Helen Clark: “Our World in 2050: More Equitable and Sustainable – or Less?”

Nov 7, 2012

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
“Our World in 2050: More Equitable and Sustainable – or Less?”
Address to the World Affairs Council of Northern California

6:30pm, 7 November 2012
San Francisco, California

I thank the World Affairs Council for inviting me to deliver this lecture as part of its ongoing mini-series: “Spotlight on Development Challenges”.

As Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, I find the topic of this lecture series and the Council’s interest in what the world might look like in 2050 particularly relevant to our work to help address one of humanity’s most pressing challenges: how to lift human development while staying within planetary boundaries. 

It is timely to raise these issues, just months after the conclusion of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 and when UN Member States are beginning discussions around the post-2015 development framework, which could guide development thinking and work for years to come. 

The title of my lecture tonight is “Our World in 2050: More Equitable and Sustainable – or Less?” 

Let me begin by putting the year 2050 into perspective.  It sounds far away. Yet, with half of the world’s population today under the age of thirty, and current global life expectancy at almost seventy years, we can expect that more than half of all people alive today will also be alive in 2050.  It is not some theoretical year in a science fiction future.

This is not to say that if 2050 weren’t on our horizon, the responsibilities towards future generations would be less compelling.  In 1987, the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

That definition has guided the work of UNDP ever since. It reflects a fundamental tenet of justice: that no one should be denied the ability or opportunity to live lives they value because of their gender, ethnicity, religion, or any other factor, including, in this case, the generation in which they happen to be born.

Recognizing that our actions today impact on our world of tomorrow, acting accordingly is necessary for achieving the ‘future we want’ – the call emerging from Rio+20.

My lecture tonight will address three issues:

  • First, I will examine global drivers of change which affect how the world may look in 2050;
  • Second, I will argue that poverty, inequity, and environmental sustainability are inter-linked global challenges and need to be tackled concurrently;
  • Third, I will examine how countries and communities, guided by global norms and standards, are employing innovative approaches to address these challenges in integrated ways.

1. Global Drivers of Change and Projections to 2050

So what are some of the trends and projections identified by researchers as critical in shaping the world of 2050? I will focus on three major drivers of change involving population dynamics, environmental constraints, and geopolitical shifts.

a. Demographic pressures and urbanization

According to UN estimates, the global population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050 – some 2.3 billion more inhabitants on our planet than we have today.  This demographic trend is expected to be associated with rapid urbanization and ageing. Both are important considerations for development planning.

Urban areas are expected to absorb all this population growth.  Currently more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas, but that ratio is not consistent across all regions. It is expected to be reached in Asia by 2020, and in Africa in 2035.

By 2050, therefore, the urban population is due almost to double, from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion, and to make up around 68 per cent of the total world population. Most of this urban growth will be concentrated in developing countries.

The World Health Organization projects that by 2050 the proportion of the world’s population over 60 will double from the eleven per cent of 2000 to 22 per cent. In 2050, for the first time in history, the number of older persons (over 60 years) will exceed the number of the young (under 15 years). 

Both challenges and opportunities arise out of this projected rapid population growth, and related ageing and urbanization.  To name just some:

  • Food supply will need to be adequate for this large population. That creates opportunities for the world’s farmers and food processors, but there will need to be considerable adaptation to the more extreme and volatile climatic conditions which are already affecting food production;
  • Pension and social security systems will need to be fine tuned to be affordable for those populations which live much longer and work later in life;
  • Health care systems will need to cater for the needs of significantly more older persons, and for the expected increase in non-communicable diseases. These diseases, often thought of as a problem of developed countries, are now posing significant challenges in developing countries too;
  • Urban planning and urban governance systems will need to be updated to address dramatic increases in the demand for housing, electricity, water, health, education, transport, energy, and other services;
  • Triggers and consequences of social unrest – including poverty, violence, and inequality – will need to be monitored and addressed;
  • Developing countries could experience a significant demographic dividend from their dynamic youth populations, but only if there is significant investment in the potential of young people, and if jobs and opportunity creation become a specific and high priority of public policy.

While this list of challenges is long, it is also true that demographic trends are largely predictable and can be planned for at an early stage.  They are also not as contested as the next area I will discuss, which relates to the environmental pressures on the planet. 

b. Climate Change, Pressures on Natural Resources, and Disaster Risks

Climate change is a major challenge to development today. The OECD estimates that carbon emissions will more than double, from 1990 levels, by 2050.  That increasingly puts already hard-won development gains at risk, introducing more complexity to our work as development actors. 

There is broad scientific agreement that without urgent action the world will move beyond what has been termed its ‘planetary boundaries’ for climate and on other dimensions. For climate, we are told that means ‘irreversible and catastrophic change.’ For biodiversity, it means the disappearance of species. For water, it can mean not only hardship, but also more conflict over access to a scares resource. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that increases in extreme weather are already a discernible trend. The impact of that includes the depletion of natural resources, threatening food security and livelihoods; more frequent natural disasters, from flooding to heat waves and droughts; and an increase in the incidence of natural resource-related conflicts both within and across borders.

Of particular concern to me is that the groups and individuals which are already disadvantaged face the harshest repercussions from environmental degradation.  That is because:

  • the poor disproportionately rely on access to natural resources for their livelihoods.  Women and girls in developing countries, who often bear the responsibility for collecting fuel and water, face extra burdens when these resources become scarcer and lie further away from home. 
  • The growth of informal settlements in many countries, fuelled by urbanization and migration, has led to the growth of unstable living environments. Vulnerable and marginalized communities are impacted more from natural disasters because of this. I saw the impact of this when visiting the neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which cling to deep ravines.  They were destabilized by the January 2010 earthquake, and are threatened by landslides and/or flooding in extreme weather.

With the expected rapid expansion of urban communities by 2050, the challenges for cities will be even greater.  The poor will continue to carry a “double burden” of exposure to environmental risks, both in their immediate home environment from air and water pollution and lack of sanitation, and from such long-term global trends as extreme weather hazards and rising sea levels. 

Conflict over natural resources is also more likely to erupt where there is poor governance, with bad or inequitable management of land and other resources. This will be exacerbated by the environmental and demographic pressures the world will face in 2050.

c. Globalization, shifts in geo-political dynamics, and role of non-state actors

We live in an era of unprecedented globalization and interdependence, where the impacts of policies, decisions, and initiatives in one place can ripple across the globe. 

Most recently, the crisis generated in the markets of the North spread to all corners of the earth, affecting the poorest and most distant nations which experienced weaker demand and lower prices for their exports, higher volatility in capital flows and commodity prices, and lower remittances. 

But this interdependence can also bring benefits in the form of new job opportunities and the spread of innovation and technologies which accelerate development. We see in Africa how information and communication technologies are bringing services like mobile banking to previously underserved populations – and there are countless other applications of these technologies too.  

The rise of the major economies in the South, and ongoing political transformations in the Arab states region and elsewhere, are already impacting on traditional patterns of global economic and political governance, as well as on development co-operation frameworks. 

The drivers of change in geopolitics include:

  • The waves of democratization – in Europe following the end of the Cold War, in Latin America following the era of the generals, in parts of South East Asia, and in the Arab states region.
  • The emergence of mega economies in the South, with China, India, and Brazil, already among the world’s ten largest economies.
  • South-South co-operation, through technical assistance, grants, loans, trade, investment, and knowledge sharing, is growing fast.  

Greater realization that global public goods cannot be secured and protected by one nation alone, and that emerging threats and challenges require co-ordinated action, have led to new partnerships not only between countries, but also with non-state actors across the private sector, civil society, and mega-philanthropic foundations. The role of the non-state actors in local, national, regional, and global development and discourse can only grow. 

From Trends to Projections

The demographic, environmental, economic, and geopolitical trends, I have described, will have a direct impact on how poverty eradication and development broadly are addressed, and how the world of 2050 is shaped. 

Whether that world will be more equitable and sustainable – or less – depends on the policy choices made at the global, national, company, and societal levels.   

At each level, decision-makers will need to be agile to address emerging challenges which we cannot foresee today, and to do so through new partnerships and innovation.  Forty years ago the HIV/AIDS pandemic had yet to emerge. When it did, it had a serious impact on development in a number of countries, including through life expectancy falling, the rising costs of treatment impacting on health and development budgets, a loss of productivity, an increased burden on women, and growth in the numbers of orphaned children without adequate support.

Trends and risks can be modeled to enable us to plan and to inform policy decisions.  UNDP’s 2011 global Human Development Report (HDR) on equity and sustainability produced a range of different scenarios for what our world could look like in 2050, based on how much progress was made on combating inequality and environmental risks.

Before I delve into these, let me define ‘human development,’ the paradigm within which UNDP has consciously worked since the production of its first global Human Development Report in 1990.  Human development is seen as enlarging people’s choices and freedoms, and enabling them to live long and healthy lives, be educated, and have a decent standard of living. 

Using the Human Development Index, which encompasses health and education components alongside GDP, UNDP’s annual Human Development Report ranks countries according to this composite measure, believing it to be a better measure of development than GDP alone.

The 2011 Human Development Report constructed three scenarios, modeling different trends in environmental degradation and inequality, and their consequence on human development over the next four decades. 

The "base case" scenario, and in this case the “best case” scenario, assumes limited changes in inequality and environmental threats and risks. It anticipates that the global HDI could be nineteen per cent higher by 2050 than it is today. That would represent a rate of progress in lifting human development similar to that achieved between 1990 and 2010.

On these projections, HDI would increase faster in developing countries, leading to ongoing convergence of development status.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, the HDI would increase by 44 per cent – the biggest increase in any region of the world, and one which would propel much of the continent into what are now classified as medium or high levels of human development. 

But the Report also has a sobering central message: that this scenario is very unlikely to materialise, unless we take bold steps now to avert future environmental calamities, ensure no further environmental degradation, and reduce deep inequalities within and among nations. 

An “environmental challenges" scenario was then constructed, which takes into account, among other things, the impact of global warming on agricultural production; challenges related to water, sanitation, and pollution; and growing inequality and its consequences - such as a higher probability of intrastate conflict. In this model, the increase in the global HDI was predicted to be eight percentage points lower than in the "base case" scenario, and twelve percentage points lower for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Under an even more adverse "environmental disaster” scenario, which amplified the magnitude of the impacts modeled, the global HDI would be fifteen percentage points below the "base case" scenario in 2050. The most dramatic impact of that would be on Sub-Saharan Africa, which would fall 24 percentage points below the “base case" scenario, and on South Asia which would fall 22 percentage points below.

Overall this worst-case scenario would see human development progress slow to a crawl, and actually regress in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by 2050. There is surely a compelling need for action at every level to prevent this scenario materialising.

2. A renewed focus on inequality and sustainability

The key message emerging from our 2011 HDR and its projections is that to maintain and accelerate human development progress we must tackle inequality and sustainability together. 

The 1995 Human Development Report identified three essential elements of the human development paradigm:

  • Equality of opportunity for all people in society;
  • Sustainability of such opportunities from one generation to the next; and,
  • Empowerment of people so that they participate in – and benefit from – development processes.

Last year’s report on equity and sustainability demonstrated that these elements, beyond being conceptually important to the framework, were also important for getting development results.

Indeed, this call for a renewed focus on sustainability and equity has also come from other scholars whose work demonstrates that poverty, inequity, and environmental sustainability are inter-linked global challenges.

And global leaders agree.  The Rio+20 outcome document concludes that sustainable development is the only viable path for development. It highlights how environmental protection and economic development are linked, and gives, for the first time at a global conference of this kind, equal emphasis to the social – or people-centered - dimension of sustainable development.

The Resilient People, Resilient Planet report of the Secretary General’s High Level Global Sustainability panel, issued ahead of Rio+20, suggested that “most economic decision- makers still regard sustainable development as extraneous to their core responsibilities.” Yet integrating the environmental and social dimensions can be vital to the success of economic decisions.  

As we approach 2050, the more polluted and unequal our world becomes, the more governments will need to view environmental and social protection systems not as luxuries to be acquired when countries become wealthy, but as necessities, vital to sustain development and meet the needs of citizens.  The costs of such mitigation then will be much higher if we don’t take action now.  This was a central message of Nicholas Stern’s landmark report to the British Government in 2006 on the need for urgent action on climate change.   

This conclusion is increasingly compelling for developing countries with restless young populations, overstretched services, rapidly expanding cities, and growing exposure to disaster risk. The challenges are especially daunting for small island countries faced with obliteration from rising sea levels, and for other poor countries also bearing the brunt of extreme climate events – including through the deadly droughts regularly affecting parts of Africa, and the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

But let me also talk a little more about the links between inequality and development. Debates around income inequality, especially as seen in the recent “occupy” movements around the world, have often been framed as ideological and not relevant to development outcomes. 

Yet, in their 2009 book “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger”, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated that more equal societies do better on most measures of human wellbeing, and that these benefits are accrued not only by the poorest, but also by all segments of society. 

A major essay on "Income Inequality and the Conditions of Chronic Poverty" in a recent UNDP publication describes the potential mechanisms involved, asserting that: "High and rising inequality also reduces the likelihood that economic and social policies fostering inclusive growth and human development will be delivered and implemented. For instance richer groups may secure economically inefficient advantages such as regressive taxes or an allocation of public funds for their own interest rather than for that of the country."

This concern has been raised by a range of leading thinkers, from Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz to Robert Putnam, who postulate that more unequal societies, where levels of trust and social cohesion are low, are less likely to invest in public goods and infrastructure – such as conserving the environment, public health, or improving education systems.  Yet such investments are critical for the well-being of current and future generations.

When we think about sustaining development, we must take into account the stocks of our capital – economic, human, social, and environmental – and how much of those stocks we are bequeathing our children.  Rising inequality can have a negative impact on all of them. 

At times, this impact is highly visible - when rising inequality, for example, leads to violence and armed conflict with human, social, economic, and environmental costs, and thus blight an entire society’s development trajectory.  At other times, the impact may be less visible, but rising inequality nonetheless may be leading to the rich and poor in a society living such separate lives that they cannot imagine a shared future worth working for together, and therefore cannot take the steps needed to achieve it. 

As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz reminds us: “growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity.” 

It is rather important that the post-2015 global development agenda which is now being debated should see promoting greater equality and environmental sustainability as linked goals.  That is needed to sustain the development gains of the last forty years, and ensure that future generations will not be worse off than those of the present.

3.  What are the policy choices and interventions that can ensure a more equitable and sustainable 2050?

Let me now look at some of the approaches that can, and have been taken to tackle poverty, inequality, and sustainability by: a) building consensus on the ‘future we want’ at the global level; b) making smart policy decisions at the country level; and, c) finding innovative solutions at the local level.

a. Building consensus at the global level

A challenge which policy-makers face in promoting sustainable development is that electoral cycles and related political pressures lead to a shorter-term focus.

That can mean that the priorities of the day are addressed in a piecemeal fashion, and that longer-term risks are inadequately addressed.  This is where the UN, with its role in building consensus around norms and setting long-term global development goals and targets can help chart a way forward. 

The Millennium Development Goals were successful in focusing development efforts and mobilizing diverse actors around a common cause over a long-term horizon of fifteen years. Governments performing well and keeping their countries on track to meet the goals are recognized at regularly held UN conferences, and those needing increased support from the international community are identified.

Rio+20 reiterated the need to accelerate progress to meet the MDGs by 2015, something UNDP is fully committed to supporting, and also agreed to craft “sustainable development goals”.

In addition, it drew attention to the pressing need for universal access to modern and reliable energy services, at the same time as there is also a need to move away from the high level of dependence on fossil fuels.

Member states noted the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative, which includes three targets for 2030:

  • achieving universal access to modern energy services;
  • doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix; and
  • doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency worldwide.

Of the US$500 billion pledged through voluntary commitments at Rio+20, more than sixty per cent were dedicated to this initiative, indicating that global targets can encourage financial support to complement political commitment needed for change.

The UN Secretary-General also issued an ambitious challenge to achieve “zero hunger” in his lifetime. Specifically he called for a world in which:

  • everyone has access to sufficient levels of nutritious food all year round;
  • there is no malnutrition in pregnancy and early childhood;
  • all food systems are sustainable;
  • smallholder farmers have the inputs and opportunities they need to double their productivity and income; and,
  • food losses stemming from waste, poor storage capacity, and infrastructure are brought to an end.

Policy decisions at different levels can help meet these goals. For example, investments in sustainable agriculture have the potential to alleviate food insecurity and malnutrition, mitigate climate change, and protect the environment. As well, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that these investments have the potential to create up to fifty million more jobs by 2050. 

Building consensus around where we want our world to be in 2030, 2040, and 2050 is a necessary step; concerted action by governments, NGO and civil society actors, the private sector, philanthropists, and researchers could help us get there.

b. Action at the country level

To be successful, countries will need to adopt integrated policy-making and pursue objectives across the three strands of sustainable development – economic, environmental, and social – simultaneously.  That requires effective public administrations and governance systems, and broad buy-in from diverse stakeholders.

UNDP is committed to supporting countries to develop these capacities and plans for green and inclusive economies, which can achieve national development priorities while limiting future emissions and responding to the needs of vulnerable, poor, and excluded groups and communities.

In our recently published report, “Triple Wins for Sustainable Development”, we show through case studies how integrated policies actually work in synergy and challenge the outdated thinking which views economic growth as antithetical to environmental protection. 

Some successful examples include:

  • Brazil's Bolsa Verde (or Green Grant) programme, creating income transfers, targeted specifically for families in extreme poverty, which promote environmental conservation in areas where they live and work.
  • Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Programme which, to date, has provided income and predictable food supply to more than eight million beneficiaries in 300 food-insecure districts. Those participating in the scheme work on environmental conservation, water management, and terracing, building greater resilience to climate extremes for the future.
  • India's Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has delivered a minimum of one hundred days’ work a year to eligible rural poor, with a quota for women's participation, on projects determined by village councils with a focus on environmental rehabilitation and water conservation. This scheme now benefits upwards of 46 million households.

Through South-South co-operation, developing countries can share such best practice and lessons learned, and UNDP will continue to be a strong partner in promoting this.

c. Innovation and partnership at the local level

Beyond what the international community and governments can do, the significance and relevance of global summits ultimately lie in their ability to connect with and influence what people are doing on the ground around the world to “think globally while acting locally”. 

Rio+20, with its huge engagement of sub-national governments, NGOs, communities, and businesses, can be seen as promoting bottom-up leadership for sustainable development, based on pragmatic, multi-sectoral, issue-based coalitions. In the end, what will motivate governments to act is the knowledge that there is a groundswell for change.

Innovative initiatives at the local level, shown to be successful, can be scaled up.  In my work, I encounter countless examples of successful community-based action.  In Senegal, recently, I met local women replanting and then protecting the mangrove forests, which, once re-established, nurture fish and shell fish stocks, thus generating new sources of incomes for their families. 

 The important role of philanthropic organizations in building partnerships for the future is also worth highlighting.  Venture philanthropy can help spur innovation and solutions for addressing sustainability and equality, among other things, which can be adopted by local communities and then scaled up.


In my remarks tonight I have examined different global drivers of change – demographic, environmental, economic, and geopolitical, and the policy choices needed to ensure the world is more equitable and sustainable in 2050.

Understanding trends and applying sophisticated modeling techniques can help us plan for the future. But ultimately political will and strong leadership, at every level, is needed to dedicate adequate human and financial resources to tackle the challenges identified, find innovative solutions, and build strong partnerships.

I have highlighted successful examples of such action, from every corner of the globe. Speaking here in the Bay area – a global hub for technological innovation and social entrepreneurship, as well a community which respects the diversity of people and protects the environment, I am optimistic that the world can be more equal and sustainable in 2050.  

I look to all of you to be part of the discussion on the post-2015 development framework, and to share your ideas, creativity, and dedication to help shape the “future we want”. 


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