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Home > MEA Bulletin > List of Guest Articles > Guest Article No. 111
MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 111 - Friday, 11 March 2011
Vision for the Rio+20 Summit
By Mukul Sanwal1
Full Article

Rio+20 should be about big thinking and a re-shaping of current processes if we are to effectively deal with the two greatest challenges: climate change and eradication of poverty. The current paradigm, shaped twenty years ago, has not been able to deal with the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution. The expected synergies from multilateral environmental agreements and the program of action agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992, Agenda 21, have not been instrumental in changing patterns of consumption and production. The biophysical limits to growth agreed at Cancun means that the global goal of shared prosperity cannot be considered only in terms of environmental damage; it must give equal emphasis to eradication of poverty. Developing countries, led by China, have begun taking the leadership in modifying growth pathways and must shape the new paradigm, at the Rio+20 Summit, with very different relationships between the state, market and citizens,  to focus on patterns of resource use that can in principle be adopted by all countries.

Rio + 20 should be about big thinking and a re-shaping of current processes if we are to effectively deal with the two greatest challenges: climate change and eradication of poverty.

A vision of the new paradigm that will shape international cooperation for the next 20 years has yet to emerge. Though, there is an emerging consensus that transition to a green low carbon economy is necessary for achieving sustainable development, and the outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio 2012) will include agreement on its elements and steps in moving towards that aim. This is an acknowledgement that the current paradigm, shaped twenty years ago, has not been able to deal with the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution.

The expected synergies from multilateral environmental agreements and the program of action agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992 have not been instrumental in changing patterns of consumption and production. The biophysical limit to growth agreed at Cancun means that a green economy, and the global goal to be agreed under the on-going climate negotiations, cannot be considered only in terms of environmental damage. It must give equal emphasis to human well-being.

Consequently, the Report of the Secretary General of the United Nations, titled Objective and Themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (A/CONF/216/7), stresses that “the main challenge facing humanity now is to sustain the process of poverty eradication and development while shifting gears. Developed countries must shrink environmental footprints as fast and as far as possible while sustaining human development achievements. Developing countries must continue to raise their people’s living standards while containing increases in their footprints, recognizing that poverty eradication remains a priority. This is a shared challenge with a goal of shared prosperity.” To implement this vision, the Report points out that public policy for a green economy must extend well beyond the current reliance on “getting prices right” to fundamentally shift consumption and production patterns onto a more sustainable path.

The Report observes that the biggest challenge ahead will be to move from small-scale demonstration projects to policies and programmes with broad benefits at national and international levels as long-term simulations of a green economy have only just begun to be made. The reliance on models, which even economists now agree do not reflect the real world, ignores current research trends for how to meet global challenges that focus on societal dynamics as both the root of environmental problems and the potential solution to them. We now know that alternative patterns and processes in the human use of nature in developed and developing countries result in trade-offs for socio-economic systems that are very different to those focusing only on environmental systems. A new poverty index recently developed by the United Nations Development Programme stresses lack of services such as electricity as a key factor in determining poverty. This underlines the importance of defining the transition to a low carbon green economy in terms of access to energy services and services provided by the ecosystem to enable the eradication of poverty.

The deliberations at the multilateral level should really be seen as an opportunity to discuss options for making the societal transformation to modify production and consumption patterns. The global community would then ask a very different set of questions, instead of the current narrow focus on mitigation, adaptation and burden sharing, and frame the issue differently in terms of patterns of resource use. They would, for example, need to identify which longer term trends should be modified, and the best way of doing so at the national level. At the international level, they would need to lay out a time-table for joint research and development of new technologies, as well as mechanisms for their transfer, to meet the scale and speed of the response. They would also measure the access to electricity by the poor.

In this paradigm, the building blocks of global sustainability will need to ensure a transformation in the way we use natural resources, in five areas.

First, the growing importance of the service sector and consumer demand in economic growth worldwide requires a shift beyond modifying production patterns seeking greater efficiency in resource use, to modifying consumption patterns for ensuring conservation of resources.

Second, recognition of the value of ecological and energy services, and their contribution to eradication of poverty - infrastructure, job creation, food security and pharmaceuticals - will support new growth pathways.

Third, new market based employment opportunities need to be provided for the rural poor to shift activities away from relying on, and causing harm to, natural resources to augmentation of local ecosystems. 

Fourth, the focus of international cooperation would then shift from multilateral environmental agreements to networks for "innovation" supporting, for example, joint development and sharing of energy technologies, agricultural seed varieties and medical benefits of biodiversity.

Lastly, national accounting systems need to measure the significant human welfare benefits, or services, national and global ecosystems provide, and develop an economic yardstick that is more effective than GDP for assessing the performance of an economy. In the interim, national carbon budgets are a good indicator for developing and assessing national strategies, the sustainable use of natural resources and the transition to global sustainability.

At the Rio Summit, in 1992, the emphasis was on containing environmental damage from industrialization, and it was assumed that the common concerns would be integrated in economic policy guided by multilaterally agreed norms. Learning from the evolution of the climate regime, the new paradigm that will emerge at the Rio+20 Summit, in 2012, must re-balance the roles of the state, market and the citizen, and focus directly on consumption and production patterns. Shifts in growth pathways need to be discussed for the eradication of poverty in the context of sustainable development. Consequently, at the multilateral level, the focus will no longer be legally binding decisions that regulate national activities, but rather new cooperative mechanisms to ensure human well being, as well as rules for monitoring progress towards the global goal of moving towards patterns of resource use that are common for all countries.
1Mukul Sanwal has held senior policy positions in the Government of India, United Nations Environment Programme and in the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat.
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