Watching a UN Train Wreck

Bjorn Lomborg is someone I have long respected because he cares a lot about world problems and works hard on programs and projects to actually improve people’s lives.

He has an insider’s take on preparations for the UN Summit on Sustainable Development, and it is not pretty. From his point of view, national leaders can do a lot to make the world a better place, but that is looking less and less likely. The problem is not ill will or selfishness. It is the enormous overreach of activists’ ambitions.

Bjorn Lomborg:

“With the so-called Agenda for Sustainable Development having been quietly finalized by diplomats and United Nations bureaucrats last month, the leaders are expected just to smile for the cameras and sign on the dotted line. Unfortunately, they are missing a one-in-a-generation opportunity to do much more good.

The agenda is the result of years of negotiations. Aiming for inclusivity, the UN talked to everyone. But, however admirable that approach may be, it did not prove successful. Indeed, looking at the agenda they produced – more than 15,000 words and a headache-inducing 169 development targets – one might conclude that they simply threw everything they had heard into the document.”

Lomborg gives numerous examples, and concludes:

“It is not that the new promises are not well-intentioned. The problem is that they do not reflect effective prioritization, which is critical when resources are limited.

In short, many of the targets are either marginally useful or highly problematic. Making matters worse, collecting data on the 169 promises could cost almost two years of development aid. As a result, the agenda will leave the world’s poorest far worse off than they could be.

In lofty language, the UN claims that the Agenda for Sustainable Development’s 169 targets are “integrated and indivisible.” This is nonsense. Cutting them back is what should happen.”

At Lomborg’s think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a panel of Nobel laureates studied more than 1,800 pages of peer-reviewed analysis, in order to determine which potential targets would achieve the most good – something that the UN never did. Channeling the entire development budget to the 19 targets that the panel identified would do four times more good than if we spread it across the UN’s 169 targets, with a large share of those benefits going to the world’s worst-off people.

Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, founded and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which seeks to study environmental problems and solutions using the best available analytical methods. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, and the editor of How Much have Global Problems Cost the World?

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