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All in the boat together


Nikhil Seth, director of the division for sustainable development in the UN’s department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), has had a 20-year career with the United Nations. He has served as Special Assistant and Chief of Office to the Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, as Secretary of the Economic and Social Council (ECoSoC) and as Secretary of the Second Sommittee of the General Assembly. Previously, he was Director of the office of ECoSoC affairs at UN-DESA. Before joining the UN, Seth served in the Indian Diplomatic Corps, where his assignments included Geneva, various African countries and India’s permanent mission in New York.

Q: How does the UN define “sustainable development,” and what is the role of its Division for Sustainable Development?

A: The definition has evolved. Based on the Brundtland Commission report, a common definition was “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The General Assembly now stresses that sustainable development has three dimensions: economic, social and environmental, that is, economic growth, social inclusion and equality, and environmental protection and sustainability. Sustainable development deals with intergenerational equity while focusing on human needs and the need for environmental protection.

This division facilitates the implementation of the decisions made at the first Rio conference [the UN Conference on Environment and Development] 20 years ago and at follow-up conferences. Our work has five functions: assisting the UN in its political processes, including the work of the General Assembly; analysis and policy development; capacity development at the country level; interagency cooperation; and knowledge management on communication and outreach.

Q: Can you highlight a few UN achievements in sustainable development?

A: First and foremost, the UN has established the importance of sustainable development and placed it at the forefront of the world’s concerns. We have a common understanding of the concept through the advocacy of the UN. Also, the UN offers a platform for dialogue, collaboration, partnership and the facilitation of positions on sustainable development. A number of international treaties were launched at Rio 20 years ago, on climate change, biodiversity, combating desertification and protecting forests. So the UN has encouraged growth and development along a certain pathway to safeguard our future.

Q: How can engineers best interact with peers from other disciplines to bring about sustainable development?

A: Technological innovation is essential. We need to decarbonize energy, develop less-polluting industrial processes, and enhance recycling and the re-use of materials. Science can push the bounds of what is technically feasible. It will take engineers working with scientists to transfer the technically feasible into what is economically attractive. Sustainable development is the intersection of three disciplines: economics, engineering and ecology. If we get this equation right, we will be able to implement it in practical ways. Engineering plays a critical role.

Q: What groups or organizations does the UN need to enlist to help achieve its vision? What kind of activities would these partners take on?

A: We need to engage civil society, business, industry, academic institutions, local communities and citizens at large, as well as governments, regional organizations and the UN. So we involve women, farmers, local authorities, NGO communities, business and industry, the scientific and technological community, children and youth, workers and trade unions, and indigenous people.

How do we engage all these interests? We rely on the building of partnerships, which are voluntary initiatives by these communities. They collaborate across sectors and across borders in the service of sustainable development. We are getting everyone engaged. That is the most important aspect of sustainable development.

Q: What can universities do to promote global acceptance of sustainable development practices?

A: There are many things. At Rio+20 we launched the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative. Universities educate our important decision-makers. They have the mission to promote sustainable development through research, teaching and the dissemination of new knowledge and insights. This implies revising content and methods to teach things like integrated planning, interdisciplinary thinking and understanding complexity—the skills and the knowledge necessary to contribute to a sustainable society.

Q: Can young people’s passion and enthusiasm for environmentalism and social activism be translated into a broader understanding of the principles of sustainable development?

A: Young people are very much at the forefront in sustainable development. It is their agenda. They have the greatest stake in sustainable development, and they are the strongest force for realizing it. Politicians sometimes have a short-term agenda. For sustainable development we need to address how we get politicians to focus on a long-term agenda. It is important for young people to push the agenda and to push politicians to come forward with good long-term policies.

Q: Do you see encouraging signs that the notion of sustainable development is taking root on a global scale?

A: Yes. Sustainable development has become part of the international dialogue. However, it is not fully mainstreamed in policymaking at the national level. There are bodies at the national level with their own problems. They feel that sometimes there’s a trade-off between these longer-term concerns and the immediate needs of their citizenry. But I would say there are encouraging signs everywhere that sustainable development is taking root at the national level and of course at the global level.

Q: Is there a tension between developed countries, which can devote more resources to sustainable development, and developing countries, which often ask for more leeway until they become more prosperous?

A: Developing countries ask why they should put so much attention on issues like the reduction of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases when this adds to their cost of development and when they have so many urgent needs. And if it does add to the cost of their development, who will pay this cost? To them it’s a question of burden sharing, cost sharing. This can cause tensions. But I think in the long run we’ll see that we’re all in the boat together, and if we don’t solve it together, we’ll all sink.

Q: What strengths does Lehigh have in this area? What are some next steps that a school like Lehigh could take to move further in this direction?

A: We admire the way Lehigh has developed an exceptional history of cross-disciplinary programs and cross-collaboration for practical application. There is a lot of work going on at Lehigh involving interdisciplinary teaching and sustainable development. Lehigh is uniquely positioned to offer valuable contributions to a common understanding of the difficulties we face and how we can implement sustainable development. These programs will change minds and produce practical solutions for more effective implementation of sustainable development.

Q: What will be the impact of the Rio+20 agreements on efforts on the ground to advance sustainable development?

A: Rio+20 is the largest conference the UN has ever had. Fifty thousand people attended. The fact that so many people are engaged means they are concerned about where we are heading. There is a whole community out there willing to go back home to influence their leaders to build into national policy the principles for sustainable development. This will be the long and abiding impact of Rio+20.

Interview by William Tavani
Photo by Ryan Hulvat