31 May 2012
Meeting of minds on our sustainable future?
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Balancing national strategic interests and global concerns requires new rules for collective action

The upcoming sequel to the 1992 Earth Summit, once again to be held in Brazil, will provide fresh opportunities to draft a common global agenda to safeguard the well-being of humanity -- and the planet. But serious differences over what constitutes economic growth and human wellbeing may lead to a less-than-successful outcome.

Humans have always altered their natural environment, what is new is that the adverse effects of economic activities exceed those of resource extraction. Soon the Earth will not be able to absorb the carbon dioxide generated by excessive consumption. The lifestyle in industrialized societies threatens half of humanity who has yet to enjoy the benefits of higher incomes.

The theme of the Conference is: "Green economy in the context of sustainable development and eradication of poverty" and the central challenge is how to deal with the huge unevenness of development, which has also led to the richer parts of the world with far greater ecological footprints than others.

There is broad agreement that the green economy should be based on natural capital.  The differences between countries center on the scope and scale of the social transformation that will also be needed in the use of scarce natural resources in light of the known limits of global ecosystem services making the global commons both a shared economic resource as well as a borderless environmental crisis.

The way the global concern is defined will have differentiated implications for countries. The unresolved issue remains whether the outcome should be changes that governments, largely in developing countries, will need to make to convince investors that aligning asset allocation with the green economy will provide superior risk-adjusted returns, for long term investments.

Or, whether there will be agreement to modify longer-term trends in production and consumption patterns, in all countries, to recognize global ecological limits in resource use, equitably share scarce carbon space, as emissions of carbon dioxide account for two-thirds of the global environmental damage, and link scarcity of ecosystem services to the sharing of finance and technology as a global good in the common interest.

What is new is that all the powerful countries shaping deliberations see their underlying national interest in terms of trade, and competitiveness concerns as the best way of economic growth; the differences lie in which trade rules to be amended.  Industrialised countries are seeking to shift implementation and reporting to the private sector through a global policy framework for large private companies to integrate sustainability within their reporting cycles, and develop green economy roadmaps. The objective of the annual reviews would be to provide timely information for investments in cleaner products and services. Mainstreaming environmental concerns in the trade regime would lead to global policy coherence.

Poor countries see this amendment to global trade rules to consider production processes as enabling the WTO to open markets in support of resource efficiency. They would like review global rules related to intellectual property rights. Their focus is to review national actions on shifts in consumption and production patterns, share experiences and monitor progress in the joint research, development and deployment of innovative technologies,  to remain within global ecological limits.

Sustainability goals are also being sought for critical areas of “natural capital”, such as food, forests and soils, as well as oceans and freshwater to foster a green economy in which economic value creation is not coupled with environmental degradation. How far they will consider large scale natural resource use, for example energy, needed for the establishment of infrastructure essential for human wellbeing, as opposed to merely the eradication of poverty, is under discussion in defining the indicators of a “green” GDP.

Here again, there is a divergence of perspectives on whether the goals should relate only to thresholds in the local and regional environment, and/or the global environment and include equitable sharing of the global commons. For example, urbanisation in developing countries will involve a population shift that is more than five times larger than what happened in developed countries, entailing pressures on national and global natural resources, in the form of energy and infrastructure, essential for human wellbeing.

The related question is which United Nations body, environment, sustainable development or trade, should provide oversight of the policies and measures. This has implications for the future global governance architecture; whether the G20 “steering committee’ model accommodating rising States in the WTO, or the “democratic” United Nations seeking social transformation will shape international cooperation.

With the ecosystem limits to growth, security and prosperity can no longer be guaranteed by military strength or economic wealth alone, but by the ability to compel collective action through a rule bound approach. Rio presents a strategic challenge for rising powers to share global authority and responsibility by advocating new universal values for the common future.