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Time waits for no man

Tsakhia Elbegdorjt

President of Mongolia and 2012 UNEP Champion of the Earth

Living our lives and attending to our chores, we realized one day that our big human family had grown to five, then to six, and now to more than seven billion — and that as never before life on earth is drastically changing. Industrialization and human activities have led to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming and climate change are now established realities with direct impacts on people’s day-to-day livelihoods, income and earnings and on the economic and development policies of countries.

Let me cite specific examples from emerging realities in Mongolia. Ours is one of the few countries with traditional nomadic livestock breeders. They constantly remind me that the drastic environmental changes of the past several decades are making it more and more challenging for them to pursue their way of life, the origin of which dates back millennia. Thousands of young people move to urban centrers in search of less risky occupations. This has become a global, worldwide phenomenon. More than half of all humankind now resides in urban and settled areas, making those cities, towns and villages mines of massive air, water and soil pollution.

Is it only climate change and global warming that contribute to the state of affairs in which we find ourselves? What are the other contributing factors? The answer is “yes, it is climate change” but exacerbated by unfair distribution of resources and low valuation of labour. The labour of an agricultural worker — who produces food, vital for human needs — is valued extremely low. People do not really rush to the cities because they like urban luxuries, but simply because pay is higher and so the chances of higher incomes are greater. This is the primary reason for the flight to the cities and urban areas.

Yet cities have their headaches too — traffic jams, public transport, air pollution, waste management, criminality, water supply, refining and cleaning facilities — which take up the lion’s share of their budgets.

Many cities are under severe pressure from such accumulated problems. The huge costs and expenditures needed to support a city inflate its cost of living. Since costs are high, salaries have to keep up with their pace of growth.

Compared with an agricultural worker, producing vital food, a city dweller’s real productivity is low. What, for instance, is the real productivity of a young man distributing commercial leaflets in a city street? Nothing but distributing papers, which, at most, are briefly glanced at by strangers and end up in trash bins. Yet can this be seen as a responsible and needed job in an era of fiercely competitive consumer economics? Surely, yes. Careful analysis reveals the leaflet to be a product of the creative business community designed to encourage artificial demand and consumption perpetuating consumerism.

A survey revealed that 30 per cent of the food in the fridges of homes in developed countries is wasted. In developing countries, by contrast, millions of children are starving. If you browse through old photos, you won’t see many obese people. In the past, luxury trends and fashions — too much comfort — were not as prevalent as today. The race to comfort and luxury might eventually lead to a situation where obesity poses a real threat to humankind.

This will worsen if we do not act today. The more the global population grows — to 10, 20, 30 billion — the more people will want to use, the more luxury and comfort will be sought. Why, after all, would future generations not want to live as affluently as their predecessors? But will our earth — our home — be able to carry that burden? To meet that gigantic demand, humankind would need colossal amounts of energy, clean water, food. If we do not change our lifestyles now, what will happen to the rates of emissions, of food and water consumption when humanity starts consuming two, three or four times as much?

What should we do now? What actions do we have to take? Will we sit idle, counting our problems, leaving the issue to the future? If we believe the time has come to change to ensure humankind’s sustainable development, let us speak up openly and take bold and courageous action. One solution is obviously renewable energy. Mongolia has committed herself to developing it, and our first 50 Mwt private independent wind power station is being built. We will also explore opportunities to develop Gobitech and Asia Super Grid renewable energy mega-projects.

These will synergize regional political and economic cooperation and have huge benefits for sustainable development and environmental conservation by securing reliable energy supplies, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The emerging realities in Mongolia are a microcosm and reflection of what is happening globally. Though the country’s 1.56 million square kilometers of land ranks it as the 18th largest, its 2.75 million people makes it 118th in population size. Forty six per cent of our population resides in our capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which takes up only 0.3 per cent of our total territory. It is most the polluted city in the world. Is that a healthy development? Of course not. It reflects both our and humankind’s mistaken policies. We, the politicians and decision-makers, have to rectify this immediately.

Our road map for future action has to be based on accurate research, studies, methodologies and facts: it must be founded upon science, knowledge and sound and objective policies.

Anything in life is measured. We need to develop an index of sustainable development, which would take into account education, life expectancy, per-capita clean water, food, energy, per-capita internet access — and an indicator for fair distribution of wealth, best calculated by comparing GDP per capita with the population’ s average real income. Obviously, our scholars would further develop all this, but these are the indicators of the essential physiological and development needs of a human being.

We must take bold and aggressive steps immediately to rectify the unfair distribution of wealth, to introduce a realistic valuation of the productivity of the agricultural workforce and to move from comfort-centred consumerism to a green and smart economy. Equally compelling is the exigency of reversing the population flow to urban and settled areas. If we do not consciously restrict our feigned consumption and correct our policy mistakes, we might soon find ourselves trapped in the evils of inaction. The time for us to act together has come.

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