The road to a sustainable world appears to be paved with devilish dilemmas. In the Netherlands the nitrogen issue is a prime example. But the Global South is where the shoe really pinches. In that part of the world, sustainability objectives are increasingly diametrically opposed. The climate ambitions of rich countries play a dubious part in this. This leads to more and more criticism of the progressive agenda, which is said to have become disconnected from reality. But more realism is precisely what the Global South does not need.

Climate versus poverty?

For some countries, the global Sustainable Development Goals as defined by the United Nations are harder to reach than for others. Especially the poorer countries need to think very carefully about how they spend every dollar of their budgets. Last month, a comprehensive article in The Economist set out in very clear terms how difficult choices may then need to be made between combating poverty and climate adaptation on the one hand and climate mitigation (CO2 reduction) on the other hand. In other words, a choice between here and now and the future. It is hardly surprising that poorer countries often choose food, energy and healthcare over long-term investments aimed at CO2 reduction.

To ensure that the Global South is not faced with such dilemmas, and to prevent further global warming, high-income countries will need to lend a hand. After all, global warming is mainly their doing. According to the Grantham Research Institute, by 2030 the rich West will need to contribute at least USD 1 trillion each year in order to provide for all the climate measures that will be needed in the Global South. Unsurprisingly, Western countries currently do not even come close to that: even the annual amount of USD 100 billion that was promised in 2009 (!) is thus far proving too much to ask. 

Only green assistance

An additional problem, according to the Economist, is that what little money high-income countries do make available increasingly flows to the larger medium-income countries, such as India, Indonesia and South Africa. In these countries the climate impact is greatest, so the thinking goes, and often projects in these countries are safer and more profitable than elsewhere. Much of the funding now comes with hard CO2 reduction requirements. As a result, low-income countries are increasingly missing out, because flows of funds for traditional development aid and climate adaptation are drying up. The West’s blind climate ambitions would in that way actually thwart the realisation of the global social sustainability goals.

Synergy illusion an illusion?

It therefore comes as no surprise that the progressive agenda is coming under increasing pressure. Critics refer to the synergy illusion: the ‘delusion’ that sustainability goals reinforce each other, while in actual fact fighting poverty and climate protection tend to be diametrically opposed. The critics argue that we must act upon this reality, by scaling down our climate ambitions or placing all our bets on green growth: economic growth that does not result in more greenhouse gas emissions thanks to unparalleled innovation on a global scale.

But precisely these two options are devoid of any sense of realism and seem to be focused mainly on preserving the Western consumer society. Scaling down our climate ambitions means saddling the next generation with a huge problem. That is not realistic but selfish. And believing in green growth means hoping for a miracle: we are still a long way away from severing the link between growth and emissions on a global level - and that is actually one of the easier challenges that economic growth poses with regard to the planetary boundaries. 

Tighten our materialistic belts

So, instead of more realism, the Global South needs a little more Western imagination. The synergy illusion is after all only a limitation within our current system. If we were able to come up with a system that does not depend on economic growth and consumption, but focuses on wellbeing instead, we in the West would be more willing to tighten our materialistic belts a little. Because that would mean we would not have to give up (too much of) our subjective sense of happiness. At the same time the sense of happiness in the Global South would be much improved because the additional Western support would remove most devilish dilemmas in that part of the world. Therefore, it is high time to start imagining such a reality and act upon it.

This is a translation of Joeri de Wilde's column on Financial Investigator, published 18 July 2023.