched in order to agree on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The dead line for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, that now guide international development policy, is approaching. We have to agree on new principles and goals. The European Union and Finland as its member state wish these goals to be universal, i.e. apply to all countries. The achievement of these goals should be monitored against adequate indicators and their target values, while respecting the national circumstances and varying level of development in each country. Special problems of Least Developed Countries have to be given particular attention.

What kind of things should be included in these goals is not yet clear. Energy, water, decent employment, gender equality, health, rule of law, food security and sustainable production and consumption, among many other issues, has been proposed.

– In Rio a decision was also made to start strengthening the international governance for sustainable development. This will mean strengthening parts of the UN system, for example the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and giving more resources and stronger status to the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP. 

– It was also decided to start developing new tools to measure success and performance of our economies; the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product GNP) –like aggregated figures do not tell us whether the well being of people or nature has increased or decreased, or whether the growth has been sustainable or not. We need an internationally-agreed accounting framework to complement GDP through better measurements of national wealth and inclusion of for examples the changes in the values of services that ecosystems provide us.

All these issues and several more should be discussed and agreements on them reached by the end of 2014. In 2015 we should be able to start to implement the new Post 2015 Development Framework, as the package covering all these issues is called. We do not have too much time.

 The challenge

It is not an easy task to change the path the whole humanity is taking. It is about altering the way natural resources are used, energy is produced and consumed, legal systems are constructed or citizen’s rights understood and protected. In many cases it is about trying to change cultural and religious values or traditions of local politics.

It may cause deep rifts between countries and groups of countries. National interests are guarded jealously, intentions of other countries eyed suspiciously. Especially the poor countries fear that if sustainability is pursued vigorously, it affects their right to develop, to use their own national and human resources. Some countries are a priori suspicious concerning commonly agreed goals and targets imposed on them. Some rely more on government interventions and management, some believe in markets.

Add to all this the sheer technical complexity and diversity of issues to be agreed on, and it is no wonder that the global sustainability advances with short, slow steps.  

There is no silver bullet for the problems of global sustainability. Achieving consensus on it will require onerous, time-consuming negotiations processes. There are, however, a couple of things that are of paramount importance.

 First: We have to acknowledge the interconnectedness of a modern, globalized world, and the common interests we all share. 

Some 250 years ago Adam Smith was the first to introduce the concept of “the tragedy of commons”. It means that the self-interest of individuals tends some times to bring an unwanted result for the society as a whole. What they used as an example was – characteristically for their time – literally the use of common lands by individuals to herd their cattle, leading to depletion of common property that harms everyone. (Such commons characteristic to Finland of the late 18th century could have been forests, lakes and perhaps rivers. The ones familiar with the Finnish folklore, especially a certain tale about a woodchip drifting down a river, know that utilization of these commons was not without challenges and tensions here, either.)

But the technological progress and globalization have, by hugely expanded our ability to make use of the nature and its resources, fundamentally changed the meaning of the “commons”.  Typical commons of today are the atmosphere around us, oceans, soil or ozone layer in the stratosphere some 20 km above Earth..

Consequently, protecting the commons today requires that individuals, companies or countries abstain from maximally exploiting available opportunities to make use of nature’s resources, even though in short term it would be in their economic interest. It requires that we respect the rights of other users of these commons and somehow agree on rules of how to use them. This, in a nutshell is what Rio conferences were about. This is what the European Union has consistently tried to push through in the international negotiations – though sometimes we are criticized by other countries for just camouflaging our own interests by speaking of the sustainability and common cause. Let me assure you that this is not the case. The European Union supports consistently all efforts to strengthen global sustainability and build the necessary international structures for it.

Second: Equality, democracy and respect on human rights are essential parts of sustainability

I would like to make it crystal clear: sustainable development is not just an environmental issue. Actually it would never work if we paid attention only to environmental aspects of it. What is required is a holistic approach covering all the three dimensions of sustainability: social, economic and environmental.

This is important, since arguments against for example equality and democracy abound in the international discussions nowadays. It is said they do not fit to countries that need fast economic growth. It is claimed that inequality increases productivity, by providing people the necessary incentives to work and improve their lot. Or the saying goes that an authoritarian state is needed to orchestrate and manage production processes efficiently, in which case democracy with its tendency to shed light on the governments’ undertakings would be a sub-optimal solution.

I think it is the opposite way down. Inequality and lack of democracy slow down the economic growth; if only the children of the wealthy families are given proper education, the talent and potential of poor children and pupils are wasted. People’s chances to improve their lives are diminished. One of the crucial factors of the so called Nordic model has been the equal opportunities of all children to get good education. It is no coincidence that the equality and prosperity have since long coexisted in the Nordic countries.

The same applies to human rights. Finland, for example, promotes the human rights based approach in its development policy. We engage actively with our southern partner countries and keep human rights issues on the agenda in our dialogue with them. There are several good reasons for this. Besides development policy, we see promotion of human rights as wise and sensible economic policy, too. In our mind a human being is at his/her most productive when his/her political, economic and social rights are respected and under no threat. Sound investments – be they in infrastructure, family businesses, or personal education – need stability and security.


The various angles and aspects of sustainability are pretty well covered by the concept of Green growth. Many international organizations – OECD and the World Bank among them – nowadays devote a considerable part or their resources on analyzing it and on developing practical tools to promote it.

There is no single green growth model. Strategies vary across countries, reflecting local contexts and preferences. In Finland we talk about Green economy, thus emphasizing the wide, overarching nature of this new model. In line with the definition by UNEP, green economy aims at strengthening human well-being and social equality, is based on sustainable use of natural resources and takes into account the carrying capacity of nature as well as secures the provision of ecosystem services. The green economy is low-carbon, resource-efficient, socially inclusive and creates decent work and well-being for as many women and men as possible.

If we achieve all that, or even a substantial part of it, the global sustainability and the next decades on this planet will seem quite different from what they do now. I hope we manage to do that.

Thank you.