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Ban Ki-moon calls on Davos to act on sustainability

While natural resources dwindle everywhere, the world's economic and political leaders look for ways to combine profitability with responsibility in Davos. But can enough be done in time to prevent catastrophe?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said world leaders need to "step up"

Economic development in the 20th century was fuelled by an abundance of natural resources.

Now, as those resources become increasingly scarce and the impact of global warming becomes more evident, economic and political leaders at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos are looking for ways to combine profitability with responsibility.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told delegates that if the international community failed to adopt a new, sustainable economic model soon, the result would be a "global suicide pact."

Microsoft founder Bill Gates

Bill Gates said the current energy distribution situation was "wrong"

"The sustainable development agenda is the growth agenda for the 21st century. To get there we need your participation and your initiatives," Ban said during a panel discussion.

"We need you to step up. Lead by action. Lead by example."

Emerging interests

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that while his government supported sustainable development policies, emerging nations must not be denied their chance to develop economically.

"We have to improve the welfare of the people. And we have to ensure that the growth is inclusive," Yudhoyono said.

"We need equity. And in times of crisis, we need to think about building a social safety net. All those factors must be connected to our moral obligation to protect the environment."

Finnish President Tarja Halonen agreed with her Indonesian counterpart, describing the way forward as a "modern trinity" combining economic growth with social justice and ecological considerations.

Energy policy

Much of the discussion about sustainability focused on climate change and carbon emissions.

"We need to reduce and eliminate the subsidies for fossil fuels," said Mexican President Felipe Calderon. "That is a very important step in public policy on an international level, which is very costly in political terms in several countries, but we must do that."

Several delegates questioned the United States' commitment to climate change at the forum.

US columnist Thomas Friedman said only drastic market conditions or a natural catastrophe would change Washington's energy policy.

Commuters at the crowded Shidorim subway station in Seoul

World population growth will drive up energy demand

"It's going to be a spike in oil prices, that oil goes up to $200 (146 euros) a barrel, or we get from Mother Nature what I call the perfect storm – a storm to finally end the debate about climate change… so that we can actually still do something about it," Friedman said.

Population pressures

Microsoft founder Bill Gates argued that population and innovation are major factors in sustainable development, but they tend to receive less attention and funding than other areas of investment.

He told delegates the global population would grow by a factor of 1.5 – and that as developing nations become more prosperous, global demand for energy would inevitably rise.

"We definitely want people to use more services. We don't want to sustain the current situation where the bottom two billion use very little energy," he said. "That is just the wrong thing."

"You can't have the world telling those people in other emerging markets to use less energy than in Europe."

Medical investments aimed at improving reproductive health, developing innovative vaccines, and reducing infant mortality could slow population growth by up to 10 percent, he said. This would reduce local food production shortfalls, improve political stability and cut CO2 emissions in the long term.

"Those health investments are far more economic than any other thing you could do with the energy system or anything else," Gates said.

Author: Sam Edmonds, Davos
Editor: Ben Knight

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