Simon Maxwell

Is it time to take an environment conference seriously?

What am I saying? We always take environment conferences seriously, of course we do. We did at Stockholm in 1972,Rio in 1992 and Johannesburg in 2002 – and will again at Rio+20 in 2012. But actually, do you know what, these conferences have always been more about the environment than about development, better attended by environment people than development people, and more influential in environment circles than development circles. The core concepts that have emerged from these processes, like ‘sustainable development’, have always had more traction in environment circles than development circles. Even Agenda 21, the outcome document from Rio, presented as a historic accommodation between development and the environment, was really a deal, which gave the developing countries text on development, so they would agree to text on the environment.

Why should Rio+20, the 2012 Earth Summit, be any different? Three reasons.

First, environment issues are impinging on development to an increasing extent – through climate change, of course, but also water, energy and biodiversity. It has become common to talk of a ‘nexus’ of problems. This example is taken from the World Economic Forum’s 2011 global risk report:

‘The “water-food-energy” nexus: A rapidly rising global population and growing prosperity are putting unsustainable pressures on resources. Demand for water, food and energy is expected to rise by 30-50% in the next two decades, while economic disparities incentivize short-term responses in production and consumption that undermine long-term sustainability. Shortages could cause social and political instability, geopolitical conflict and irreparable environmental damage. Any strategy that focuses on one part of the water-food-energy nexus without considering its interconnections risks serious unintended consequences.

Second, development itself is at something of a cross-roads, seeking a new narrative to take account of growing differentiation among developing countries, and needing an answer to the question of what will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Andy Sumner and Clare Melamed have characterised the MDG problem as follows, in an IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex Bulletin titled ‘The MDGsMillennium Development Goals and Beyond’:

‘The MDGsMillennium Development Goals were an approach born of a benign era of relative stability, stronger economic growth and fairly buoyant aid budgets. We now face a very different world. Changes sparked by uncertainty, and a sense of multiple insecurities, could impact adversely on poverty levels. The economic crisis has led to significant changes in the context for international development and the crisis/post-crisis context is central to many MDG questions in terms of impacts on poverty and on development commitments over the next ten years.’

It is relevant that three quarters of the poor now live in middle income countries, as Andy Sumner has shown.

Third, a political process has been put in place, which offers hope that Earth Summit 2012 might deliver a genuine synthesis between development and environment. This is the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, launched by Ban Ki Moon in August last year, and set to produce its report in 2011, in time to shape the Earth Summit outcomes. The Panel is led by the Presidents of South Africa and Finland, and has enough political and business leaders on board to make a significant impact: Gro Harlem Bruntland, Kevin Rudd, Connie Hedegaard, Susan Rice, Jim Balsillie, and a dozen others.

High-Level UN Panels or Advisory Groups sometimes manage political agreement, and sometimes don’t – see my somewhat jaundiced piece on the most recent Advisory Group on Climate Finance. 71% of those who voted on my website thought Ban Ki Moon should have asked the Group to try again! Previous UN Panels, like the one on Threats, Challenges and Change or One UN received mixed reviews.

So, what must this Panel do if it is to succeed? Here are ten ideas, most my own, one or two unashamedly borrowed from others, including noted environmentalists Camilla Toulmin from IIED, Kathy Sierra from Brookings and Nick Mabey fromE3G.

  1. This is not a negotiating exercise, like Copenhagen, Cancun, or, indeed, the Earth Summit itself, but the Panel does need to think politically and help frame the eventual negotiation. What we don’t need is a PhD thesis on sustainability. What we do need is a set of options which narrow the differences between stakeholders.
  2. It is easy to be alarmist, as ‘nexus’ advocates often are, and probably right to be so, but the overall messages need to be positive if public opinion is to be inspired. This is a common but often forgotten theme of those who think about the politics of climate change, like Colin Challen and Anthony Giddens, both of whose books I reviewed on Open Democracy last year. Napoleon had it right: ‘leaders’, he said ’are ‘dealers in hope’.
  3. In this context, the vision needs framing. ‘Sustainable development’ provides the traditional vocabulary, with its emphasis on economic, environmental and social dimensions. Alternatives include green growthclimate smart development, or my own favourite (from a climate perspective), ‘climate compatible development’. It may be that ‘sustainable development’ still works as an overarching concept, though to my mind it has a certain amount of historic baggage. It does have the virtue, however, of integrating environment and development.
  4. The over-arching famework needs a narrative which appeals to all countries, including developed (green growth?) and developing (poverty reduction?), but also middle income and emerging countries (who often feel excluded by a discourse focused on the MDGs).
  5. Here, there is an opportunity for the Earth Summit to agree a set of goals for the post-2015 period.  These would become the post-2015 MDGs, but global in scope. Poverty reduction would feature, and environmental sustainability, but so would green growth, access to technology and other issues of interest to developed and emerging countries. The goals need to be genuine outcome targets, and not the MDG mish-mash of outcomes, inputs and processes (on which see the EU review paper by Francois Bourguignon and others)
  6. Better measurement will need to underpin new goals, reading off from the vision and providing practical indicators of progress. There are plenty of indicators to choose from: the Paris21 set from the MDGs; the SarkozyCommission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress; the World Bank’s work on theWealth of Nations, soon to be updated; , the New Economic Foundation’s Happy Planet Index; UNDP’s Human Development Index; Oxford University’s Multidimensional Poverty Index; and many others. There is enthusiasm in some quarters for indices, but in others scepticism.
  7. The panel must not become stuck on concepts and measurement, however. It needs to make the case for its vision and provide the framing, but then move quickly to practical action. Observers have commented that the panel should not reinvent the wheel from the Bruntland Commission.
  8. The panel will want to identify and evaluate specific policies, from innovation funds to green investment banks and payments for environmental services. I’ve been working on an illustrative list, and offered a recent meeting this summary of potential interventions, in a 2x2 table, distinguishing national and international policies on the one hand, and, on the other, the incentive and regulatory framework versus public expenditure. Obviously, there is much to add. At the same meeting, many people emphasised the importance of payments for environmental services, for example paying small farmers to manage soil or forests.
  9. The Panel will probably not want to make final dispositions on policy, but it absolutely will need to think about how to choose between options, and about policy paradigms. For example, there is likely to be disagreement on the role of markets, how to raise finance, or the value of global versus piecemeal deals. This actually, is where the greatest value-added of the Panel is likely to be found. There is considerable experience of using multiple-criteria table for this kind of activity, for example in food security planning, by FAO.
  10. However those arguments are settled, it is clear that sustainable development, or green growth, or climate compatible development don’t just happen on their own, but need active leadership, of course working with the private sector, and engaging a range of other stakeholders. Different countries are taking different approaches, with different combinations of legislation and regulation, but in all successful cases, strong leadership is combined with long-term policy frameworks that provide sustained incentives to private sector actors. The Panel should identify and celebrate these successes.

Implement these ideas, and the Earth Summit offers real potential. Success will require strong direction from the High Level Panel. It will also need engagement by the whole range of economic, development and environment actors. This one cannot be left to environment ministers alone and must be taken seriously by their economic and development counterparts.


I would be interested to know what you think about the 2012 Earth Summit. Please also take the opportunity to vote on whether the Earth Summit should agree post-2015 global goals to replace the MDGs here

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