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Acting today to secure a safe tomorrow

Author: Catherine Pearce

Published: 16 Jan 2019

Establishing mechanisms to guarantee the well-being of future generations is not a new idea: rather, it marks the return of a longstanding principle to help build a safe, sustainable and shared future for all.

The scale of climate chaos and the unprecedented loss of biodiversity are alarming signals that humanity is living at the expense of future generations. Generations yet to be born can’t stand up for their rights: we must do so on their behalf. Establishing mechanisms to guarantee the well-being of future generations is not a new idea: it marks the return of a longstanding principle to help build a safe, sustainable and shared future for all. One noteworthy example is the Native American principle that calls for the impact of any decision on seven generations into the future to be taken into account.

Since 1946, numerous international treaties and conventions have explicitly recognised the interests of future generations, most recently the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Over 20 national constitutions enshrine the needs of future generations. Yet the warnings of the Brundtland Report1 are as urgent today as they were in 1987. The dangers, once predicted to occur far into the future, are fast encroaching on today’s world, to the point that vast numbers of people living in vulnerable situations are facing immediate threats to their very survival.

How to give a voice to future generations?

Bringing the voice of future generations to the negotiating table is fundamental. We need additional, innovative and far-reaching measures alongside new governance arrangements that go beyond pure rhetoric if we are to truly deliver our commitments to future generations.

Guardians or Commissioners for Future Generations are proven, innovative, independent bodies, dedicated to enhancing governance frameworks and processes by actively advocating for long-term interests. By offering advice and building capacity, such institutions have proven very effective in overcoming the short-termism and policy incoherence plaguing the decisions of today, linking citizens with governments, and working as a catalyst for sustainable development implementation.

Such institutions, recognised by the UN Secretary-General in his 2013 report Intergenerational solidarity and the needs of future generations2, are now part of a formal ‘Network of Institutions for Future Generations’3. The network provides a platform for knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer learning. It promotes institutional protection of the environment and general well-being, for now and into the future.

For these institutions to be effective, attention must be given to a core set of principles upon which they must be based:

  • Independent
  • Proficient
  • Transparent
  • Legitimate by democratic standards
  • With full access to relevant information
  • Widely accessible to external assessments and citizens’ concerns

Take one inspiring example. In 2015, the Welsh Assembly became one of the only governments in the world to introduce a Well-being of Future Generations Act4. This sets out a sustainable development duty on public bodies in Wales, according to seven well-being goals:

  • A globally responsible Wales
  • A prosperous Wales
  • A resilient Wales
  • A healthier Wales
  • A more equal Wales
  • A Wales of cohesive communities
  • A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh Language

To achieve these goals, Welsh public bodies need to follow five ways of working, outlined below, which comprise the Act’s sustainable development principle:

  • Long-term − balancing the needs of today with those of future generations.
  • Prevention − focusing on early intervention and early action rather than just reacting to problems.
  • Integration − aligning the efforts of public bodies in relation to each other’s well-being goals and objectives.
  • Collaboration – working together to achieve well-being objectives.
  • Involvement − involving people who reflect the community in the area where the public body operates.

The legislation establishes a statutory Future Generations Commissioner, to act as a guardian for the interests of future generations, with key responsibilities:

  • Providing advice and support to public bodies and public services boards, encouraging them to achieve their local well-being objectives.
  • Carrying out research to include the well-being goals, the national indicators and milestones, and the sustainable development principle and how public bodies apply it.
  • Conducting reviews into how public bodies are accounting for long-term impacts and making recommendations based on the findings, including to public bodies.
  • Preparing and publishing a Future Generations Report every five years which assesses the improvements public bodies should make to achieve the well-being goals.

The informal Governmental Group of Friends for Future Generations at the UN in New York, comprising more than 20 Permanent Representatives to the UN, has formally endorsed the establishment of Global Guardians for Future Generations5 under the UN system.

"We want to encourage a profoundly different approach to taking decisions which will improve the prospects of all generations, current and future." (ICAEW Intergenerational Fairness Survey 2017)

Time for a fundamental change

Bringing the voice of future generations to the negotiating table is fundamental.

We already live well beyond the carrying capacity of the earth: a fundamental change is urgently needed if healthy lives and livelihoods are to be maintained and cultivated. Our governance systems require innovative accountability structures, to draw us out of the present day status quo, and ensure we are making decisions in the interests of future generations, and with long-lasting positive benefits.


1 https://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/AdvocacyToolkit/index.php/earth-summit-history/historical-documents/92-our-common-future
2 Report of the Secretary-General: Intergenerational solidarity and the needs of future generations (2013), A/68/322
3 http://futureroundtable.org/en/web/roundtable-of-institutions-for-a-sustainable-future/welcome
4 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/anaw/2015/2/contents/enacted
5 https://www.mrfcj.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Global-Guardians-A-Voice-for-Future-Generations-April-2017.pdf