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Securing a sustainable future

By JEFFERY SACHS | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-09-18 07:36

CAI MENG/CHINA DAILY

The idea of sustainable development is that the whole world should enjoy an economic system that is prosperous, fair and environmentally sustainable. It aims to combine economic objectives with social justice and environmental sustainability.

It is an extremely important concept because it shows the way to ensure everybody on the planet can enjoy a good life. All 193 member states of the United Nations have twice confirmed the commitment to sustainable development: first with the 2030 Agenda, in which 17 sustainable development goals are laid out, and second with the Paris Agreement on climate change, both in 2015.

Now we need to achieve what we have set out to do. If we do, the world will be a much better place.

China has made major contributions to sustainable development, first and foremost, by ending poverty within China, and second, by helping other countries with infrastructure through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

China's rapid growth, especially since 1978, has been based on three pillars: investing in the health and education of its people, building infrastructure, and enabling business to create new products and new markets.

Globally, there has been a lot of progress in fighting against poverty up until this year. The rate of global poverty rate had declined from around 30 percent in 1990 to around 10 percent by 2015. China played an important role in that by largely eliminating abject poverty in the country. As of this year, it has eliminated all extreme poverty.

But we have two problems that urgently need addressing. First, there are still hundreds of millions of people living in real desperation, especially in Africa. Second, the novel coronavirus pandemic has caused a big setback. The challenge is not only to complete the poverty alleviation progress underway, but also to stop this pandemic so that we can recover some of the ground that was lost this year.

I see a three-part process. The first is to end the pandemic as soon as possible, using the methods that China has used. Hopefully, we will have vaccines in the coming year or two. The second is broad economic development through programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative. The third is targeted help to those places that still have high entrenched poverty, maybe because of their geography or their history. They do not have the necessary infrastructure and need particular help.

When I visited western China in the early 2000s, the idea was that China would use its development planning and its public investments to spur growth in places that had been left behind by the first 20 years of rapid growth. And China did that. China is very good at putting together big investment projects, big industrial projects and social development, health and education and so forth.

There are still places on the planet that have been left behind, in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Learning from China's example, even people in these very-hard-to-help places can also escape from poverty.

Sustainable Development Goal 3, which is health for all, is now the priority, because ending the pandemic is a necessary precondition for achieving the rest. A second major goal, one that we have learned the importance of in recent months, is universal access to digital technology and electricity because it is the digital world that has provided so many crucial tools for us, not only helping to curb the transmission of the novel coronavirus, but also allowing people to continue to work and provide services such as health and education during this period.

The rollout of 5G connectivity is therefore all the more important. China is the world's biggest internet user, and that has been a big feature of it being able to contain the novel coronavirus. There are places that need that infrastructure very much now, which has become even more important than we recognized in the past.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the European Union recovery fund both point to new public investments to help promote a global recovery, and there is potential for Europe and China to cooperate on this in Eurasia, through investments in areas including sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy, energy interconnection, electric vehicles and smart transport.

There is a big future through public investments in those technologies that China is pioneering. With cooperation among the United States, China, the EU, the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other parts of the world, we could control the coronavirus and ensure that everybody can have access to education, healthcare and many other basic services.

Another Cold War is the worst idea. The situation is very dangerous and it is mostly the result of US politicians and some US officials who are extremely nationalistic. We should be striving for a world in which prosperity is shared everywhere.

We face very complex challenges and we should approach them rationally. Whether it is the novel coronavirus outbreak, climate change, or the fight against poverty, the goal should be to solve these problems through rational cooperation, which means good analysis, and then cooperative implementation.

The US and China should be working together on all of the issues of common interest. And not just the US and China, the world as whole needs to engage in cooperative, ongoing, professional intensive problem solving. If we did that, there is hardly a problem on the planet that we could not solve together.

The author is an economics professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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