Former UN member discusses a roadmap to global sustainability

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the Byker auditorium filled with students and community members alike, eager to hear Donald Lee, the former senior development economist for the United Nations, discuss a roadmap to global sustainability. Lee served as the senior development economist for the UN for twenty years and has a Ph.D. in economics from University College, London. Throughout his career he has championed human rights, social justice and environmental protection. On Wednesday he detailed environmental issues the Earth currently faces and the sustainable development goals the UN has put forth as an attempt to overcome these issues while simultaneously enhancing the quality of life for all people.

Lee started the night by talking about the nine planetary boundaries experts have identified that define a safe operating space for humanity. Lee said, “these are boundaries for processes and systems that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system.” If all nine boundaries were passed, it would likely mean the end of human life on Earth. Experts claim humanity has already raced past four of the boundaries: climate change, loss of biodiversity, excessive nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans, and deforestation and changing land use. Humans are approaching the other five boundaries; ocean acidification, freshwater supply, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols and chemical pollution; at alarming rates. Lee responded to climate change critics who say that the Earth’s climate has always been changing: “the problem is the impact of humans on the pace at which climate change is progressing has been tremendous,” he said.

There are many activities that are driving humans towards these boundaries. A major driving force of climate change is human population growth, coupled with developmental growth. As countries become more affluent they develop patterns of consumption similar to those of developed countries such as the U.S. However, countries with populations much greater than that of the U.S. with similar patterns of consumption have the potential to greatly exacerbate climate change. Lee claimed that if everyone lived the same quality of life as Americans, there would simply not be enough resources to sustain everyone. Lee talked about how greenhouse gas emissions had remained constant until the industrial revolution when they began to grow exponentially. As the climate warms, permafrost that has remained frozen until now has begun to melt, releasing methane that has been trapped within. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with four times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Lee also spoke about the impacts of animal agriculture on global warming. According to Lee, about 10 billion land animals in the the U.S. are raised for dairy, meat and eggs each year. Cattle are another huge source of methane, contributing 35-40 percent of the total global methane that is released annually. Raising animals requires large tracts of land, often requiring further deforestation. With deforestation comes a loss of carbon sinks, species habitat and consequently, often loss of species diversity.

Lee finished the evening by introducing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals that the countries in the UN developed in 2015 and have pledged to reach by 2030. The goals aspire to bring people out of poverty, by bringing further development to communities around the globe. However, sustainable development, which Lee described as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” is key. These goals are an agreement across all the nations of the UN, however, the goals are not legally binding, so there is no penalty for countries that don’t meet the SDGs. Lee urged everyone in the room to try to make a difference in whatever way they could, saying, “all citizens have to change how they behave, spend and consume.” According to Lee, people who want to help should spread awareness, change their behaviors and patterns of consumption, donate or volunteer and encourage their government to make changes.