A pivotal moment in push for sustainable development

wind turbine

April 7, 2015 — This is a critical year for turning the world’s economic development toward a more sustainable course — maybe “the” critical year, economist and United Nations advisor Jeffrey Sachs told a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health audience on April 1. World leaders will be meeting at three high-level summits this summer and fall to hash out new global frameworks for reducing extreme poverty, reversing course on human-induced climate change, and other goals. Sachs argued that the aims are feasible, but it will require political courage for leaders to forge agreements and turn the new frameworks into reality.

View a webcast of the lecture.

Given the often glacial pace of diplomacy, these summits, which will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, New York, and Paris, offer “the best opportunity, and probably the only chance that we’ll have to change course globally in a concerted, cooperative manner on sustainable development,” Sachs said. “So we have to hope that we get this right.”

Sachs, who is director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, delivered the 11th Stare-Hegsted Lecture on April 1, 2015 in Snyder auditorium. The annual event honors two key figures in the formation of the Department of Nutrition at the School: Fredrick Stare, founding chair of the department, and D. Mark Hegsted, a founding faculty member. Hegsted was instrumental in drafting the  1977 “Dietary Goals for the United States” report, considered a precursor of the federal “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Sachs praised the nutrition recommendations released in February from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which for the first time advocated for a more environmentally sustainable diet that includes less meat and more plant products. The School’s Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology, was a member of the committee.

“This is a real breakthrough document, but one that shows how difficult sustainable development is as a political process as well as an intellectual process,” Sachs said, noting the pushback it has received from the meat industry and politicians including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“I think we should think of ways to raise the collective voice of the nutrition community and the public health community and the environmental community in this country to defend this report,” he told the audience.

Amy Roeder

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