NEW YORK // With global temperatures, food prices and population rising, it is more urgent than ever to formulate ways to make life on the planet more sustainable, the UN's climate change chief says.
The warning by Janos Pasztor comes as a UN panel on sustainability prepares to meet in Helsinki in May to draft a plan to address the problems of global warming, poverty and water scarcity.
The panel, which includes Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Foreign Minister, faces a "tough project" to meet the December deadline for completing the plan, Mr Pasztor said.
"What needs to be done is quite substantial," he said. "Panelists must develop a vision on moving towards sustainability in this world. It's about eradicating poverty, reducing inequality and making growth inclusive, while combating climate change and respecting planetary boundaries."
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation warned last week that global food prices hit record highs in February. Price increases are linked to crop losses during droughts in Russia and West Africa and flooding in Pakistan, Australia and Sri Lanka. Harsh weather has been blamed on gas emissions and climate change.
"The food crisis, connected to unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, and the increased frequency of natural disasters in Pakistan and elsewhere, has created anxiety among a public at large that doesn't really have a framework for how these challenges are connected and what strategies will manage them effectively," said Marc Levy of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. "This panel may offer a way to understand and respond."
Experts offer many solutions, from enlarging protected forest and marine areas to using new technologies for renewable energy, hybrid car engines and raising farming yields with drought-resistant crops and low-waste irrigation.
Some argue that lifting the world's poor out of poverty will help stabilise the global population. Others say financial schemes, such as subsidies for clean fuels and taxing carbon emitters, offer market-driven remedies.
Jeffrey Sachs, a UN adviser and professor of economics at Columbia University in New York, has said that spending less than three per cent of the global economy could help end world poverty, stabilise the global population and stave off climate change.
But Mr Sachs and others argue that free-market capitalism is at odds with sustainability, and that the consumption patterns that have spurred economic growth and raised living standards in the developed world cannot continue indefinitely.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the panel, which is led by the presidents of South Africa and Finland, must consider "major changes in our lifestyles, our economic models, our social organisation, and our political life".
For decades, the UN has promoted sustainable growth, defining it in a 1987 report as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
Results have been patchy. Nations tackled ozone depletion in the 1980s and achieved the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but a successor treaty has proven elusive.
The 2009 Copenhagen summit broke down amid rows over how much wealthy countries should spend helping poor countries limit emissions. Negotiators from 190 countries agreed in Cancun last year on modest steps to tackle global warming.
"Copenhagen was the funeral for an obsolete approach to global problems, and the world is still searching for an alternative model," said Mr Levy. "We haven't done this yet, but it will probably be a reorientation of broad economic objectives that are more subservient to the goals of sustainability and equity."
Mr Pasztor described "plenty of reports from the past 25 years" that lay out technological and economic solutions to the world's woes. The real problem, he said, was a lack of political will and a clear road map to sustainable living.
"The panel does not need to come up with anything new," he said. "They will collect the existing knowledge and solutions and write them up as a politically feasible project of actions and mechanisms."
Damian Ryan, a policy analyst for The Climate Group, said the UN plan should be couched as a "green revolution" that will channel investment into jobs and education and improve the well-being of the environment and people.
"The debate has been obscured by negatives - costs, burden-sharing and making others do the heavy lifting," said Mr Ryan.
"We need a paradigm shift to reframe the debate in terms of investment that drives low-cost renewable energy sources and the benefits they would bring."