Fighting for the future – sustainable development and the battle for ideas in 2017

Following the landmark global agreements on sustainable development sealed in 2015, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change, the end of 2016 prompted the question: can the world sustain this hard-fought momentum? 

Andrew Norton's picture
Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
04 January 2017
What lies in store for the Earth in 2017? (Photo: Charles Strebor, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

What lies in store for the Earth in 2017? (Photo: Charles Strebor, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Simple narratives in 2016 harking back to a 'golden age' of national power seemed to resonate strongly with those who feel left behind, ignored or denigrated by their own local version of the global elite, particularly in rich countries. With this growing shift towards populist national agendas and in this fraught political climate, can the world sustain collective action to tackle global challenges?

Progress in 2017 will have to be earned, not taken for granted. So, here are my thoughts on the key debates that will bear on our ability to secure a stable global society and a liveable planet for future generations.

Climate action and the energy transition

Tentative progress to tackle climate change over the last year is fragile. It is also insufficient: combined, the global pledges to reduce emissions that underpinned the Paris Agreement take us, at most, one third of the way towards stabilising the planet's climate at no more than two degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels.  

'Deep decarbonisation' of energy systems is essential to any prospect of staying within the limits to warming embedded in the Paris Agreement. Will the election of United States' President Donald Trump usher in an era when fossil fuel interests ally across previously hostile boundaries?

Germany has been a leader on taking renewable energy to scale, but some now see a risk of the country backtracking in the wake of the US election result.

On the other side, optimists point to the economic momentum towards renewable energy, China's determination to position itself at the forefront of future technologies, and the determination of sub-national governments in the US (states and cities) to hold on to a low-carbon pathway.  

There are good grounds to think that the transition to low carbon energy is now unstoppable in the long term. But even a slight slowing of progress over the next decade would represent a huge threat – especially to the poorest and most climate vulnerable.

The future of work

The debate about the future of work and community in rich countries, and the threat posed by automation and globalisation, will continue to grow – fuelled by growing economic insecurity and its political consequences.

The impact of automation on future economic opportunities is also a huge issue for developing countries. This increases the need for policies that promote both sustainability and inclusion – and answers on the future of work and for different political and economic contexts.

Civil society's operating space

We need an effective civil society to advocate for a more equal and more sustainable society – but evidence suggests its operating space in many countries is under threat.

The International Centre for Non-for-Profit Law estimates that 64 laws (PDF) adopted between the beginning of 2015 and September 2016 attempted to prevent civil society organisations (CSOs) from registering, protesting or receiving international financial support.  

The reasons vary – from concern with foreign engagement, to reactions against rights-based advocacy. IIED's work on disruptive change is tracking the many ways southern CSOs are responding to closing civic space.

The future of aid

In the last weeks of 2016 some conservative parts of the UK press launched a broad assault on the country's international development policies, record and commitment. Under particular attack is the UK's commitment to hit the United Nations' aid target of 0.7 per cent of gross national product (GNP). There are fears that the incoming US administration will reduce development assistance. 

The UK's Bilateral Development Review correctly makes the strong case for the many areas where aid improves and saves lives. Official Development Assistance is also the vehicle for most of the world's public climate finance – and as such has an important part in delivering on the bargain between richer and poorer countries that underpins the Paris Agreement.  

It is vital that delivery institutions get better at getting the 'money where it matters' – i.e. to the local level where it can be used effectively by poor communities. This will be a major focus for IIED's work in 2017.

Inclusive, resilient cities

Finding pathways to sustainable and inclusive urbanisation as the world's cities expand more quickly than ever presents another major challenge – and a growing concern for the international community as migrants and refugees increasingly seek opportunities and safety in urban areas. 

Changing access to land

Local patterns of small land seizures, concentration and dispossession, as well as large-scale land acquisitions, continue to threaten and disrupt livelihoods in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Land governance systems are struggling to keep up with the pace and scale of change.


Studies of income inequality in recent years have tended to produce two contrasting, stylised facts. On one hand, since 1990 global inequality has fallen – the first time since records began. As argued most effectively by Branko Milanovic, this has been largely due to rising incomes in Asia.

On the other, most studies of the data available up to around 2010 have concluded that, with some exceptions (mostly in Latin America), national level inequality has been rising.

Recent work by the World Bank suggests this may now be changing – with national level income inequality falling marginally in most regions of the world between 2008 and 2013. But there are many problems with the data – particularly as household surveys capture very few of the wealthiest people at either global or national level. Furthermore, global wealth inequality is continuing to rise.

Understanding and measuring inequality will remain contested ground. Policies that effectively reduce inequality – from fair access to education, to better social protection, and strengthening the tax revenue base – are hugely important for a stable future pathway to sustainable development.  

Making a difference

IIED will be looking for solutions and partnerships to make a difference in this increasingly uncertain world, in these and other areas.  

On climate action and the green economy we will address the many challenges of achieving the transformations necessary for a sustainable, safe and equitable future development pathway.

We will continue to track the realities of power and poverty in a changing urban landscape. Our work on natural resource governance will continue to track the drivers and impacts of change, and propose actions to promote resilience for the many whose rights are vulnerable when land access rules are in flux.  

Over the rest of January we will be blogging to map out some of the major areas of focus for IIED's work in 2017.

Andrew Norton ([email protected]) is director of IIED.