UN official: Time to act on sustainability

The world has produced a myriad of agreements and goals for sustainable development but their implementation has languished, with a lack of shared information and sufficient assistance for developing countries being key obstacles.

The United Nations Office for Sustainable Development based in Songdo, Incheon, will play a crucial role in overcoming such limitations by harnessing knowledge for environment-friendly development and helping poor countries join the initiative, its chief said.

“Our biggest problem … over the last 20 years is that we have agreed on a number of goals and targets, but the implementation has been very weak,” Muhammad Aslam Chaudhry, a senior UN staff, who heads the UNOSD, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Envisaged as a training and resource center for sustainable development, the UNOSD opened its doors last month at Yonsei University’s International Campus inside the Incheon Free Economic Zone.

It is a joint effort of the UN, Korea’s Ministry of Environment, Incheon government and the university.

One of the main objectives of the center, he said, is to support governments in implementing agreements made in the UN summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20-22.

The assembled leaders negotiated broad framework of action to promote sustainable development, control greenhouse gas emissions and protect ecosystems.

Some $513 billion in funding was also committed during the Rio+20 for several issues, including energy, food security and access to drinking water.

“There was very strong political commitment. More than a hundred heads of state were there, and they made nearly 700 commitments,” the natural resources expert from Pakistan said.

The summit, entitled Rio+20, took place 20 years after the iconic Earth Summit in the same city, where world leaders adopted Agenda 21 ― a blueprint for sustainable development.

He said the center’s strategy is based on four pillars: knowledge exchange, capacity development, research and policy analysis, and partnership.

As the first and foremost task, the UNOSD is planning to establish a “knowledge portal.”

There is already an overwhelming amount of information on sustainable development, so the UNOSD is pooling together all the information in a free, searchable online database to build a platform for knowledge exchange, he explained.

The UNOSD will also provide training programs and workshops for national representatives and major groups, in particular from developing countries.

“We’ll also organize international forums. We’re already planning to host three international meetings before the end of this year,” he added.

He mentioned that one of the key agenda will be “green economy,” which was highlighted at Rio+20 as a pathway to future sustainable development.

“We’re planning to invite more than 30 countries here in October to share how we can cooperate with each other to promote green economy polices and share best practices.”

The prevailing economic growth model is focused on increasing gross domestic product above all other goals, and much of that growth has been achieved at the cost of environment. But green economy is providing a framework that allows countries create a balance in economic growth, social equity and environmental protection, which are the three pillars of sustainable development, he said.

“By the simplest definition, sustainable development is putting environment and development together. They have to go in hand, not at the cost of the other.”

He admitted that the transition to a green economy has a long way to go, but said several countries are demonstrating leadership by adopting national “green growth” or low carbon economic strategies.

“Korea is now the leader in green growth, and is also playing a very important role in the international arena, and that is why this office is here in Korea,” he said.

The head of the UNOSD added that the partnership with Yonsei University is also important for the center.

“We still have a very small team. We currently have four staff here, but our mandate is very big, so building a partnership with Yonsei (and) also other academics in the world is important,” he said.

“We can accommodate up to 4,000 people here, and we have a lot of cutting-edge educational facilities. And by taking advantage of those facilities, we believe we can provide educational programs to developing countries,” Lee Yeon-ho, associate dean of Yonsei International campus, said.

Aslam Chaudhry, who has been working with the UN for more than 22 years, said he finds his current role one of the most challenging and interesting he has done.

“Everywhere we have challenging work … but I’m enjoying it because we’re doing very important work here,” he said.

“There is commitment from top to bottom, and we have good partners. So I’m confident that we can make this work,” he added.

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