Can environment and development really come together next week in Rio?

June 12, 2012 1 By admin

This week is Earth Summit week on the blog, making my small contribution to the wonk feeding frenzy already in full flow in advance of Rio+20 logonext week’s Rio+20 event. Every organization is spewing out bulletins, position statements and curtain-raisers as if their lives depended on it (which I guess they do, in a way). I’m doubtful how many people actually read these – the press rooms are often carpeted with them, and I’ve always argued that NGOs can have more impact by keeping their powder dry and churning out immediate post mortems after the summit. That way they can help to write the history, while the competition is usually too sleep-deprived to produce anything. Here’s an example from the London G20 summit at the height of the global financial crisis.

But just in case you are hungry for more, there’s a South Centre bulletin on the ‘key issues’, a piece from Lawrence Haddad and the World Bank’s list of essential reading (several weeks’ worth) on sustainable development.

I’ll also review a couple here on the blog, starting with ‘Separated at Birth, reunited in Rio?’, an excellent 8 page paper from Claire Melamed, Andrew Scott and Tom Mitchell at the Overseas Development Institute, looking at whether the summit can ‘bring environment and development back together’. Some highlights:

“2015 will be a defining year for international policy on development and the environment. The negotiation of both new goals and a new agreement on climate change offer an opportunity to finally reunite the twin tracks of development and environmental policy, which have remained stubbornly separate since the first Rio conference in 1992.  Rio+20 will set the stage for the approach to 2015.

However, the history of trying to link development and environmental objectives through actual policy initiatives is not encouraging. ‘Sustainable development’, a concept originating in the Brundtland Report of 1987, has become the mantra in global policy circles since the first Rio conference in 1992, but it has  had remarkably little impact on actual policy.  Despite much academic work and many innovative ideas in this area, the two have remained stubbornly separate on the terrain of politics and implementation.”

The paper contrasts the state of development and environmental debates (see table):ODI table

“[Despite caveats on climate change, food prices and the financial crisis] Current trends in development are remarkably positive. Thanks to both economic growth and effective policies, income levels and social outcomes are improving everywhere. For the environmental sector the news is almost unrelievedly gloomy.  The challenge at the heart of bringing together environment and development – the reason why it is so essential and yet so difficult – is the apparent fundamental contradiction in these trends. More resources are needed as economies grow, the population (in some countries) increases, and living standards rise… These pressures will push the world further towards – or over – the planetary boundaries, and the consequences, in terms of climate change and resource depletion will, in turn, make progress against poverty harder, and may even send it into reverse.”

“Most of the increase in resource consumption will take place amongst middle and high income groups. Reducing extreme poverty in Africa or Asia will have little immediate impact on the scale of global resource use or on carbon emissions: numerous studies have highlighted that the effect may be marginal. So policies to tackle residual poverty and avoid critical environmental thresholds need to focus on quite different parts of the global demographic in the short term.”

The authors then delve into the different world views underlying the development and environment debates – one speaks the language of morality, the other of science:

“The problems of poverty and development are mainly normative –  the basis for the international effort towards poverty eradication is that, worldwide, governments and people have  decided that it is morally unacceptable for people to live  below a certain minimum standard in a world where the  alternative is possible. By contrast, the problem in the environmental  sphere is defined less on the basis of moral norms (at  least for the mainstream environmental movement),  and more on the basis of the science and scientific  knowledge about how changes are likely to impact on  the global climate or other systems.”

And they operate on different planes of experience: “For the development sector, the unit of analysis of the measurement of progress is almost always the individual level, and norms relate to what individual people have, or what services they can access, or how they feel. The unit of analysis for environmental problems is generally a whole system.”

A gulf also separates the two camps on time frames: for the environmentalists “much of the action called for now is based on the impact climate change cartoon IDSof inaction on future generations…. On the development side, progress is called for on the basis of the needs of current generations.”

These fundamental differences produce very different political environments for change:

“In the absence of rapid technological change, the environmental agenda implies the rationing of resource use, both through the operation of the market and through policy instruments. This makes the politics quite toxic. At a global level, there is a deep suspicion among some low and middle income countries that environmentalism is simply a cover for old-fashioned mercantilism, and that calls to develop differently are nothing more than disguised calls to develop less.

By contrast, the focus on growth and improving living standards in the development field means that many of the decisions made in the name of development in both developing and developed countries are politically popular, at least with some groups.  The issues are less around direct trade-offs and more around how to distribute a rapidly expanding pie.   In recent years, perhaps reflecting the general mood of optimism about positive trends, the focus within international development policy-making has been on technical issues: how to design appropriate programmes or how to roll out large scale vaccine campaigns.”

Inevitably, the diagnosis of the problems is a lot more detailed and convincing than the proposals for overcoming them. These include starting with agreement on a ‘best 2050 world’ and working backwards; agreeing new global goals; new financial and market regulation and new institutional architecture. At Rio, it thinks the most promising discussions are on green growth and ‘sustainable development goals.’ These proposals risk banging up against the political and economic setting for Rio (more on that to follow).