Global Sustainability Panel calls for deeper integration of economic, social and environmental pillars, more equity
Published in SUNS #7248 dated 27 October 2011

New York, 26 Oct (Bhumika Muchhala) – The UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel on Global Sustainability calls for the global development agenda to be based on a sustainability pathway that more deeply integrates the economic, social and environmental pillars both in policy and institutions, as well as stresses the importance of equity that is people-focused.

The Global Sustainability Panel (GSP) members, including Co-chairs South African President Jacob Zuma and the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, took part in an interactive dialogue with the UN General Assembly organized on 20 October in New York by Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the President of the Assembly. Some initial conclusions from the GSP’s draft report were shared with member states.

The GSP was created by the Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in 2010 to address interconnected sustainability challenges and its final report due in January 2012 will feed into relevant intergovernmental discussions, primarily the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and the annual meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In his opening remarks, Ban said that he asked the Panel to look at the fundamental drivers of change in the coming decades, to examine links between issues, and to provide recommendations for the future.

Ban said that across the globe, economies are teetering; people are expressing widespread disillusion and so leaders need to make tough choices. “We need to provide for the needs of today, while investing in the people, the planet, and the promise of tomorrow. I asked the Panel to look at these issues with a bold but pragmatic eye,” he said.

Ban also said that a new generation of sustainable development goals needs to be developed to pick up where the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) leave off in 2015. For this he stressed greater accountability and good governance by all, equity to become more fully integrated into institutions and policies, and the fundamental role of the state in advancing this agenda.

The President of Finland and the Co-Chair of the GSP, Tarja Halonen, emphasized that a “trinity of sorts underpins the approach of the GSP, in that they are integrating the economic, social, environmental pillars of development in order to approach the defining issues of our times in a broader and deeper manner.”

She said that some of the existing forums in the UN are currently too narrow. The issues today have to be approached from various angles simultaneously and with coordination.

For example, in an effort to address the volatility of food prices and the consequences of our economic behavior, certain types of subsidies need to be looked at. “Not all of the subsidies are bad. So, we need to see how sustainable each different type of subsidy is,” said Halonen. She further stated that the whole panel agrees on “investing in people,” in that human development is “necessary for sustainability.”

Halonen stressed that the Arab Spring revolutions have demonstrated to the international community that employment must be boosted while maintaining and creating increased sustainability. “The Arab Spring has taught us that is of utmost importance to educate our young ones, but that this is not enough. Opportunities for their future also have to be created.”

With regard to international economic governance, Halonen said that, “We don't have to create a global government. What our panel is interested in is global governance and how we can organize it. We think it is important to not only pursue global governance on the national and global levels, but also on the local and regional levels.”

This requires the integration of policies between the various ministries of finance, development, agriculture, trade and so on. “Sometimes we wonder if the various ministries who are contradicting themselves are from the same government?” she queried. She added that there are practical ways to drive integration and coherence on the international level.

Halonen said that the Secretary-General has initiated an inquiry into the formation of a post-2015 global development agenda. She said that “although the MDGs did not turn out to be the optimal agenda for development that we had hoped it would be, we still remember the ethos that underpinned the creation of a new Millennium agenda. After all these hopes, the fathers and mothers of the MDG framework would say that it is not a ‘failed child,’ so to speak.”

“For the post-2015 timeframe, we see a similar ethos of optimism to go further. There already exists a global consensus on a framework called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which would apply to all countries in a comprehensive scope. We cannot yet attempt to define the SDGs, however, we believe it is critically important that a broad range of stakeholders work together to define these SDGs while also remembering that we still have to do our utmost to achieve and meet the MDG goals by the target year of 2015,” she stressed.

“Our panel is thus considering a comprehensive assessment of the data, scope, and analysis of SDGs in order to integrate the various issues and consider a comprehensive policy scope from the ground up. This is important precisely because the existing policy institutions are insufficient to cope with the full scope of sustainability-oriented goals,” she further said.

The President of South Africa and the Co-Chair of the GSP, Jacob Zuma, stated that the panel’s report attempts to address the political contours of the “turbulent times in which we live,” and in so doing the report has particular significance for developing countries.”

Zuma stressed that, “the panel's work is more important than ever given the multiple crises now enveloping the world. The economic models of the past have run out of steam and out of time as the world slips further into recession.”

He said the panel’s report also tries to address the needs of policymakers who are hungry for ideas that can help them navigate shifting waters and chart a more stable course. In the current climate of uncertainty, the panel has a unique opportunity to offer bold recommendations to policymakers.

A key recommendation is that “sustainable development is about finding a more efficient and stable cost-development path for the future, and in so doing to forge something better in a world burdened by volatility and environmental constraints. This is one reason why the panel's work is particularly important for developing countries.”

Zuma stated that “when we speak of future population dynamics and resources usage we are primarily talking about the developing world. From our work on the panel it is clear that Rio+20 must address far more than just the environment. The sustainable agenda is about equity, the economy, and the environment as an integrated whole. From this it follows that we need stakeholders from across the spectrum at Rio+20, not just environment ministers, but also finance, trade, and social welfare ministers, as well as other senior officials, civil society and private sector leaders.”

Zuma outlined the significance of the panel’s report for developing countries by stating that “as the panel’s co-chair, I welcome the opportunity to help shape an agenda for sustainable development for decades to come. As President of the country hosting the next COP17 (meeting of the Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC) in December, I also welcome the opportunity to address climate change through the broader framework of sustainable development. The challenges confronting us through food, fuel, climate, weather, energy, poverty, youth unemployment, and economic recession are exacerbating social unrest and political instability in many countries, particularly those that are still developing.”

However, at the same time that a multiplicity of crises loom overhead, developing countries are also at the helm of “tremendous opportunities.” There are exciting policies and sustainability initiatives occurring in developing countries. Zuma said that “in South Africa for example, there is a long-held view that freedom from want is a necessary condition for development to be sustainable. It begs mention therefore that new economic paradigms must be shaped on the principles of equity with a central focus on people and not on purely profit-driven motives.”

“There is also tremendous potential to fuel our growth with renewable energy, such as hydro, wind, and water. Mobile phone technologies have brought us closer together as neighbors and opened up new horizons in trade, banking, and even agricultural practices,” he further said.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, Panel member, stated that the multiple crises need to be addressed in a “bold and courageous way.” Rudd stated that the panel believes that the concept and vision of the Sustainable Development Goals for a post-2015 goals agenda is critical because they will integrate environmental limits with a sustainability-based development pathway. This will enable the world’s currently available $1.5 trillion in financial assets to leverage official development assistance for sustainable development.

At the same time, the work on the MDGs has been important work. “Australian aid allocations have been based on the MDGs, and in that it has been a defining framework. But the truth is that we will fall short in aid commitments very soon,” he said.

In terms of sustainability, Rudd noted that by 2050 the international community will have to feed another 300 million people on the planet and this requires significantly scaled yield increases via improved agricultural inputs, and fertilizers, and management. Rudd placed particular emphasis on the “blue economy,” that of marine life and ocean resources and highlighted that the most dire food security challenges are located in the African continent.

Rudd mentioned that the agenda of women in development is critical as the economic significance of women as full participants of the world economy is not fully grasped by the world. International determination and participation is required to address discrimination, threats of violence, inadequate access to capital, markets, and networks. Only then can the full power of women's participation in economic development be unleashed.

He noted that there are key shortcomings in economic measurement and data as well. The panel members have been grasping with questions such as how to measure sustainability in development. Rudd said that economists often fail to internalize the cost of environmental externalities, and unless this is corrected sustainability cannot proceed on a basis that will be respected by the international community.

Former Prime Minister of Mozambique, Luisa Diogo, Panel member, stated that the three primary initiatives outlined by the GSP’s report are access to energy, food security and agricultural productivity, and urban development. These three initiatives help focus policymakers attention and financing in terms of priorities that can really galvanize larger world development visions and goals.

Diogo stated that sustainable development can only be meaningful if it includes significant reductions in global poverty. This endeavor includes a range of issues, from the provision of clean drinking water and basic sanitation, to securing access to healthcare and creating employment opportunities for all, especially the youth, and an end to discrimination against the marginalized in society. Diogo stated that “the economic dimension of equity, including gender equity, are challenges that must be addressed in pursuing SDG goals.”

She said that Africans have the “opportunity to pursue development with less environmental mistakes, and this should be viewed as an opportunity for us, not as a cost. We have to have a vision for the future, not just look at the short-term issues. We need to connect the dots between poverty eradication, food security, youth unemployment and national and international governance and other sustainability issues. For example, agricultural productivity is possible in our African continent, and there is no reason for our people to be in food deprivation. This is the key motivation for the GSP, which involves transforming our way of thinking, and change the development patterns we need to follow.”

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, emphasized that the international community must accelerate progress toward the MDGs and do everything possible to achieve the targets by 2015. In the meanwhile, however, the United Nations needs to “develop a new generation of Sustainable Development Goals to pick up where the MDGs leave off.”

Ban stressed that such a new framework of SDGs will “require greater accountability and good governance by all, in that equity will need to become more fully integrated into our institutions and our policies.” He added that the role of the state in advancing this agenda is fundamental, without which “sustainable development cannot be made a reality in the marketplace, in the halls of government, and in our daily lives.”

He emphasized that across the globe, economies are teetering and people are expressing widespread disillusion. He said, “we see distrust in institutions, be they public or private, a sense that the playing field is tilted in favour of entrenched interests and elites. At the same time, the global thermostat continues to rise. Extreme weather is now becoming the new normal. Leaders need to make tough choices. We need to provide for the needs of today, while investing in the people, the planet, and the promise of tomorrow. For this reason, I asked the Panel to look at these issues with a bold but pragmatic eye.”

Ban explained that the GSP members have received several inputs from a broad range of stakeholders, and that the job of the panelists is to “be courageous in drawing on their individual political experiences to provide a roadmap that policy-makers, business leaders and civil society can use.”

He added that the final report of the panel will “provide serious food for thought for all countries as we move toward the crucially important Rio+20 conference, and will provide member states with an opportunity to complete the unfinished business of 1992, support the completion of the MDGs, and chart a sustainable path to the future.”

Kenya, who spoke on behalf of the African Group, stated that balancing the pros and cons of a sustainability pathway is very important to the Africa Group. It requires an “understanding of the inter-related nature of our biosphere as well as the impacts of industry and manufacturing on our global climate and personal health.”

However, sustainable development must also support accelerated social and economic development in the global fight against poverty. “It is of crucial importance that we drive the right kind of sustainability.”

Kenya outlined several parameters in which the Africa Group believes sustainability must be contextualized. First, sustainability must be pro-poor. Second, it must foster empowerment through increased opportunities and well-being for all, particularly the poor.

Third, sustainable development by definition should be inclusive and participatory by incorporating rural actors to prioritize their livelihood needs, as well as women and youth that need to be a vital part of global economic governance.

Fourth, sustainability must be holistic. It must balance the local economy, society, environment, and the very institutions through which the various pillars of sustainability are to be managed.

Kenya also noted that the UNFCCC COP 17 in Durban this December is an important process to Africa. “The Africa Group supports the two-track approach and undertaking of the second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol in line with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Finally, Kenya said that “Africa is committed to transparent and constructive participation. Global sustainability is a matter for global human survival. As such, it is also significant for Africa’s survival.”

Spain emphasized that the G20 should be listening to the GSP. “The GSP should give political impetus to multilateral forums, in the form of increased urgency and desperation in the processes.” The GSP should provide an impetus for an effective application for solutions.

Spain also pointed a spotlight on the youth in Spain and across the world who are demanding a fair and just global governance process. Spain concluded by saying that it “expects an invocation from this panel, a call to action, not just technical advice and analysis, but rather the more important international support and driver for political mobilization.”

Egypt highlighted two key points. First, it expressed concern over the lack of integration in various UN fora of the three dimensions of economy, environment and social policy. As such, Egypt said that it looks forward “to more creative ideas in the GSP report.” On the Rio+20 Summit taking place in Brazil in June 2012, Egypt said that the process must be viewed not as an environmental conference on the green economy, which is the prevalent discussion in the UN, but rather as a development conference.

Second, in a context of ongoing financial and economic crisis, Egypt stressed that developed countries cannot continue to miss meeting its implementation commitments, especially as the “crisis was not caused by developing countries, and as such they should not have to bear the additional burden of the implementation gap.” As a member of the Bureau of the Rio+20 Summit, Egypt asked the GSP panelists for the draft of the GSP report so that the findings can be integrated into the Rio+20 process.

Manish Bapna of the World Resources Institute said that a vision for equality must drive the vision for sustainability. Bapna proposed four key points for the GSP to fulfill its mandate.

First, the GSP’s report must be ambitious and bold given the scale of the issues and problems on the planet. The $63 trillion global economy must be re-directed toward a sustainable development path. Second, the unique contribution of this report will not be a technical assessment of what is needed for sustainability, as many others are tackling such technical questions, but a political assessment of how the solutions will be achieved.

Bapna stressed that the GSP’s report must map out “how entrenched political interests can be navigated and how the norms and patterns of behavior in the world economy can be transformed.” The GSP’s contribution is to help the international community overcome the political hurdles in advancing sustainability.

Third, the GSP must seriously examine the political and historical tradeoffs. The panel must provide a guide to managing tradeoffs between groups, between geographies and generations, and between the short-term and the long-term scenario. “How do we ensure that these very trade-offs are sustainable?”

There are issues of quality, durability, and the need to improve public access to information. Bapna highlighted that “information is essential to democratic participation, social justice, and that the widespread adoption of information access rights were originally enshrined in the Rio 1992 Summit.”

Fourth, Bapna mentioned that the GSP’s overarching goal should be to focus on “messengers and narratives, because the world will not budge without credible and diverse messengers that will galvanize the public.” Unexpected voices from all corners of society must be inspired. The un-persuadable need to be persuaded. “We also need to retire for good the pitting together of the usual binary pairs, such as the economy versus the environment, and so on.” +