April 22, 2017 marked 47 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated across the United States. In the decades since, Earth Day has transformed into a widely-embraced annual event, observed by over one billion people globally.

The Center for Global Sustainability hosted a panel in Stamp Student Union on April 20 that attempted to understand what it will take to achieve continued and meaningful progress toward sustainable development, given the current political reality. The Environmental, International Development, and International Security and Economic Policy Councils at the School of Public Policy cosponsored the event.

Panelists included Dr. Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow and Co-director for the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution; Maureen Cropper, Distinguished University Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Maryland; Dr. Anil K. Gupta, Michael Dingman Chair in Strategy, Globalization & Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business; Dr. Sangeetha Madhavan, Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies, and Associate Director of the Maryland Population Research Center; Dr. Robert Sprinkle, Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and Co-Director of the university’s Sustainability Studies Minor.

Dr. Robert Orr, dean of the School of Public Policy, moderated the discussion. Orr is also the former Under Secretary-General for Strategic Planning at the United Nations, where he held a leadership role for 10 years on climate change, development, and counter-terrorism, among other issues.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, consensus has emerged worldwide that environmental protection and socioeconomic development are directly connected, and must be pursued in tandem.

This concept is an essential piece of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 12 of the 17 goals relating to climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals describe climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our time” that has the potential to adversely affect sustainable development. The three pillars of sustainable development — the economic, the social, and the environmental — are seen as equally vital in advancing the agenda.

Within this context, on Earth Day 2016 — less than a year after the 2030 Agenda was adopted — over 120 countries signed the Paris Agreement, agreeing to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The SDGs and the Paris Agreement represent the most ambitious covenant ever made by nation states together.

One year later, this covenant faces both prospects and perils. The Paris Agreement came into force in record speed in 2016 amid enormous global political will, but 2016 was a year which also set records for global temperatures. The economies of more developing countries than ever are booming, with millions of people rising out of poverty each year. Yet, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen in many countries, and insecurity from conflict and disaster push many back below the poverty line. Global interdependence has reached historic proportions, but global trade is currently experiencing a slowdown. Political resistance to the globalization paradigm is gaining ground, with protectionist agendas competing seriously with the liberal conception of this paradigm for the first time in decades, and threatening economic instability. And while climate skepticism seemed last year to be relegated to the past, recent events such as the U.S. Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth has suddenly cast doubt on the future of the Paris Agreement.

“There are no global agreements, there are only global norms and global stocktakings,” Kharas said. “And even when we say ‘local,’ we’re no longer talking about countries. Most of the action with the SDGs, outside of the environmental actions, are much more localized than at the national level.”

“In terms of solutions, I think 50 percent of the solution will come from the private sector, about 40 percent from host country governments, and only about 10 percent or less from multilateral institutions,” Gupta said.

Gupta also said that he believes the private sector will be the single largest factor in climate action, “just like smartphones have played a huge role in economic development and did not come from governments or multilateral institutions.”

“And so the key really from a public policy point of view and a multilateral institutions point of view is how to accelerate that effort from the private sector,” Gupta added.

Orr echoed Gupta’s emphasis on the role that non-governmental sectors will play and are playing in climate action efforts.

“While this construct brings in very different politics and geographies and economies, perhaps even more important I would even argue is that this agreement on the SDGs brought in different constituencies; this wasn’t just a government to government agreement,” Orr said.

“What really does give me hope, in essence, is you guys. We have never had the kind of interest in sustainable development on college campuses at this level at any period of time,” Kharas said. “And it’s true in schools of public policy; it’s true in business schools, economics departments; it’s true in developed countries; it’s true in developing countries. There is an outpouring of people wanting to get engaged. There is an outpouring of innovation.”