Former Deputy Executive Director, now Special Advisor to the Executive Director, UNEP
Next year’s Rio+20 Conference is a golden opportunity for political leadership, given the dire, urgent and complex economic, social and environmental issues that confront the world. The requirement for such leadership and commitment on macro sustainable development issues is more pressing than the need for long lists of sectoral ‘to dos’, which mostly already exist on paper as outcomes of global summits and sectoral processes.
We know what needs to be done. We need, however, to examine why implementation lags so far behind such resolutions of mind and what would enable this Conference to elevate its ambition and make good use of the opportunity before it. How might it remove some of the impediments to sustainable development? What kind of outcomes would position the world to deal with some of the urgent, if complex, problems it faces?
Here are ten ideas for ambitious approaches which need political direction and subsequent commitment:
1. Shape the approach to economic growth to serve social objectives and recognize environmental limits and imperatives.
The Conference will meet at a propitious moment, as the world now much better understands the issues of sustainable development and how the economy, the environment and human well-being are inter-related and mutually supportive. But this understanding is not put into practice: environmental imperatives and human well-being objectives are invariably traded off as optional and secondary to economic growth. This impedes sustainable development which unifies economic, social and environmental objectives — as opposed to adding on environmental and social considerations only where the economic bottom line remains unaffected.
The Conference could set this relationship properly on its feet, putting economic growth at the service of the social objectives which governments have long enunciated over time and recognising and respecting resource and environmental constraints. This will require qualitatively different attention to decisions about policy, investment, and other development interventions, so that environmental and human wellbeing outcomes are not sacrificed in the preoccupation with, and pursuit of, economic growth.
2. Make a commitment to reduce inequity, domestically and globally.
The Conference could draw attention to how the present economic approach generates persistent poverty and increasing inequity, recognizing that the peripheral means by which the world tries to alleviate them do not allow it to catch up. It could commit itself to reducing that equity gap consciously and urgently both within and among countries, and put in place arrangements to keep the process under global and national scrutiny. Without achieving this for the present generation we can hardly expect to meet the concern for equity between generations.
3. Require more appropriate measures of development to be formulated and applied
It is well established that relying on Gross Domestic Product as the measure of development is misleading, especially given the goal of sustainable development, yet we persist in its use. The Conference could call for urgent and accelerated work, in a specified time frame, towards a new set of measurements and indicators that reflect the three dimensions of sustainable development as equally important. National Income Accounting Systems will also need to reflect the same characteristics.
4. Require corporate reporting on integrated sustainability parameters.
It is important to understand how economic activities affect national economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. Much available technical guidance is available on how such sustainability reporting can be done, and some countries have already moved to require this important measure of accountability by law. The Conference could conclude that such national reporting should be made mandatory, to permit oversight of corporate practice and to guide enabling policies and institutional arrangements. This would contribute to measuring national progress and, if universally applied, would not affect competitiveness.
5. Commit to enhanced investment and arrangements for public involvement.
Moving towards sustainable development cannot be done by governments alone: they must guide and enable societies along that pathway. Societies must understand the nature of the changes required and be prepared to support them. National — as opposed to government — ownership of the approaches and measures to be taken needs to be cultivated and secured. This requires educational programmes that build understanding and could lead to changes in values and behaviour; access to information that enables and empowers citizens to make choices and inputs; and mechanisms for public involvement and consultation that are part of national governance arrangements.
6. Make an affirmative intervention on the economic interests of youth.
Youth unemployment — and the tensions to which it leads — is a global phenomenon. The Conference could decide to establish a global programme for training and employing young people to equip them with the skills and opportunities to share more equitably in the development process. This could be especially useful if linked to the nature and range of skills required to ‘green’ economies.
7. Agree to take action to restore the world’s marine commons.
The science on the degradation of the marine commons is unambiguous; the policy actions required are clear; but political decision-making lags behind. Effective action is invariably sacrificed to national interests and practices while, globally, there is a laissez-faire approach, even though the issue is vital to global environmental sustainability and many livelihoods. With present practice and approaches, the assets of the marine commons will continue to degrade, perhaps irretrievably, in spite of the many polices, programmes and instruments in place from national to global levels. These urgently need to be unified and gaps filled, including by paying attention to ocean areas not covered by present governance arrangements. The Conference could declare its commitment to the systemic action required to address this need and require that it be served through all the related global processes.
8. Commit to transforming land management and food production and consumption systems to ensure national and global food security.
This is essential for many reasons: avoiding a new wave of converting forests and wetlands in response to the pressures for world food security; ensuring that existing agricultural land is used sustainably; addressing the multiple pressures that lead to processes of land degradation and desertification; and addressing the needs of the estimated two billion people who subsist in threatened ecological systems and are at the bottom of the human well-being ladder. The Conference could commit to increased investment in alleviating such processes and to the national policies and actions required.
9. Help Least Developed Countries onto a ‘fast runway’ for Sustainable Development.
The Conference could take global leadership on behalf of the world’s 48 most disadvantaged countries, and set the stage for a transformative moment in the Global Partnership for Development. It could decide on global affirmative action to help them overcome impediments over domestic investible resources, access to modern technologies on affordable terms, and technical capacity for designing accelerated economic transformation and the institutional framework of policies, legislation, regulation, fiscal measures that will be required. This would also include establishing and harmonizing a public/private investment and financing platform.
10. Commit to an energy compact to expand access, efficiency, and investment in renewables.
The Conference could catalyze a new global energy mix by relating energy demand (access, saving and efficiency) and supply (including incentive policies, subsidies, investments and the deployment of renewable energy sources). This could be an important lever for simultaneously addressing economic, social and environmental aspirations in the context of climate change targets and sustainable development.