Sustainable development: What went wrong?

Source: The Star.

The outcome of the 1992 Earth Summit was large in ambition but poor in implementation. With the world in even larger crisis, the search is on for stronger institutions, as a meeting in Solo last week revealed, wrote Martin Khor in his most recent column for The Star, one of the leading Malaysian newspapers.

Khor’s column reads as follows:

Search for sustainable growth

By Martin Khor

Sustainable development came into vogue as a result of the United Nations’ Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil, in 1992.

The term is widely taken to mean that environmental, economic and social goals have to be taken into account together and, if possible, “blended” when policies and actions are being made or taken, internationally and nationally.

It is now enjoying a revival – a hotly debated one – since the UN will hold another summit in Rio in 2012, to mark the 20th anniversary.

Putting all three elements – economic, social and environmental – together in the policy mix was Rio 1992’s achievement.

Making policies only on the basis of economic goals like high economic and export growth is simply not balanced, as the environment can be badly damaged and natural resources can soon run out (and thus growth is not sustainable).

Similarly, environmental goals should not be pursued in a one-dimensional way, as the burden may be unfairly pushed onto poor nations or communities.

This may happen if poor countries are asked to take on drastic emission cuts, without providing them with funds and technology, or if prices of energy and water are raised significantly to better reflect their ecological value but measures are not taken at the same time to shield the poor.

Thus the three pillars must balance each other.

Unfortunately, that did not stop the world getting into a much deeper environment crisis, and into the gravest economic crisis since the second world war.

What went wrong? What can be done? Which institutions are needed to turn the goals of sustainable development into reality?

To answer these questions, the beautiful Indonesian town of Solo, made famous by the melodious song Bengawan Solo, played host last week to a UN-organised high-level dialogue on the institutional framework for sustainable development, with 300 policy makers, diplomats, NGOs and experts attending.

The main consensus was that there has been a big implementation problem – the goals of sustainable development have not been implemented, either at the global level (such as in the UN, or IMF and WTO) or in national policy making.

A major reason is the weakness of absence of institutions.

The UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development, the main agency to follow up on the 1992 Rio Summit, has too small a secretariat and meets for only three weeks in a year.

All three sustainable development pillars – environment, economic and social – are very weak at the UN. The agencies interact too little, if at all, with one another.

The governments do not have adequate fora, such as a powerful UN economic committee to discuss the financial crisis and economic recession, or a UN environment committee with authority to act.

This weakness is also reflected at the country level.

National councils of sustainable development were set up after Rio 1992, but many have not functioned well.

I was one of the speakers in the panel debate on how to reform the institutions that deal with sustainable development.

Former UN economic department chief, Nitin Desai, said it was no longer enough to treat “sustainable development” as a concept to “bridge” the economy with the environment.

Rather, it must be an umbrella concept and structure that integrates the three pillars.

Many reform options were considered. The first is to have minimal or incremental changes by simply calling for strengthening existing institutions.

This was considered by most to be insufficient for the tasks in tackling the world’s problems.

The second is to convert the UN Environment Programme into a more powerful world environment organisation.

However, the United States made it clear that it cannot support or join a new international organisation.

Besides, an environment agency is considered by many developing countries as being less than a full body dealing with sustainable development and its three pillars.

The third option, which many speakers including myself dwelt on, is to set up a new Sustainable Development Council with a overarching general structure (which ministers and heads of governments would take part in) and which integrates the three pillars and also deals with funding and technology transfer).

Under this umbrella would be the three pillars, each having their own committee, which would help coordinate the work of various UN agencies.

A fourth option would be to have the same structure and activities, but inside the existing UN Economic and Social Council, instead of establishing a new council.

At the closing, Indonesian Environment Minister Dr Gusti Muhammad Hatta, presented the “Solo Messages”, or his view of the meeting’s conclusions.

These included the need for political commitment and implementation of sustainable development objectives, with each pillar being integrated with the other two pillars, and the need to enhance the sustainable development institutions both globally and nationally.

New and additional financing and technology transfer are also essential.

In his concluding remarks, Sha Zhukang, the UN economic and social chief, who is in charge of the Rio Plus 20, pointed to the proposal to form a sustainable development council.

This should be explored further, including answering many questions in detail.

“The important themes that have emerged are the need for integration, implementation, coordination and coherence”, according to Sha.

These four are indeed some of the key elements that need tackling, if we are to get action going on sustainable development, so that we do not have to lament the continued deterioration of the world’s conditions, another 10 years from now.