Jeffrey Sachs: Development and sustainability, it’s time to change course

An interview with U.S. economist and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University

Jeffrey Sachs is an American economist and essayist who served as Director of the Earth Institute between 2002 and 2016. He is currently the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He was President of the UN Sustainable Development Solution Network and Special Advisor to UN Secretaries General Kofi Annan and Antonio Guterres. In 2004 and 2005 he was listed by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Jeffrey Sachs

Infrastructure, sustainability, future and young talent. Jeffrey Sachs, economist and professor at Columbia University, was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential men in the world. In this wide-ranging interview, he addresses future challenges starting from the infrastructure.  “We need two main kinds of infrastructure investments now,” says Sachs in an exclusive interview with Webuildvalue. “One is to transform the energy system from fossil fuel-based to a zero-carbon energy system. We must do this for climate safety. Also, it will clean our air a lot. The second kind of infrastructure is around digital technologies. We are in a digital revolution. It’s changing how we work; how services are provided; the patterns of commerce; entertainment; and all other areas of the economy. We need universal access to high quality digital services, we need zero-carbon energy systems, and we need transformations of our cities along with that. Our cities will become all electric cities, they will become digitised. They can be much more pleasant places to live and work. And I think this is what we need to focus on in the coming years.” 


The European Union has supported member countries with the Next Generation EU program. Most of the funds are destined for sustainability and energy diversification. How important is sustainability today for economic recovery, also for Europe?

“We can spend a lot of money in the wrong way. We need to be sure we are spending for the human good. We know because of the climate crisis that we have to speed the transformation of the entire energy system. What does that mean? It means that our power will be coming from wind,  solar, hydro and other zero-carbon energy sources. It means we will be in the era of electric vehicles. It means we will be in the era of a digital economy; of e-commerce; probably of self driving vehicles of various kinds, and new types of public transport. 

How we live and work is changing. Our lives will be less about being in the office eight hours a day, five days a week. People will be working at home much of the time, there will be a blended life — sometimes working with colleagues, sometimes Zooming from the coffee shop, sometimes working from home. From what I see — and what the survey data is showing — people want more flexibility in their lives.  Covid was a horrific shock, but it also opened up new ways of living and working that I think will persist. Much more time spent in neighborhoods, and much less time in congestion getting to and from the office in late afternoon traffic jams.”  


You spoke about public transport and sustainabile mobility put together. Transport needs with sustainable models. What do you think about this model of development?

“I am a Manhattanite, I live in New York City and proudly do not own a vehicle. I think the idea of car sharing, self-driving vehicles, more walking, multi-modal transport, fast rail between cities, and a return to trams and trollies in some central business districts all make a lot of sense. 

I personally think we are moving into something like a post-automobile age. There are going to be automobiles, there are reasons for it. But there is much less reason for every household to own a car, as opposed to car sharing. If you use a car half an hour a day, you don’t need to own a car for that. And if the car is self-driving in the future — which is possible —  if we redesign our walkways and streets for safety and self-driving, it will save a lot of land from roads, and save a lot of household expenses. It will allow us to green our cities much more. I think there is some real promise there.”  


Do you believe that the sustainable development goals can really be achieved? 

“The sustainable development goals to end poverty and hunger; have all children in school; have everybody with access to health care; everybody with access to safe water and sanitation; everybody with access to clean electricity: these goals can be achieved. They are not being achieved mainly because poor countries cannot afford to achieve them on their own. So the countries that are achieving the sustainable development goals are the richest countries. 

I do a ranking with my colleagues each year of progress towards the sustainable development goals, and the country on the top of the list this year was Finland. The list includes Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The usual suspects. Very well performing. Really moving to sustainable development means  green economies and universal inclusion in services.”  


Do you think climate change, the fear of climate change, can help us to invest in sustainable development?

”Investments are being made now, because every year, we have massive forest fires. We have floods. We have droughts. We have heat waves. We have hurricanes. We had people dying in New York City because their basements were flooded in flash floods. This is unbelievable. This is opening up people’s eyes and waking up our public. It is shaping politics. Young people in particular are saying: this is our century and our life, stop wrecking it. And I think they are being heard. Governments are increasingly being elected or supported by the Greens. And there is a pretty good chance that the Greens will be in power in a number of countries. Or at least the Green agenda will be high on the overall policy agenda. Europe’s Green Deal is a big deal.  It shows a change of politics. The Commission under Ursula von der Leyen is doing a very good job on this. And Franz Timmermans, the Vice President of the European Commission who leads the sustainability effort, is absolutely excellent. So politics is changing.”  


You teach at Columbia University and deal with young people every day. How important are young talents for big companies?

“One of the things that is making big companies more responsive to the agenda of sustainable development is that my students and students everywhere are checking out the companies, and they don’t want to work for a polluting company that is wrecking the environment. They want to work for a company they believe in. When companies come to the campuses, they are getting an earful right now. And they are changing their tune as a result of that. Whether they are changing their actions is something that always has to be looked at. But the rhetoric is changing. Every company is saying they are sustainable. Even the big oil companies! And the oil companies are not sustainable, I can assure you. But they are saying they are sustainable because they are trying to attract talent.”


So you think a state or a company must be more sustainable to attract talent. This is the key?

“No question. Young people around the world understand this. They know. They are the digital citizens of the world. They know that climate change is around their necks. Someone born now is going to live through he 21st century with good chance into the 22nd century. If we don’t change direction, its going to be a very hard and crazy century. They know this. And ultimately this is what is driving political change now is generational change.”