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Ensuring intergenerational equity

Lucy Stone, climate change advisor to UNICEF UK, argues for intergenerational equity as an essential component of sustainable development and looks to Rio+20 as an opportunity to promote its implementation globally, nationally and locally.

SD Scene publishes news and comment on sustainable development from across government, business and civil society. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect government policy.

While the challenges of implementing sustainable practices in policy and business are well recognised, applying the framework of intergenerational justice is less understood yet a vital tool to long term sustainability and equity.

Global economic difficulties are focusing the attention of politicians and business leaders on short-term action, but there’s also a pressing need to step back and address the bigger picture as part of the solution. Ensuring social equity, not just within and between countries, but across generations, is key to economic stability and development. The sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystem services are central to achieving this.

Most parents try to ensure their children have at least the same opportunities that they did, if not more. Yet we are seeing perhaps for the first time in developed countries, like the UK and the US, the next generation growing up with fewer social opportunities (jobs, the ability to purchase a home, further education) and greater economic and environmental burdens than their parents or grandparents.

Many feel that the social contract between generations is being broken. Citizens across the globe are demanding that social inequality be addressed, both within and across generations. Young people took it on themselves recently to organize TEDX talks around the world to discuss how they can better ensure equity between generations.

Those starting school and college in 2012 will have to manage environmental burdens with potentially severe consequences, including climate change, growing resource scarcity and ocean pollution. It’s not enough simply to expect children and young people to solve problems they haven’t created. Their ideas and energy need to be part of the solutions but those solutions will also require intergenerational cooperation.

The UN Rio+20 conference this June will provide a timely opportunity for ensuring the principle of intergenerational equity is applied at the global, national and local level.

Many proposals to implement intergenerational justice are being put forward in the preparations for the conference. An ombudsman for future generations at the global level is one idea supported by the Children and Youth group represented at the conference. Hungary has already appointed an Ombudsman for Future Generations with the power to control environmental and related legislation and administration that may have undue negative impacts on future generations. Another interesting idea proposed by UNEP is for a global equity ombudsman to provide oversight to ensure that equity is an outcome of development, including equity between generations.

Some steps to implement intergenerational equity have been taken in the business world. Puma has introduced environmental accounting alongside financial accounting in order to recognise “the immense value of nature’s services that are currently being taken for granted but without which companies could not sustain themselves” according to executive chairman Jochen Zeitz. Unilever has adopted long term targets to decouple growth from resource consumption as part of its Sustainable Living Plan.

Addressing intergenerational justice means taking decisions on the basis not just of the citizens and customers that politicians and businesses are used to thinking about but for those who aren’t yet consumers or don’t yet have a right to vote. Taking account of the rights of future generations will create the space for healthier, more socially equitable and economically stable communities and countries. Those businesses that start managing for the long term, including lasting environmental sustainability and intergenerational social equity, stand more chance of being the successes of the future.

Further reading

  • Children’s rights: UNICEF is only organisation specifically named in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as a source of expert assistance and advice.

User comments

  1. Tim says:

    Fine. But please be very careful of the language being used “intergenerational equity” just sounds far too academic. If these programs are to be aimed at young people one needs to translate these dense concepts and employ more than the written word too…thanks.

  2. Michelle Ann says:

    I hope intergenerational equality includes facilities for old people as well as protection for young people. One aspect of discrimination against older people is the increasing lack of public toilets – many older people cannot leave home without knowing toilet facilities will be available. The British Toilet Association has an e-petition on this issue at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/15258

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