Some reflections on the state of SD and its obstacles

I was having a Skype call earlier today with the Federation of Young European Greens (FYEG), who are organising a seminar about Rio+20. The internet quality here at Rio Centro / Brazil is quite poor, so I didn’t get to really say what I wanted. Instead I’ll put it online here for all to see. It’s what I wrote down in the bus on my way to Rio Centro this morning, with some inspiration from an IISD report (called Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012). It should be subject to strong criticism and nuance of course; these are mere ponderings that came up and intended to provoke some discussion.

About the achievement of Sustainable Development: SD has in twenty years time been accepted by nearly everyone, including governments, businesses and NGO’s, as an overarching framework for development, even though it is somewhat elusive and many people don’t know what it actually means. And despite the fact that there is considerable disagreement on how it should be put into practice.

Three common points stand out however: it’s that SD should be about fairness and equity. Meaning it should benefit the poorest as well as future generations. Secondly, it’s about the long term view, which is reflected in the precautionary principle which I’m sure you all know. Thirdly SD converges the ecological, social and economic pillars, a convergence which is often a difficult task. That is not to say we should balance the pillars, it’s more about acknowledging the interdependencies of these dimensions.

Anothing interesting point is that a lot of metrics have been developed in the past years to measure this concept of SD: HDI is a modest attempt, the Happy Planet Index is another, and actually there’s a wide range of them, and a fair number of them are even tailored to a specific country or region. It’s difficult to say which one of them is better than the other, I’d say they often complement each other. Everything depends on what you want to know, what you want to measure. At least all of them have in common that the traditional GDP growth paradigm is considered to be vastly insufficient (though in some of them it remains a rather strong feature).

Many experiments have been carried out all over the world to introduce this concept into actual policy and into practice. This has been facilitated by the establishment of government departments for sustainable development, as well as civil society watchdogs who also provide reports and advice. This is one of the more concrete outcomes of the previous Earth Summit in 92. However, this has not been mainstreamed in all countries across the globe, and they are still far from sufficient. We can’t really say SD is wholly integrated into policy making, horizontally as well as vertically. I mean, both in the different departments (such as finance, agriculture, energy or whatever, and in the different levels of policy (national, regional, local, international).

Many local governments or cities have taken up Agenda 21, that called for the implementation on the local level as well. There’s literally thousands of them, with varying degrees of success, who have introduced measures to increase sustainability in their policy work. There has also been the establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development on the international level, but this proved to be a seriously flawed institution. As a functional commission of ECOSOC, it has a weak status indeed. I was told that you could rank it as high as WADA in terms of importance, for example. Not quite what we need to tackle the immense problems facing us in the coming decades.

So to summarize, there is broad acknowledgement of the paradigm, a lot of research has been carried out and we actually know quite much, but the political will to thoroughly implement it has been lacking, to put it mildly. This has to do with a number of factors, not least of which is that it’s usually considered as an environmental topic, which causes SD to often be in the hands of ministries of environment. Most of the time, these hold little power compared to trade, agriculture or energy ministries.0020Moreover, SD provides few incentives for politicians to distinguish themselves in the national political arena, as it is often portrayed as a paradigm in which everyone has to give in, rather than a win-win scheme.

As we are now heading towards 9 billion people in just 40 years time, and considering 20% of the people consume 80% of our resources, and taking into account the rapid growth in a number of emerging economies, we can’t wait much longer, we need to get our shit together. The principles and ideas exist already, and it’s not enough to reiterate them, which is what is happening at Rio+20 for the most part. We also need to act.. Unfortunately what is on the table now is mostly a range of options to start up processes that will eventually put SD into practice, or a number of voluntary commitments (such as the SCP). This is not enough. Leaders will need to commit to a plan and a strategy in their own country, as the current document is not binding. Because the outcome document will be a resolution put forward in the next UNGA session (the 67th IIRC), it’s not a binding treaty anyway.

Main obstacles: The uptake of sustainable development has been hampered by development being defined primarily as economic growth. This has been the framework used by developed countries in attaining their unprecedented levels of wealth, and it should be no surprise that major developing economies are following the same course. The problem with such an approach is that natural resources are in imminent peril of being exhausted (whether in terms of supply [e.g., oil reserves] or quality [e.g., air or water pollution]).

A number of countries obstinately refuse these basic findings. George H. W. Bush, prior to the Rio Summit in 1992, said that “The American way of life is not negotiable”, and this hasn’t changed. More sustainable development pathways are needed in both developed and developingcountries; which require a level of dialogue, cooperation and, most importantly, trust that simply is not reflected in today’s multilateral institutions or regimes.  This trust has been breached due to promises made earlier (in 92 but in other fora as well), especially regarding the means of implementation, but this is reflected in a broader North-South divide as well, despite the changing relations, with the BRICS

There is a huge gap between the multilateral processes, with their broad goals and policies; and national action, which reflects domestic political and economic realities. A huge constituency around the world cares deeply and talks about sustainable development, but has not taken serious on-the-ground action. Deep structural changes are needed in the ways that societies manage their economic, social and environmental affairs; and hard choices are needed to move from talk to action.

The way multilateral agreements are negotiated now needs to be changed, both procedurally as well as regarding the fundamental and underlying objectives we have in mind. Do we want to keep negotiating on the basis of interests, or rather with common objectives in mind. The challenge then is how we can change that mindset. This task is immense, but it needs to be addressed if we want to drastically increase the pace with which we can implement the needed change on an international level.



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