Rainbow over forest

With this year’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development meeting – also known as “Rio+20” – fast approaching, Greenpeace senior political advisor Pat Lerner takes an in-depth look at the UNSG’s High Level Panel report on Global Sustainability "Resilient People, Resilient Planet:  A future worth choosing": 

It had been billed ahead of time as “a second Brundtland Report [1]”, designed to be visionary and describe a future 20 years from now, “a future worth choosing.” Its mandate was clearly recognized: “efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other social and economic targets are hampered by the inability to agree on decisive and coordinated action in national and multilateral fora.”   Yet in the end the politicians did what they always do – they kicked the tough issues down the road for someone else to deal with and bowed to what they thought could get agreed.  No wonder there’s a leadership vacuum.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some good ideas in the recently released report by the UNSG’s High Level Panel on Global SustainabilityResilient People, Resilient Planet:  A future worth choosing.  But it’s clear the usual sort of unseemly dickering and trade-offs we are familiar with in climate negotiations took place among the Panel, as those involved headed towards compromises.  They heard us calling for greater urgency so the words are there, but the recommendations have been watered down with dates that clearly don’t reflect the urgency merited by our oceans, forests and climate.  But then we shouldn’t be surprised as it’s the very same individuals negotiating our planet’s fate.

The Resilient People report and its recommendations are a bit of a mixed bag.  Bravo for calling to “phase out fossil fuel subsidies and reduce other perverse subsidies by 2020”. The G20 pledged to do so in October 2009, as did APEC a month later – that’s 53 countries.  More recently, the IEA warned of the dangers of further delay, saying in effect that we could finally have a level playing field for alternatives to fossil fuels if the $400 billion per year of hand outs were phased out.  You would think this would be a “no brainer” for leaders said to be obsessed with eliminating public deficits.  First rule of thumb when you’re in a hole – stop digging!  So what, and who, is holding them back?  You heard us say it in Durban and you’ll hear us say it in Rio – “listen to the people, not the polluters!”

We are pleased the Panel sees oceans as “crucial for humanity’s future”, because of the contributions they make to livelihoods, food security and the environmental services they provide.  The report highlights the decline of marine environment, particularly over the past two decades.  It is clear that a radical overhaul is needed for that management of our oceans; we simply can’t continue with a business-as-usual approach that will surely lead to a social, economic and environmental disaster.  So why such weak recommendations, which fail to address the issue of overcapacity in the fisheries sector, as well as the simple reality of too many big boats chasing too few fish? There is no sense of urgency for action; we cannot agree to an approach that merely tinkers at the margins and signs a death warrant for the oceans.  Fortunately, the zero draft of the Rio outcome is spot-on in calling for a new UN implementing agreement that would give a clearer framework for cooperation on marine conservation and sustainable management. Conserving 20-30% of the global oceans in marine protected areas could create a million jobs, and avoid the destruction of the livelihoods of the millions of people who depend on marine resources.

The Resilient People report is somewhat contradictory on food and agriculture and some of its recommendations run the risk of being counter-productive.  The call for an “ever-green revolution in agriculture” brings back memories of the first green revolution, which was based on intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds and irrigation water, with disastrous results for diversity of native crop varieties, soil health, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and long-term food security.  Governments must be clear about what is needed; not simply greater resource use efficiency, but a dramatic reorientation of agricultural systems away from chemical farming and towards low external input, ecological farming methods which work with, not against nature.

Speaking of biodiversity, where, oh where are forests and biodiversity in the Resilient People report?  We need commitment by all countries and companies to immediately eliminate the subsidies and industrial demand-side drivers of deforestation and forest degradation so we can achieve zero deforestation by 2020. The world completely missed the biodiversity target agreed to in 2002, “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss.”   I guess the Panel didn’t want to dwell on targets missed when voluntary, bottom-up approaches are still thought useful.  The real question is whether those approaches remain sufficient for the scale of the challenges we face.  The Panel’s recommendation for Governments to adopt “whole-of-government approaches to sustainable development issues, under the leadership of the Head of State or Government” suggests they understand the crisis dimensions of the planet’s future as this approach is typically used in conflict and post-conflict situations.  But this is easier said than done, and it’s hard to see how the issues will really surface to the top of the pile, unless strengthening UNEP really means giving it specialized agency status.

In terms of what needs to be done to catalyse a socially just, green economy, the Resilient People report is correct in calling on Governments, international financial institutions, major companies and small and medium enterprises to do their parts in mandating, incentivizing, adopting and diffusing sustainable business practices, which move beyond the short-term and embrace longer term investment horizons. The toolbox includes mechanisms that can be implemented right away, such as removal of dirty subsidies and redirecting those revenues for sustainable investments; establishing full-cost pricing for negative externalities like taxes or emission trading schemes for fossil fuels; reviewing investors’ fiduciary responsibilities which prevent many large investors from longer-term thinking and sustainable investments; and building investor confidence through stable long-term policy frameworks, such as renewable energy targets, and through public financing instruments, risk-sharing, and advance purchase commitments (such as feed-in tariffs) to bridge the viability gap in funding. These are all recommendations governments should take on board for immediate implementation.  That said, the panel wimps out when it comes to corporate accountability. While mandatory sustainability reporting would provide investors, policymakers and citizens with improved information, and would represent a step forward from the current state of pure voluntarism, it simply isn’t enough. We need governments to fulfill the promise they made in Johannesburg ten years ago and deliver clear and binding rules on global corporations. Governments must establish full accountability and liability for any social or environmental damage caused by multinational corporations.

The Panel recommends that “Governments should agree to develop a set of key universal sustainable development goals, covering all three dimensions of sustainable development as well as their interconnections. “ We welcome this recommendation, but think the timeline needs to be accelerated. The responses to sustainability must reflect at least the same level of urgency and seriousness as the responses to the economic and financial crises.  Agreeing on aspirational, long-term SDGs by 2015, which are set for 2030, would simply not achieve this response. The focus needs to be on the next ten years, as choices made within this period will be crucial for preventing catastrophic climate change, saving our oceans and protecting remaining natural forests -- all of which are fundamental for human development and well-being. The time-horizon for SDGs should be no longer than two election periods at most, 2020, to ensure immediate implementation and avoid gaps in political commitment. The SDG process must guarantee the full implementation and follow-up of the MDGs.

The Resilient People report suggests “to achieve sustainability, a transformation of the global economy is required.  Tinkering at the edges will not do the job.”  We agree, but find the report' unconvincing in its recommendations.  It’s as though the authors lost the courage of their convictions somewhere along the way.  The upshot looks like “tinkering at the edges”, which simply isn’t enough to save the only planet we call home.

Read more: The "Resilient People, Resilient Planet:  A future worth choosing" report

Pat Lerner is a senior political advisor for Greenpeace International. Written with input from Nathalie Rey, Susanne Breitkopf, Julian Oram, Kaisa Kosonen, Sofia Tsenikli, Sebastian Losada, Mario Ferro and Roman Czebiniak


[1] Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was published in 1987. Its targets were multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path. The report sought to recapture the spirit of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment - the Stockholm Conference - which had introduced environmental concerns to the formal political development sphere. Our Common Future placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda; it aimed to discuss the environment and development as one single issue.

The publication of Our Common Future and the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development laid the groundwork for the convening of the 1992 Earth Summit and the adoption of Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and to the establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

An oft-quoted definition of sustainable development is defined in the report as:

"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In addition, key contributions of Our Common Future to the concept of sustainable development include the recognition that the many crises facing the planet are interlocking crises that are elements of a single crisis of the whole [1] and of the vital need for the active participation of all sectors of society in consultation and decisions relating to sustainable development.

Our Common Future is also known as the Brundtland Report in recognition of Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s  role as Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development.

[2] 2010 estimate, from the World Energy Outlook