Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 24 May 2010

The future of “sustainable development”

The world is in even graver crisis almost two decades after the promises made at the 1992 Earth Summit. A new Rio Summit in 2012 will aim to close the gaps and discuss new problems.


It's been almost two decades since the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio (Brazil) that woke up the world to the crises in the environment as well as development.

Despite the great declarations of that meeting, which most government heads attended, the environment today is in even greater crisis.

An important reason is that globalisation, spurred by the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995, ushered in new forces of economic competition among countries.  They had to keep costs low so that their companies could survive in the globalised market, and less and less priority was given to environmental protection or to assist developing countries.

It has been business as usual, with more forests chopped, minerals exploited and factories and cars pumping pollutants and warming the world's temperature.

Though climate change has hogged the news recently, there are also many other ecological problems. The loss of biodiversity is causing even more economic loss than global warming, according to a new United Nations report leaked to and reported by The Guardian last week.

There is also the increasing scarcity of water, which will affect large numbers of country in the next decade and has the large potential to cause conflicts.

The latest sign of this is the fight over the rights to the use of the waters of the Nile among  seven countries in Africa on the upper and lower reaches of the river. This has the potential to develop into a major regional problem.

The UN is organising the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2012, also in Rio, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 conference.

The aim is to get renewed commitment from political leaders for sustainable development, to assess progress and gaps in the follow up of previous summits, and address new and emerging challenges. Two specific themes have also been chosen: a green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The first meeting in this “Rio plus 20” process took place at the UN in New York last week. 

“We are meeting against the backdrop of multiple crises,” said UN Under Secretary General Sha Zukang. “The sad truth is that despite two centuries of spectacular growth on our planet we have failed to eradicate the scourge of poverty.

“If we continue on our current path we will bequeath material and environmental poverty, not prosperity, to our children and grand-children.  Our stop-gap solutions can no longer suffice.  Only sustainable development can provide durable solutions to the crisis.”

“Sustainable development” is indeed the key concept underlying the whole discussion.  It is a term that emerged with its multi-faceted meanings from the 1992 Earth Summit.

The original proposal was to hold a UN conference on the environment, but developing countries insisted that environmental issues had to be considered in relation to development issues as well.

Thus “sustainable development” was born, containing three pillars – environmental, social and economic issues – that are inherently inter-linked in a balanced and integrated manner.

It was agreed that environmental problems are so much related to social and economic problems (especially poverty and under-development) that all three aspects have to be tackled together.

The principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities” was also born – that all countries have the task of bringing about sustainable development but that the rich have a greater duty because of their greater previous use of the world's resources and their greater capacity.  Thus, they have to assist developing countries, including through transfers of finance and technology.

This principle is at the centre not only of Rio 1992's main outcome (Agenda 21) but also the Conventions on Climate Change and on Biodiversity, which were also signed at the same time in Rio.

The developing countries want the Rio Plus 20 process to examine what has gone wrong in the past 20 years that led to such poor results.  There has been a persistent “implementation gap,” said the Chair of the Group of 77 and China, Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi of Yemen, at last week's meeting.

Many commitments by the developed countries have not been met, and there must now be more effective implementation of what was agreed at previous summits, with greater funding, he added.

Many developed countries are however not very keen to have the 2012 Summit focusing on the failures of the past.  Perhaps they don't want to be embarrassed at how little of the pledged financial and technology transfers have taken place.

They would like instead to focus discussions on the “Green Economy” and on a new international structure to deal more effectively with environmental issues.

While agreeing with these two topics, the developing countries are also on guard against any attempts to over-emphasise environmental issues at the expense of the social and economic development pillars of sustainable development.

The G77 and China said there is no need to redefine sustainable development or replace it with an “imprecisely defined, abstract concept”, referring to the Green Economy.

It was especially concerned that the transition to a Green Economy should not lead to conditions and standards that justify unilateral restrictions in trade, finance and aid.  It should allow countries the policy space to define their own paths to sustainability.

The underling fear of the developing countries is that too much stress on the environmental aspect of a new economic model would neglect the development needs of developing countries, and thus be a step backwards from the concept and practice of “sustainable development” which took so long to reach agreement on.

Last week's meeting launched the debate on what is to be achieved at Rio Plus 20.  Another major controversial issue is what kind of institutions should govern sustainable development in the future.

Should the existing institutions, such as the UN Environment Programme, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the UNDP and UNCTAD, be strengthened and work better together?  Or should there be a more radical restructuring or even the creation of a new institution altogether and what would its mandate be?

With such interesting and important topics, the road to the 2012 Summit will be paved with much intense negotiations.