Around the halls: Brookings experts on the new Center for Sustainable Development

Center for Sustainable Development

Today, the Global Economy and Development program launched the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD). The center will focus on issues pertinent to advancing global sustainable development and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across all countries. In this post, Brookings experts housed in the newly launched center explain the key priorities and issue areas that the center will undertake.

Defining the challenge: sustainable development economics and empirics

bhattacharyaa_portrait.jpg?crop=0px%2C74px%2C1100px%2C1100px&w=120&ssl=1Amar Bhattacharya, Senior Fellow
The climate and sustainable development agendas are intricately linked. Failure to act on climate mitigation and adaptation will affect lives and livelihoods everywhere, especially of the poorest and most vulnerable. On the other hand, strong actions to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon climate-resilient economy can pave the way to sustainable, inclusive, and resilient growth and concomitant progress on the SDGs. A new climate economy must be urgently built—one that escapes a 20th century growth model based on fossil fuel dependence and degradation of natural capital and ecosystem services. The world has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the dangers and fragilities that had been building in the world economy and the planet. The crisis presents an enormous threat but also a one-off, last chance opportunity—to restructure economies at the pace and scale that the climate crisis requires. The center will focus on how to build a better and green recovery that can restore jobs and livelihoods and pave the way for long-term transformation. It will also assess and inform the strategies, investments, policies, and finance that can build a low-carbon climate-resilient economy that serves the needs of people and the planet.

Homi_Kharas.jpg?crop=0px%2C172px%2C2133px%2C2133px&w=120&ssl=1Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow
“You treasure what you measure.” This phrase has become overused because it is so important and applicable. We have become very good at measuring GDP, and the economic policy structures and institutions around the world are geared to maximizing GDP growth. But we have been derelict in measuring other elements of sustainable development—most obviously climate change, biodiversity, inclusion, and justice—that enter into people’s well-being. To give one example, a world with fossil fuel subsidies approaching $5 billion (according to the International Monetary Fund), and a heavy dependence of governments on taxes on labor could well produce GDP growth, but in a distorted way that undercuts society’s core objectives of moving toward green energy and encouraging the formation of more jobs. At this time, with trillions of dollars of public money being spent to revive economies, it is critical to orient economic activity toward areas that are sustainable and inclusive, else another shock to the global economic system will surely recur.

Advancing sustainable development at subnational levels

bhattacharyaa_portrait.jpg?crop=0px%2C74px%2C1100px%2C1100px&w=120&ssl=1Amar Bhattacharya, Senior Fellow
Developing countries need to substantially scale up investments in sustainable infrastructure to meet their climate and development goals including large additional investments for adaptation. These needs encompass investments in renewable energy and the phasing out of dirty energy (especially coal), sustainable cities and transport, water and sanitation, digital infrastructure, and natural infrastructure. Over the next 10 years, infrastructure investment in emerging markets and developing countries other than China will need to more than double from present levels of around $1 trillion per year, and virtually all the increase must be green infrastructure to meet the Paris targets and adapt to climate change. At present, 80 percent of infrastructure investment is public and it’s mostly publicly financed. Private investment in infrastructure in emerging markets and developing countries has stagnated over the past decade and amounts to less than $100 billion annually. Mobilizing additional private finance for sustainable infrastructure investments is therefore the central challenge of climate finance. In addition to tackling the impediments that are holding back the realization of green investments at scale, it will be essential to improve access to long-term finance and reduce the cost of capital—for both emerging markets and developing countries. Managing, reducing, and sharing risk will be critical. Assessing how to unlock investment opportunities in sustainable infrastructure that can serve both climate and development goals, and identifying ways to bolster and utilize the relevant pools of finance more effectively that can meet the scale of the challenge, will be an important element in the work of the Center.

marcela_escobari_2020.jpg?crop=0px%2C144px%2C1537px%2C1537px&w=120&ssl=1Marcela Escobari, Senior Fellow
Even as the pandemic renews skepticism on the virtues of dense living, cities remain the engines of innovation, growth, and prosperity. In all likelihood, they will bounce back. And their recovery will make for welcome news—a return to the status quo almost certainly portends a more sustainable future than would urban outmigration. Nonetheless, the sustainability of urban epicenters prior to the pandemic was questionable. Cities had become hotbeds of poverty and wellsprings of environmental degradation. Moreover, the astronomical rise of cities, brought on by increasing returns to dense economic activity, led to increasing geographical disparities- even within the same country. This spatial divergence makes a subnational lens to the advancement of sustainable development crucial to global sustainability. As the pandemic and its economic ripples continue to spread, impact—whether it comes as shifts in supply chains, less tourism and travel, new purposes for commercial real estate, stark unemployment, or more rapid automation—will ultimately occur at the subnational level, in each region based upon its own unique history and trajectory. Subnational regions across the globe will face similar challenges but their path to sustainable recovery and growth will depend largely on the region’s existing industry and talent as well as its financial and political ability to repurpose production and redeploy workers. New metrics with the flexibility to accommodate these differences, while still allowing regional comparison and benchmarking, will allow greater subnational coordination, an essential task to drive global sustainability.

jw-0735.jpg?crop=0px%2C81px%2C2133px%2C2133px&w=120&ssl=1Anthony F. Pipa, Senior Fellow
Cities are places where the lofty aspirations of sustainable development and the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals must be translated into progress felt by real people living in real communities. As evidenced by their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, mayors and local leaders form the front lines of response to global issues—from the exigencies of public health and economic vulnerability to migration, climate change, and justice. They consistently earn the highest levels of trust of any level of government and are increasingly perceived to be the problem-solvers as political divisions undermine the response of national leaders. Too often however, subnational leaders have too little of the mandate and too limited resources to translate their priorities at the local level into reality. They are thus faced with developing new models of governance to coordinate leadership and resources that go beyond city government and creating new tools and policy interventions to leverage data, technology, and citizen engagement for social and economic progress. Their success will also depend upon their ability to access new modes of financing, and the international finance system must seek to evolve and expand to be able to directly invest in municipalities and subnational governments. Cities are hotbeds of innovation—not just to launch the industries and companies of the future, but to evolve and elevate new methods and mechanisms of public governance and leadership that will be key to advancing sustainable development.

The Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy and the feeble U.S. response to COVID-19 has significantly changed perceptions of the United States and its interest in global cooperation and global progress. U.S. mayors, CEOs, university presidents, and civil society leaders, with serious commitments to using the SDGs to advance racial justice and equity, public health, economic security, and action on climate change, are exhibiting global leadership and proving to be central players in rebuilding U.S. credibility on development issues of global importance.

Advancing effective financing for sustainable development

Homi_Kharas.jpg?crop=0px%2C172px%2C2133px%2C2133px&w=120&ssl=1Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow
Imagine you took the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the destruction caused by World War II and wrapped them into a single calamitous event. You would mimic the effects of COVID-19. Not a single sub-Saharan African government has been able to borrow on international capital markets since February of this year. The traditional approach to debt servicing, to roll over debt by funding principal payments to one lender by borrowing from another, has ground to a halt for many developing countries. Ministers of finance are desperately trying to stave off defaults—the messy, expensive, protracted process that led to a lost decade in Latin America—and will be tempted to cut education, nutrition, and agricultural development spending to cope. These have long-lasting, lifetime effects. Absent a concerted plan of financial assistance, the specter of a decade or more of development in reverse awaits, and a generation could be left with little real prospect or opportunities for the future.

Advancing US official and American societal leadership for global sustainable development

ingramgv2.jpg?crop=0px%2C0px%2C566px%2C566px&w=120&ssl=1George Ingram, Senior Fellow
COVID-19’s devastation of human and national well-being, climate change’s disruption of food production, state fragility’s destabilization of nations and uprooting of populations, social and economic inequities within and between nations. These are just a few of the global development challenges that require the U.S. government to elevate its institutions and budget to contribute to the advancement of development by moving from a 20th century maze of programs to a more coherent, unified strategy and structure that is nimble at working with local stakeholders, civil society organizations, the private sector, and the panoply of individuals and entities across America that are contributing to advancing economic, social, and political progress in poor and middle-income countries.