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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 90b - Thursday, 15 April 2010
Agenda for the Rio +20 Summit: Developing country perspective
By Mukul Sanwal*
Full Article

The call for a global conference to review the decisions taken at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development has rightly come from developing countries, because global change will now be driven by their citizens. Therefore, the objective of the Summit should be to support innovation for qualitatively different global growth pathways through strategic knowledge, rather than regulating on-going activities.

Sustainable Development is at a cross-road, as we move towards analysing why current regimes that focus on management of the environment are dysfunctional, and what might be done about it. The question that the proposed Summit should ask is how our complex social and economic systems can interact with a complex planetary system undergoing rapid change to create a future we all want? Recent research trends on how to meet global challenges focus on societal dynamics as both the root of environmental problems and the potential solution to them. Environmental problems are no longer defined as discrete problems, but are increasingly being understood as symptoms of a particular development path.

In October 2008, as part of an initiative by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, a group of economists, sociologists, historians, ecologists, climatologists, oceanographers, biogeochemists, biologists, chemists and others met in Lund, Sweden, to draw up a vision for the planet in 2050. They identified the global goal as improvement in human wellbeing in line with sustainable development, with a new model of growth whereby consumers considered their needs rather than their wants, so controlling material consumption. The trade-offs in the kinds of deep structural change that will be necessary are very different from a singular focus on environmental concerns. 

By making human well-being the central objective, the new paradigm for sustainable development re-balances the roles of the state, market and citizen. This approach suggests three key shifts in current economic, environmental and social perspectives, with a focus on areas of strategic importance in the transition to sustainable development – climate change, biodiversity and water – and the inter-linkages between them.

A transformation is needed in the way we use resources. First, the growing importance of the service sector and consumer demand in economic growth worldwide points to the need to shift beyond modifying production patterns seeking greater efficiency in resource use, to modifying consumption for ensuring conservation of resources. Second, it focuses on a shift in growth pathways by recognising the value of ecosystem services and their contribution to long term economic benefits, food security and job creation. 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. The stress has to be on modifying longer term trends.

The Summit will need to focus on natural resource use and not just on the state of natural resources; patterns of production and consumption, shaped by innovative technology and behaviour/lifestyles, rather than the demand and supply of goods and services shaped by the market and international trade; governance arrangements that will move beyond multilateral environmental agreements to networks supporting innovation; and the gaps in achieving the objectives of not only the Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification regimes, but also of the Millennium Development Goals.
 
The new programme of action should be framed around issue-based arrangements, to chart new pathways in, for example, transportation, urbanisation and food security; develop new instruments to modify consumption patterns; and identify approaches for augmenting services provided by critical natural resources – energy, water, forests. The focus should be on "innovation" – generation and sharing of new knowledge, including innovative technologies, agricultural seed varieties, medical benefits of biodiversity, etc. The broader goal has to be transformation of the global economy and human activity.

In this framework, the key drivers for sustainable development are patterns of resource use in providing energy services for human wellbeing, services provided by the ecosystem to support economic growth, and technological and financial services for alleviation of poverty and conservation of natural resources. The shared global vision will best be developed by working with a range of actors at different levels to generate strategic knowledge and exchange experiences for understanding and modifying longer term trends, so that patterns of resource use are common for all countries.

A vision of environmentally sustainable global growth, which must now be led by developing countries, will have to be supported by a new paradigm, partnerships, priorities and programmes.
* Mukul Sanwal has served in policy positions in the Government of India (1971-1993) when he represented India at the Rio Conference, as Policy Adviser in the United Nations Environment Programme, and in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat (1993-2007) he was involved with the World Summit on Sustainable Development. He is currently associated with the South Center, Geneva. These are his personal views.
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