The United Nations says a lack of action on climate change and habitat destruction will threaten the progress of developing countries.
The issue was part of the 2011 report of the U.N. Development program (UNDP), entitled Sustainability and Equity: a Better Future for All.
The report argues that environmental sustainability is not just about focusing on the environment but encompasses a wide range of social issues. Among them are health, education, income, gender disparities and energy production, combined with protection of the ecosystem.
“Climate change, the destruction of forests, depleting resources, fisheries, the ocean, fresh water, declining quantity and quality of clean water supplies - all of those constellations of environmental factors are part of sustainability,” said William Orme, a UNDP spokesperson in New York.
In addition, said Orme, the UNDP looks at sustainability as part of society, and includes social, economic and political matters, all of which he said are connected.
While the report focuses on the world’s poorest countries, Orme said African countries as a group are most vulnerable to the effects of continuing climate and global warming.
“Droughts, intense rainfalls, cyclones, rising sea levels - all of these things conspire almost uniquely against sub-Saharan Africa,” explained Orme.
Orme said many positive things are happening in African countries and added Africa does have resources, such as great forestry resources, but even these are threatened.
“For instance, the Congo River Basin helps the entire planet by providing carbon dioxide, but those [resources] are also under threat because they are being cut both for firewood for people living in villages and also for the industrial taking of tropical hardwood for export,” said Orme.
He added that the culmination of these environmental factors mean sub-Saharan African countries are right at the center of this challenge.
However, he cautioned that not all African countries should be grouped together because they are at various stages of development and have different resources available to them.
The 2011 Human Development Report argues that if you invest in people’s health and schooling, the population will be a better keeper of its environmental resources over the long term.
“One concrete example: there is a proposal now backed by the U.N., which is discussed in the report, to provide electricity to the nearly 20% of the world’s population—1.4 billion people, approximately, who live off of the power grid. That is very true of rural sub-Saharan Africa,” said Orme.
Electricity is important for poor families because it allows children to study at night and families to cook basic meals without burning firewood inside the home.
“The fear is that this [providing electricity] would contribute to further global warming because more people would be connected to the power grid,” but that is not the case, said Orme.
“You can actually provide power to these people at reasonable cost using new technology, including solar, wind and more efficient use of fossil fuels, without significantly increasing carbon emissions,” he said.
The challenge, he said, is for governments and the international community to embrace and implement these changes.