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

In this abridged essay, Simon Maxwell, CDKN’s Executive Chairman, argues that the Rio+20 Summit has the potential to transform development if we learn from the mistakes of history. The full essay is available as a download, click on the link at right.

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 the global 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 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?

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 IIED, IISD and WRI, not enough in more generalist institutes like IDS or ODI.

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 meteorologist, 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.  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?

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.

There are 56 recommendations in total. There are no growth targets, as such, as in Bruntland, but   they offer an agenda for change in  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.  Perhaps the most important document to emerge so far 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.

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’.