Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reinventing sustainable development

A lot of folks seem puzzled by what the concept of sustainable development really means. You can probably chalk it up to naiveté, but the idea always seemed to make sense to me. Everything I understood about our planet Earth suggests to me that it has been sustainably developing for over four billion years -- primarily utilizing the energy from the sun and moon (radiation and gravity) to maintain the conditions necessary for life. Ecosystems evolve, individual species come and go, but the overall integrity of the planet has been preserved. Through it all, the Earth has not really increased in size. Sustainable growth is not a viable concept. It has, however developed -- rearranging its subsystems, continuously creating opportunities for new life forms to emerge and evolve. A mega-system replete with feedback loops, competition and symbiotic relationships.

Humans have the potential to consciously design and implement sustainable develop strategies capable of maintaining the conditions necessary for our coexistence with our fellow passengers aboard Spaceship Earth and to do so in ways that improve the quality of life for all humanity without compromising Nature's life-supporting infrastructure. Just like our home planet, it has to be an evolving, dynamic process.

This, for me, is a source of optimism. (GW)

A German vision: greening globalization

By Ehsan Masood
Open Democracy
March 28, 2007

A plan to link climate-change policy with biodiversity loss renews the twenty-year-old idea of sustainable development

There are many obvious ways to measure the strengths and weaknesses of the European project, whose fiftieth anniversary was marked in the European Union's weekend gathering in Berlin on 24-25 March 2007. A less familiar indicator of progress is that each of the continent's "big three" leaders can afford to see Europe's achievement also as a springboard to address major global problems: principally the most urgent one of all - saving the world from environmental loss.

In Britain, Tony Blair's government published a draft climate-change bill on 13 March which plans to set legally-binding targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 60% below 1990 levels, before 2050. This is easily the world's most ambitious individual national commitment to tackle global warming. It comes after the influential Stern report on the economics of climate change (published on 30 October 2006) which predicted that the costs of combatting global warming would be less than the damage to world economies of doing little or doing nothing to slow it down. The Stern report in turn followed Blair's commitment to make climate change (along with development in Africa) the centrepiece of Britain's presidency of the G8 group of nations in 2005.

In France, Jacques Chirac announced in 2005 that France would back a proposed international scientific panel on biodiversity. There were and are good reasons for this. The rate of decline in species numbers is the highest it has been since the last (fifth) great extinction, and is up to a thousand times the natural, background rate of extinction. Some scientists believe that we may well be on the way to a sixth extinction, and that and it is our modern industrialised life that is among the major causes. Species are threatened every time we clear land for development, or for agriculture, and when we use chemicals in the environment.

What the soon-departed Chirac wants is a periodic scientific assessment of biodiversity to help politicians understand why halting biodiversity loss is just as important as slowing down global warming. His model of a scientific panel on biodiversity is the existing group of experts known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose reports have helped to catalyse world action on global warming. There does exist a United Nations target to slow down the decline in biodiversity before 2010, but it commands nowhere near as much public or political awareness as, say, the Kyoto protocol.

In Germany, Angela Merkel has taken the lead in mapping a way ahead that matches and even exceeds the ambition of her European Union partners. Indeed, Germany was among the first countries to back the Chirac proposal; Britain, initially sceptical, is now supportive (as is another who formerly expressed doubts, Robert Watson, chief scientist at the World Bank and former chair of the IPCC.

The chancellor and current president of the G8 - herself a scientist and former research minister under her mentor Helmut Kohl - leads a government that hosted a two-day meeting of environment ministers of the G8 countries and the five major newly industrialising countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) on 15-17 March. This concluded with a plan to commission a review (on the Stern model) on the economics of biodiversity. The report will assess the monetary value of individual species and ecological systems such as forests, and then compare this with how much it would cost to replace the free services these species and systems provide to humans, if we had to replace them.

France and Britain's bold leadership is both welcome in itself and perhaps reflects the desire of the respective, retiring political figureheads to burnish their inevitably mixed legacies. Yet it could well turn out that the smartest proposal of the three is Germany's. Aside from the plan for a Stern-like review for biodiversity, Germany has also decided to connect biodiversity and climate change as among the priorities for its G8 presidency, whose high point is the summit in the Baltic resort of Heiligendamm on 6-8 June 2007. What is smart about this is that Germany seems alone among the three in realising that in the long run climate change can only be successfully tackled by also thinking about how to halt biodiversity loss.

Britain's climate-change proposals are an example. One of the ways in which the government wants to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to convert more land for growing the kinds of plants that could be converted into fuels (known as biofuels). This may well contribute to success in reaching a climate-change target - though not if forests in developing countries are to be converted for the purpose. Africa is already losing its forests at a faster rate than in any other continent, according to a report published on 13 March by the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organisation. 16% of the world's forests are in Africa, but the continent represented 50% of forests cut down between 1990 and 2005.

The reinvention of sustainable development

Such depletion makes it essential to link thinking and policy on biodiversity and climate change - otherwise there is a risk of undermining efforts in either or both areas. "Global biodiversity policy is a fundamental component of economic policy", Germany's environment minister Sigmar Gabriel wrote in a BBC article on 9 March 2007. "We need a greening of globalisation."

Gabriel's call for a "green globalisation" is another, more elegant way of describing sustainable development, an idea that sadly seems to have gone out of fashion. As it happens, 2007 is the twentieth anniversary of its introduction into international politics. In April 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (led by Gro Harlem Brundtland) first gave public voice to the idea of economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Two further global summits (in 1992 and 2002) and much in the way of conferences, books, even supportive national and local legislation followed; but sustainable development has yet to move - as has happened with climate change - from the margins to the mainstream. It could be argued that the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at which the UN climate convention was signed, helped to cement the current mould of thinking to regard climate change and biodiversity as separate and with no real mechanism for integration between the two.

There are other reasons for sustainable development's failure in practice, however. Some are set out in a paper - "A New Era in Sustainable Development" - published on 20 March by Steve Bass of the London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Bass lists the inviolability of economic growth above peoples' rights, welfare or environmental processes; and related this to the fact that environmental destruction is never reflected in national accounting. That is to say, if (for example) a power-plant is built on an area formerly occupied by forest land, the power-plant will be seen as an economic gain, but at the same time the destruction of the forest and the subsequent loss of services provided through the forest (such as water purification, pollination, and soil fertility) will not be seen as the economic loss that it is.

Two other factors are important in explaining the failure of sustainability. First, it is a difficult concept to convey easily in the mass media and among politicians - it doesn't easily lend itself to snappy headlines, and doubts over its exact meaning can cause confusion (for example, sustainable development could just as easily be understood to mean "continuous economic development").

Second, sustainable development has not been adopted in a big way by any of the powerful global conservation groups whose decades-long advocacy on climate change has been central to projecting the issue to the top of the political agenda today. If, twenty years ago, they had adopted sustainable development in the same way, politicians and the media would by now have taken notice.

In their final months of office, both Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair have revealed elements of a genuine environmental vision. But by concentrating independently on climate change and biodiversity, there is a real risk that some good work may be abortive because of the inevitable competition for time, resources and political priorities. By bringing climate change and biodiversity into a common frame, Germany - assuming Angela Merkel's initiative is carried through, both at the G8 summit and at the EU summit on 21-22 June which consummates Germany's six-month presidency - may well succeed in shifting the international agenda in a progressive direction.

From the moment they take office, world leaders are in search of a legacy that will raise their status from evanescent politicians to more enduring (and legacy-leaving) statesmen. It is early days for Angela Merkel to be seeking a legacy; but green globalisation - or sustainable development - is a legacy that is looking for a leader.


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