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Fair Ideas for Saving the Planet

A report from Rio+20 and the Fair Ideas conference

By Tom Bigg | International Institute for Environment and Development | July 20, 2012

CREDIT: Satoru Kikuchi (CC).

The State of Intergovernmental Negotiations

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development that took place in Brazil in late June focused on two broad issues: first, our progress toward sustainable development as outlined in the landmark 1992 Rio summit; and second, how a "green economy" can improve management and use of natural resources, underpin human wellbeing and development, and safeguard key assets for future generations.

It's hard to dispute the general feeling that the Rio+20 summit constituted a step back in the decades-long effort—which started with the Brundtland Commission in the late 1980s—to place equity, sufficiency, and international collaboration at the heart of global and national policy. But while the immediate outcomes may not give grounds for much optimism, its longer-term value will likely be found in less tangible changes in attitude and understanding.

One fundamental problem is with the UN consensus process itself. As Virgilio Viana of the Brazilian organization Fundação Amazonas Sustentável put it, if UN negotiators had to decide whether they should all have coffee or a beer then they would never reach agreement. So imagine how much more challenging it is to arrive at a set of strong, collective commitments across the broad agenda set for the summit—with entrenched interests, suspicions, and ideological differences to accommodate. The process is also severely hampered by a lack of credibility: Governments conveniently removed any assessment of the (lack of) progress in implementing previous global commitments, or attention to trends heading dangerously away from stability and fairness.

But beneath this tale of the declining significance of global diplomacy, things are changing. It's true that most governments are still represented by environment or development ministers, while their counterparts from finance, planning, and business are few and far between. By contrast, heads of corporations such as Unilever, Puma, and the biggest Brazilian companies were ubiquitous in Rio, some bullishly asserting that if governments won't take steps to fix global problems then they will step into the gap.

Thirty months ago in Copenhagen, European governments had a blunt awakening when they were sidelined in the climate change negotiations by a stitch-up between the United States, China, and India. This shift in power was less evident in Rio+20, perhaps because there was less at stake. But the growing influence of G77 countries was a striking feature of the event. The governments of Colombia, the United Arab Emirates, and Guatemala were closely associated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); African countries expressed strong interest in the notion of the "green economy" as a means to plan their future development trajectories; and China focused on the potential impact that a greater focus on environmental wellbeing could have on job creation.

On the flip side, many Latin American countries vociferously rejected what has been termed the "commodification of nature" through policy tools, such as payments for ecosystem services and valuation systems that put a monetary worth on environmental resources. And the G77 collectively rejected EU efforts to introduce targets and timetables into the negotiated text.

We Need a New Narrative for Systemic Change

It's hugely frustrating that Rio+20 didn't present sustainable development as the best means the world has to tackle economic volatility, social unrest, and inequality, and the dangers posed by exceeding environmental limits and reaching system tipping points. Twenty years on from the original Earth Summit, it's a major indictment of sustainability wonks and advocacy organizations that our leaders still don't understand the basic significance of sustainable development, and also that it's so easy for them to relegate it to a policy footnote.

The principles of sustainable development are becoming more tangible through innovations in policy and practice.

There is growing evidence that the principles of sustainable development are now embedded in diverse contexts around the world, and are becoming more tangible through innovations in policy and practice. Many of these were showcased in the margins of the summit, and provided a welcome contrast to the inertia of the official process. But a widespread concern voiced across different contexts was that these "glimpses of sustainability" are of limited value if they don't lead to transformation of the mainstream.

"We can't claim on any major indicators that we've turned the corner, but underneath the global meta-level of analysis there is extraordinary innovation and practice," said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme. "We're inventing a million times the different solutions, but unless we can create the structures and systems to promote change, we will remain the laboratories and test grounds to show what could be done."

The potential for transformation was discussed in detail at the Fair Ideas conference held by the International Institute for Environment and Development just prior to Rio+20. One of the conference's key conclusions was that people can be lifted out of poverty through better use of natural resources, and that this need not act as an anti-competitive brake on development, as many fear. To realise this potential, a successful green economy must fulfil three basic criteria:

  • First, sustainable development must improve the lives of the poorest people and countries—providing jobs, increasing access to food, energy, and other resources, and reducing vulnerability to shocks and competition.
  • Second, it must reduce the gulf between the richest and the poorest, both within and between countries: A green economy must shift us towards a fairer, more efficient allocation of limited resources.
  • Third, it must be owned and developed principally at local and national levels, building on existing institutions and expertise: It cannot be imposed from outside but must take root in what is already there.

For developed countries there's a simple message: Your footprint is too large in a crowded world, so reduce consumption and decouple growth from resource use. For developing countries, the discussion is more about how to chart the next 20 years of economic growth and development in ways that look very different from 20th century models. Green growth must be overtly inclusive, or it will always arouse suspicions: It has tended to be viewed by developing countries as a "can't-do" affair, promoted by Northern or international organizations in high-tech, high-cost terms.

Much can be learned from countries such as Costa Rica where natural resource use has already been transformed to support inclusive and sustainable growth. Innovative social enterprises in India are already increasing the returns from investment in local resources and bringing much greater connectedness to social institutions—for example through localised financial services, and commitment to building local capacities. These enterprises are creating jobs, protecting environments, and alleviating poverty. In short, they are proving highly effective at "doing more with less" and as such could become vehicles of a new economy.

Each of the "glimpses" shown at Fair Ideas is in itself cause for optimism. But it is not enough for the sustainable development community alone to have these examples of effective practice or to share a coherent analysis of the need for change. If we are to achieve the transformations required, we must reach and influence mainstream discourse.

"Natural Capital" and Green Economy

Initiatives such as the UK-based Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation initiative and the World Bank–led Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) are trying to do this by strengthening the links between poverty and green development tools, such as natural capital accounting. The Costa Rican government is keen to share lessons from its own transformation with a broad swath of countries with similar natural assets. As Environment Minister René Castro said, "Economies and societies in the tropical belt of the world—Brazil, Congo, and Indonesia, for example—could benefit from these approaches and provide a global service to the climate."

ACHIM STEINER SPEAKS AT FAIR IDEAS (skip to 18:45)



JUMP TO:  René Castro clip  |  Kate Raworth clip  |  Paula Caballero clip

But there is a long way to go. In all cases, the diverse initiatives that provide glimpses of a green economy would benefit from broader visions and frameworks at the national level. Brazil is a hotbed of schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)—with advanced satellite systems already in place to monitor forest cover in individual schemes—but there has been little private sector investment to date. In part, this is because there is no coherence or overarching monitoring across the different schemes. Better regulatory and monitoring frameworks at the national and international level would give private investors more confidence and help make the transition take off.

Even with strong frameworks, transformation will take time. All economies are highly linked to social and cultural systems, and so transformative aspects of green growth must be viewed as part of a long-term process of societal change. There will undoubtedly be some quick wins in new green markets and technologies. But the necessary systemic changes will be tough and slow. Critically, they must not be entirely government-driven. Business, civil society, and other developing-country actors all have roles to play in developing and implementing a green economy. Emphasizing their perspectives can itself kick-start a process of changing mindsets and behaviours.

Green economy is just one tool for achieving sustainable development, and is clearly still interpreted in widely divergent ways. Further debate and discussion is sorely needed, informed both by evidence and by greater public engagement—otherwise the "agreed" definition of a green economy may end up being narrow, exclusive, and incapable of delivering transition.

Sustainable Development Goals: Tracking improvement, increasing accountability

The world is grappling with three linked crises:

  • Social—Deprivation and lack of opportunity for more than a billion people, plus growing inequality between and within countries.
  • Environmental—Degradation of natural assets, scarcity, and competition over access to finite natural resources, combined with increasing instability in ecological systems, pose growing difficulties for all countries.
  • Economic—The instability and fragility of financial systems have been repeatedly exposed over the past few years.

While it is developed countries that are experiencing direct impacts today, these will have ongoing and growing repercussions on prospects for growth and increased wellbeing everywhere. "We've taken the planet to the brink, while leaving millions of people in poverty and desperation," said Kate Raworth of Oxfam GB.

A globally agreed set of Sustainable Development Goals has the potential to act as the compass to navigate these crises—guiding the broad direction for multilateral cooperation while helping to legitimize and amplify the multiplicity of local to global initiatives that are essential to realize change. As Paula Caballero of the Colombian government has put it, "SDGs should help in tackling the complex linkages between the environmental, social, and financial crises, recognising that poverty eradication and environmental stability should be at the heart of each distinct goal."

How best to realise an effective set of goals is contentious. For some, the difficult process ahead might be a distraction from getting on with what we know is necessary and beneficial: By this reasoning we don't need a specific energy SDG to continue existing efforts to increase energy access for all and reduce dependency on fossil fuels. The potential for confusion and overlap between the SDGs and a post-2015 framework for aid needs to be carefully addressed.

But many others feel that we currently lack a strong point of reference that works for all countries and defines a shared direction of travel. It is highly significant that the SDGs concept is most strongly advocated by middle-income countries, which are achieving significant improvements in standards of living and economic growth, but which see the need for a new global compact to reduce the risk of future instability undermining their progress. A number of cross-cutting themes should be built into the SDG framework for action:

  1. More attention should be paid to innovation and new ways of doing things. This will be an essential factor in enabling us to live within the social and environmental "safe operating space" for humanity. This does not simply mean looking to large-scale, top-down, technological advancements. It also means heeding the small-scale social, political, and practical innovations made by individuals and communities using local or indigenous knowledge and experience.

  2. Allowing poor people to design solutions that meet their current and future needs is key. But this reaches beyond innovation to include decision making. Involvement of poor and marginalized communities will require organization and mobilization—both of which are essential to get neglected voices heard in key decision-making arenas and ensure that resulting policy and practice address the priorities of local people.

  3. Where local participation and decentralized governance have been implemented, they have usually proved their worth. In Brazil, local government is playing a key role in addressing waste management and water supply. There are a whole range of models that can work to deliver services to poor communities, but all depend on understanding the local context and ensuring effective local participation. Feed-in tariffs—which provide payments to anyone owning a renewable electricity system—are the fastest way to unleash renewable energy production in poor countries and regions, and in so doing expand energy access. But if they are to engage the poorest members of society, they must reflect local priorities and preferences. Feed-in tariffs can and should be designed to be just, fair, and open to all.

  4. The SDGs can provide the vehicle for more realistic valuation of natural resources. Putting a price tag on natural resources is an important way of ensuring that they are looked after and sustainably managed. This is what initiatives such as WAVES are trying to do: using environmental accounting to integrate natural resources into national accounts and development planning. But there are also legitimate concerns over commoditizing nature, as highlighted above. There is much to learn in this regard from established payments for ecosystem services schemes, such as the one in Costa Rica, which has now been up and running for 15 years.

  5. Perhaps the most important reflection on the SDGs is that they must stimulate collaboration. We all face tradeoffs in the move toward sustainable development: countries, companies, communities, and individuals alike will have to make difficult decisions that are expensive, go beyond business as usual, and involve sacrifices. Making these decisions cannot be the responsibility of one government or ministry alone. Sustainable development policy and practice is marked by vested interests and hot disputes; and negotiations tend to be competitive, rather than collaborative. Until finance and environment ministries are included in development decisions, and vice versa, we will continue to fight old battles, without gaining ground. We urgently need a new form of global debate and negotiation.

"Knowledge is the greatest tool for human progress but it won't suffice—we also need leadership and determination to work together," said Julia Marton-LeFèvre, the head of International Union for Conservation of Nature. Similarly, we need joint responsibilities and new forms of partnership between governments, businesses, and civil society. False dichotomies—public versus private sector, for example—are stalling action. We need both. That includes the range and the importance of different private sector roles beyond large-scale corporations, including the informal sector, social enterprise, and small- and medium-sized enterprises.

These reflections draw heavily on discussions during the two-day Fair Ideas conference hosted by IIED in Rio de Janeiro in advance of the Rio+20 summit. For further information and material see www.fairideas.org.

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Read More: Business, Development, Diplomacy, Energy, Environment, Governance, Innovation, Poverty, Sustainability, Technology, Brazil, China, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, United States, Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, Global

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