Simon Maxwell

Keep in touch!

Latest Comments

riosmallWill second wave environmentalism learn from the errors of the first wave?

Sustainable development people must be pinching themselves in delight. No longer trapped in a cul-de-sac at the margins of the development debate, they find themselves at the centre - buoyed by the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel report on sustainability, the forthcoming Rio Summit, and the new momentum imparted by Durban to theglobal climate talks. Rio, in particular, holds out the promise of agreement on new global sustainability goals: revenge, some will say, for the way in which the Millennium Development Goals reordered development a decade ago,  moving the focus of action away from sustainability plans towards MDG financing and Poverty Reduction Strategies.

Before celebrating, however, it might be worth reining in the exuberance and asking why it was exactly that 'sustainable development' did not swing it the first time around - when Gro Harlem Bruntland led the writing of Our Common Future in 1987, and at the first Rio Conference, the Earth Summit, in 1992. The reasons are instructive, and point the way to what must be done if the same fate is not to befall 'second wave' environmentalism in 2012. I wrote about this a year ago, in a piece entitled ‘Is it time to take an environment conference seriously?’. Today, I see three key issues.

First, the environmental community failed last time to convey the relative urgency of tackling soil, water, air and other impending natural resource catastrophes. This is not to say they didn't try, nor that they themselves were not passionate believers and enthusiastic proselytisers. However, the doom-laden projections of the Club of Rome had largely been discredited, in theory, and apparently, examining price trends, in practice. More important, the key word is 'relative'. The wider development community did recognise the importance of soil erosion, water quality, the health of oceans, biodiversity and looming peak oil. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these problems seemed to be less urgent than the more immediate concern of a 'lost decade' characterised by debt crises, structural adjustment, increasing poverty, and famine in Africa. What price biodiversity when Argentina had defaulted on its debts and Mexico was about to face a currency crisis? What price water management, when war was causing famine in South Sudan? No wonder that in 1990, the World Bank's World Development Report focused on the core issue of poverty, and the new flagship report from UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme on its twin, human development. Underpinning both was the need for growth, a concept which seemed to be at odds with environmental imperatives.

Critics will certainly say that this version of history traduces the concept of 'sustainable development', which deliberately widened the debate by defining three legs of sustainability, viz environmental, social and economic – the last of these certainly including growth. Indeed, the Bruntland Report led with seven strategic priorities, the first of which was ‘reviving growth’ and the second ‘changing the quality of growth’, in both cases to accelerate sustainable poverty reduction. Thus, industrialised countries were charged with growing at 3-4% p.a., and developing countries at rates of 5-6%. Growth needed to be of higher quality, meaning less material and energy intensive, and also more equitable.

What is interesting, though, is to ask how much of this analysis was adopted by the action programme coming out of Rio,Agenda 21. My second charge is that not enough was carried across: in particular, that Agenda 21 lacked a convincing narrative on growth. The word is not mentioned among the 27 ‘Principles’ of the Rio Declaration, and only a few times (46 to be precise, but most of those are about growth in population or disease threats or forests) in nearly 300 pages of text in Agenda 21. The closest the document comes to substantive policies is a bland page on ‘sound economic policies’, mostly concerned with fiscal rectitude, transparency, and the need to encourage the private sector.

This reflects a third issue, that the Rio conference and Agenda 21 set an agenda which became the stamping ground for environmental ministers rather than economic development ministers – this despite the presence in Rio of over 100 Heads of State. In the years that followed, there was probably too much focus on discussion in specialist environmental institutes like IIEDIISD and WRI, not enough in more generalist institutes like IDS or ODI. In the latter group, as I know from experience, environmental research tended to be concerned more with local resource management than with national and global economic transformation. As Bruntland argued, there was a clear reciprocal link between poverty and environmental sustainability at local level: the report continually emphasises that poor people are forced to degrade their environment, and that a degrading environment increases poverty.

Thus, ‘first wave’ environmentalism offers three lessons to the second wave: first, establish the relative urgency of the topic; second, tell a good story about growth; and third, make sure to engage with the mainstream of economic development planning, and not be trapped behind an environmental stockade.

Some of these look easier than others. On the one hand, climate change has certainly made environmental issues more visible and pressing. On the other hand, the precedence of that topic is constantly challenged by concern for growth, jobs and better management of global financial crises. Do we think that rioters in Greece are more worried about climate change tomorrow or a cut today of 22% in the minimum wage? Similarly, as I observed in Durban, the private sector is optimistic about its capacity to roll-out new, green technology – but still dependent on Government subsidies which are hard to fund.

So, how did the High Level Panel tackle these challenges, and how is the Rio outcome document shaping up?

The High Level Panel had the credentials, led by Jacob Zuma and Tarja Halonen, and with a good mix of environmental and generalist leadership experience: a metereologist, several environmental ministers, but also Jim Balsillie, the former ceo of Blackberry, and Hang Seung-Soo, former Prime Minister of Korea, and Chair of the Board of the Global Green Growth Institute.

The final report makes a series of sharp points about the scale of the challenge, making good use of recent thinking about planetary boundaries and tipping points. In that sense, it begins to meet the first target, to establish the relative urgency of the topic.  The report says that

‘the long-term vision of the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability is to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality and make growth inclusive, and production and consumption more sustainable, while combating climate change and respecting a range of other planetary boundaries. . . . We must recognize that the drivers of that challenge include unsustainable lifestyles, production and consumption patterns and the impact of population growth. As the global population grows from 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially. By 2030, the world will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water — all at a time when environmental boundaries are throwing up new limits to supply. This is true not least for climate change, which affects all aspects of human and planetary health. . . . The current global development model is unsustainable.  We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities.  At the same time, such thresholds should not be used to impose arbitrary growth ceilings on developing countries seeking to lift their people out of poverty. Indeed, if we fail to resolve the sustainable development dilemma, we run the risk of condemning up to  3 billion members of our human family to a life of endemic poverty. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable, and we must find a new way forward.’


Note, though, that hitting the target means not just making the analytical case – that was achieved last time. The more difficult task is to embed the ideas in the intellectual and emotional consciousness of leaders and citizens around the world. Will environmental issues, this time, compete successfully in the market place for political capital? I’ve written elsewhere about how to message climate change, and how to manage the politics, but would also recommend more general works by WestenLakoff and Chip and Dan Heath. This, I think, is work in progress, to which we all need to contribute.

In terms of action, and whether the Panel has a convincing story on growth, it is encouraging that the report rests on three substantive legs, which are : (a) empowering people to make sustainable choices; (b) working towards a sustainable economy; and (c) strengthening institutional governance. The second leg, in particular, focuses on green growth topics: regulation, pricing, incentives, finance . . . There are related topics in other sections, also. The first section, for example, has text on employment and on the need for an ‘ever-green revolution’ in agriculture.

There are 56 recommendations in total, reproduced for ease of reference in Annex 1. There are no growth targets, as such, as in Bruntland, but the 56 include the following (lightly edited), which contain real content, indicate targets, and offer an agenda for change in the area of growth:

‘7. Governments should adopt and advance “green jobs” and decent work policies as a priority in their budgets and sustainable development strategies while creating conditions for new jobs in the private sector.

15. Governments and international organizations should work to create a new green revolution (in agriculture) — an “ever-green revolution” — for the twenty-first century that aims to at least double productivity while drastically reducing resource use and avoiding further loss of biodiversity, topsoil loss and water depletion and contamination.

20. Governments should work in concert with appropriate stakeholders to ensure universal access to affordable sustainable energy by 2030, as well as seek to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

27. Governments should establish price signals that value sustainability to guide the consumption and investment decisions of households, businesses and the public sector. In particular, Governments could:

(a) Establish natural resource and externality pricing instruments, including carbon pricing, through mechanisms such as taxation, regulation or emissions trading systems, by 2020; . . .

(d) Develop and expand national and international schemes for payments for ecosystem services in such areas as water use, farming, fisheries and forestry systems;

(e) Governments should move towards the transparent disclosure of all subsidies, and should identify and remove those subsidies which cause the greatest detriment to natural, environmental and social resources;

(f) Phase out fossil fuel subsidies and reduce other perverse or trade distorting subsidies by 2020.

28. Governments, other public institutions such as universities, and international organizations should develop sustainable development criteria for their procurement, with the aim of achieving a shift towards  cost-effective sustainable procurement over the next 10 years, and should issue annual public reports on their progress as from 2015.

30. Governments should promote and incentivize the inclusion of long-term sustainable development criteria in investment and transactions conducted by companies, including financial transactions. Business groups should work with Governments and international agencies to develop a framework for sustainable development reporting, and should consider mandatory reporting by corporations with market capitalizations larger than $100 million.

32. Given the importance of large pools of private and sovereign capital to enable the transition to sustainable development, we call on the following entities to explore a range of measures to apply sustainable development criteria, including:

(a) The boards of sovereign wealth funds and of national and international public pension funds, as well as other major financial institutions, in their investment decisions;

(b) Governments or stock market regulators, to adopt or revise regulations in order to encourage their use;

(c) Stock exchanges, to facilitate their application in the analysis of companies and their reports on compliance;

(d) Governments, to develop incentives and create an enabling environment by making boards of directors attentive to them (fiduciary duty);

(e) Governments and credit rating agencies, to integrate them into their respective risk assessments.

35. Governments, international financial institutions and major companies should work together to create incentives for increased investments in sustainable technologies, innovations and infrastructures, including through the adoption of policies and targets that reduce investor uncertainty; the promotion of public-private networks  to support research and development; the development of risk guarantee schemes and the provision of risk capital; and seed financing.

36. Governments should use public investment to create enabling frameworks that catalyse very substantial additional financing from the private sector, for example, through the provision of infrastructure, risk-sharing, viability gap funding or advance purchase commitments.

37. Governments should seek to incentivize investment in sustainable development by shaping investor calculations about the future through, in particular, the greater use of risk-sharing mechanisms and the enhancement of certainty about the long-term regulatory and policy environment. Measures could include targets for renewable energy or conservation, waste reduction, water conservation, access to carbon markets through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol or sustained prospects for public financing.’


This (necessarily idiosyncratic) selection indicates major areas of work around, taxation and fiscal policy, regulation and reporting, and partnerships with the private sector – in agriculture, energy, manufacturing, and many other sectors. That ticks the third box, of engagement, even leadership, beyond ministries of the environment.

So, well done the High Level Panel, you are worthy successors to Bruntland. The question now is whether the Rio meeting will do better than Agenda 21 in picking up these points.

Well, according to the official website, the Rio meeting will have two main themes, one of which is the green economy (the other is the institutional framework for sustainable development). That sounds like good news. Informally, there is lot of material accumulating on the website – reports, challenge papers, guides – much of it by stakeholder groups. Formally, there is a pile of official documentation from prepcoms, high-level dialogues and inter-sessionals. Perhaps the most important document is the ‘zero draft’ of the outcome document, published on 10 January and discussed in New York at the end of the month. Sure enough, this has a chapter on each of the main themes, including one on green growth. The chapter consists of only 19 paragraphs, however, and so far, there is minimal substance to the text, which is largely aspirational. For example, the opening paragraph is pasted in below. Hands up if you disagree!

‘We are convinced that a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should contribute to meeting key goals – in particular the priorities of poverty eradication, food security, sound water management, universal access to modern energy services, sustainable cities, management of oceans and improving resilience and disaster preparedness, as well as public health, human resource development and sustained, inclusive and equitable growth that generates employment, including for youth. It should be based on the Rio principles, in particular the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and should be people-centred and inclusive, providing opportunities and benefits for all citizens and all countries.’


Presumably, the negotiators’ job between now and June is to flesh out the content of the document. There is no formal record yet of how they got on in New York, but all the country statements can be read on the website. IISD summarised the outcome as follows:

‘At the conclusion of the initial discussions, participants were pleased to note that some progress had been made, with the acceptance of the zero draft as the basis for negotiations and the commencement of negotiations. But they emphasized that the goal of an ambitious and action-oriented document will require equally ambitious negotiations in the 145 days between the end of the January consultations and the first day of Rio+20.’


Others are less charitable. Eurostep, for example, criticise the zero draft for being complacent and lacking ambition, not least on the green economy. Some similar responses can be tracked via the Earth Summit website of Stakeholder Forum. Fred Pearce, for example, had a scathing piece in the Guardian newspaper on 9 February, complaining about the politicians’ ‘flaccid agenda’.

I suppose I am inclined to be charitable, but time is short. There are fewer than 130 days left until the Summit kicks off in June. It seems to me the way is clear to avoid all three of the errors committed in the run-up to Rio twenty years ago. But that way will only be followed if negotiations escape the ‘environmental trap’.

Add comment

Security code
Security code:


latest pollVote now: 

Is the concept of 'fragile               states'                   over-                   burdened?


Follow me on Twitter