In today’s post, Simon Upton, head of the OECD Environment Directorate, founder and Chairman of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, and former New Zealand environment minister, gives his personal view of the Rio+20 summit
As with most large UN conferences, there is a “glass half empty and a glass half full” perspective on how the outcome of Rio+20 may be viewed, including the negotiated text, The Future We Want. As someone who left the Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg saying that the world didn’t need another mega-conference, I confess to having some instinctive sympathy with the former camp.
That’s not to say that tricky issues were ignored. Every conceivable element of the sustainable development agenda was offered space. The environmental side was no exception. Water got six paragraphs, energy five, cities four, mountains three, transport two and so on. Oceans somehow seized 19 paragraphs including the only new commitment: “to take action by 2025 (!) … to achieve significant reductions in marine debris”. Not surprisingly, perhaps, issues that are the subject of negotiations in other fora received cursory attention. Climate change was awarded three paragraphs which managed to express “profound alarm” and “grave concern” but not much else.
Fossil fuel subsidies, the hottest single issue in the Rio twitter-sphere, were nowhere to be found in relation to climate change or energy but were tucked away in a couple of paragraphs on sustainable production and consumption, including this example of the highly cautious, negotiation-speak of the document as a whole (italics added): “Countries reaffirm the commitments they have made to phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development. We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies…”
Note the artful choice of verbs. One of our analysts, Andrew Prag did a quick analysis of the frequency with which key verbs were used in The Future We Want. Here is what he found:
In short, the closer the world got to action the shyer it got about agreeing to do anything and Andrew’s analysis of the ‘we will’ category reveals a fondness for process and political declarations rather than concrete implementation.
But what of the glass half full camp? Here the emerging story is that there are plenty of ‘hooks’ in the text on which to construct future engagements. The most significant of these is probably the agreement to develop ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. This was Colombia’s great mission and it is to their credit that they battled suspicion and some outright hostility to build a sufficiently broad coalition to get this initiative adopted. Colombia wanted the subject matter of the goals defined at Rio. This was a step too far, so a smaller, regionally balanced working group will be tasked with reporting the putative subject matter of these goals to the UN General Assembly in 2013.
The question has to be asked whether we needed the conference to secure the agenda. Because the best bits of it are happening anyway. Action by leading businesses far outstrips intergovernmental action. Those of us who attended the ‘Business Day’ events were struck by just how far some businesses have come in the twenty years since the 1992 Rio conference.
Changing Pace: Public policy options to scale and accelerate business action towards Vision 2050 is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s incredibly ambitious picture of where the world has to be by 2050: zero waste, near zero net energy buildings, low carbon mobility, doubled food production with much lower inputs, etc. But the big change is not so much in their aspirations as in their target audience. They used to explicitly exclude telling governments what to do. Now, governments are seen to be laggards and they are calling for a much more robust and transparent public policy framework.
They outline a policy accelerator which involves setting goals, communicating and educating, regulating, reforming budgets, investing, monitoring and coordinating. It is, for business, a radical message for governments. It is worth looking at the explanatory section of the document in its entirety, but here is a flavour: “Since the 80s, the notion spread that less government intervention is better for business and economic growth. Yet the resulting deregulated world, with its weak financial and multilateral governance, has a mixed record of progress. It also accumulates economic distress, social tensions and increased environmental risks. It deals badly with the magnitude, depth and urgency of our systemic challenges.”
This language would have been unthinkable at Rio 1992. We are not talking about minor companies here. And they are not without self-interest – large global food companies for instance need access to resources, so it is perhaps not surprising that they oppose subsidies that distort food and energy prices in favour of other businesses. I would be wary of suggesting that governments and businesses should sing in unison – they represent different constituencies and we shouldn’t try to conceal that. But the insistence by some of the biggest companies in the world that they need a coherent regulatory framework that recognizes resource scarcity and the fragility of ecosystem services is surely a milestone.
The references to inequality and social tensions are also significant. A number of business people observed the People’s Forum down the road which drew 35,000 attendees. They were struck by the anger and several made the point that if young people are left unemployed for years on end the anger will spread to political and extra-political action in a way that could be both nasty and unpredictable – and certainly not good for growth and stability.
So the verdict might be that while parts of the conference were seen as empty, what occurred around it was full of promise. But as the business audience reminded us, whether that promise is fulfilled will depend on the response of governments.
Today we publish the third in a series of articles on the OECD’s contribution to the RIO+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development
Many politicians “cannot resist the power of the Invisible Demons, because they Secretly Serve the Invisible Demons”, according to one comment on the Rio+20 outcome document on the blog of Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International. I had a more lurid image of Satan and his minions, but it’s true that an eternity spent affirming, acknowledging, underscoring, stressing, recognising and recalling the need for holistic and integrated approaches to this and that would qualify as a reasonable definition of Hell in most religions. And speaking of definitions, Greenpeace’s political director Daniel Mittler described Rio+20 as an “epic failure … developed countries have given us a new definition of hypocrisy”. Other civil society organisations agree, including Oxfam, WWF, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
How about the OECD? The document you can click on at the top of this article opens with a message from OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría saying that 20 years on from Rio 1992, sustainable development remains a powerful message but it still isn’t a reality. It’s unlikely to become a reality unless we start changing what can be changed now, but as Gurría points out, “even the best policies are nothing without the political will to implement them”.
It’s not that the political will for change doesn’t exist. On the contrary, governments are always looking for new ways to develop the economy, but what we’ve seen since Rio 1992 is that economic growth on its own isn’t enough to address problems such as inequality, and it can even make environmental and other problems worse. And as we saw with Rio+20, countries at different stages of development and with different natural resources do not share a common view as to what the best policies are, even when they agree on the scale and causes of environmental degradation and climate change.
There’s also a problem of time scales and a related one of habit. It’s a bit like the character played by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8½ (or 8.5 as the OECD Style Guide would have it). Somebody tells him about this great method to quit smoking in a fortnight. “It’s taken me 40 years to get up to two packets a day,” he replies, “So why do you think I’d want to quit in two weeks?” Our current model of economic growth has brought enormous progress to billions of people, and we’re hooked, even though the costs keep growing. Today’s technologies and ways of doing things will be expensive and difficult to replace, and many of the benefits may not appear for some time, or be so diffuse that the impact on individual people (or businesses) may not be very noticeable. The effects of the crisis and anything that would slow growth are, however, immediate.
The OECD proposes green growth as a way to meet the challenges. A report prepared with the World Bank and UN for the G20 summit that preceded RIO+20 starts from the fact that structural reform agendas exist already, so green growth and sustainable development policies could be incorporated into them. The main elements of a “green” policy package are those of any structural reform – investment, tax, regulation, innovation and so on, but the report is accompanied by a toolkit of policy for different national situations. For example in many OECD countries, the main energy issue may be reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whereas in a developing country, access to electricity supplies may be the priority.
The report provides a good overview of the main questions, but even if you’re familiar with the subject, take a look at the last section on the strengths, weaknesses and conditions for using the various market-based policies and non market-based policies, for example if you want to compare taxes on pollution with stricter technology standards.
Finally, what do you think Rio+40 will be? A shout of triumph or a cry of despair?
Today we publish the second in a series of articles on the OECD’s contribution to the RIO+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development
A few years ago, I was invited to present the OECD’s International Futures Programme at a meeting on long-term issues organised by the UK’s Foresight project. Each of us outlined our group’s approach to strategic questions, explaining why we chose a particular time horizon. Mostly it was what you’d expect (50 years at least in the energy business, a minute or less for financiers). The most surprising contribution, for me at least, was from the chief economist of a big mining group who said that they didn’t bother with strategic planning and that, in essence, when the price of a mineral went up they got out their shovels and started digging and when it dropped, they leaned on their shovels until the price rose again. If there was nothing left worth digging out, they looked at their geological surveys and moved elsewhere.
That’s one of the factors behind the so-called “resource curse”, the idea that countries with abundant natural resources are less successful than others. The argument has its critics, but the price volatility of international commodity markets is clearly a problem for countries relying heavily on commodity exports. According to Green Growth and Developing Countries that’s the case for many non-OECD countries. The report identifies three “clusters”: fuel exporters, non-fuel commodity exporters and manufacturing exporters. Fuel exporters are strongly represented among high-income countries. The non-fuel commodity exporters are relatively over-represented in the low and lower middle-income groups. Manufacturing exporters are strongly represented among the middle-income countries.
Green growth is proposed for all three clusters as a way towards more balanced development that would also include the many people in the informal sector and who see little benefit from the economic progress of these past few years. It’s important for developing countries because the potential economic and social impacts of environmental degradation are particularly serious for them. Natural capital accounts for an estimated 26% of total wealth in low-income countries, compared with 2% of wealth in advanced economies.
As well as depending more than advanced economies on the exploitation of natural resources, many developing countries face severe economic, social and ecological threats, ranging from energy, food and water insecurity to climate change and extreme weather risks. They also face risks from premature deaths due to pollution, poor water quality and diseases associated with a changing climate.
There are international implications too. Although today most developing countries contribute only minor shares to global greenhouse gas emissions compared to the OECD and major emerging economies, they will increase their emissions if they follow conventional economic growth patterns. Green growth has emerged as a new approach to reframe the conventional growth model and to re-assess many of the investment decisions in meeting future needs.
OECD defines green growth as: “a means to foster economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies”. Green Growth and Developing Countries identifies three dimensions a national government should examine: a national green growth plan to create enabling conditions; green growth mainstreaming mechanisms to ensure opportunities are explored through existing economic activities; and green growth policy instruments to tap specific opportunities.
However, developing countries interpret green growth in different ways and the concept has generated some concerns. For example, the high initial costs for the transition to green growth appear to be beyond the reach of many, and even basic technologies are still lacking in most developing countries, particularly in wastewater treatment, waste management, energy efficiency and integrated water resource management. There is concern too that developing countries’ own technologies, including indigenous approaches, will not be able to compete, and they will need to import technologies from other countries.
Despite this, the majority of developing country governments are looking at different elements of a green growth strategy, such as carbon taxes, green energy funds, payment for ecosystem services, renewable energy, sustainable public procurement, and natural resource management. However green growth is rarely addressed in mainstream economic, budget and fiscal policies, and with a few exceptions, including Cambodia’s Green Growth Road Map and Ethiopia’s National Development Plans, there are few holistic policies, strategies and institutional systems in place.
That said, we started this article talking about time horizons, and we shouldn’t forget how recent the concept of green growth is and the fact that it is part of a long-term strategy seeking to change ways of doing things that have been used for decades if not centuries. Uncertainty and disagreement are to be expected at this stage and the OECD insists on the need for discussion and sharing of experiences.
A first consultation jointly organised by the OECD and the Global Green Growth Institute took place in Seoul, Korea in May 2012. The over-riding message was that unless green growth can speak clearly to poverty reduction and social and economic development in the near to medium term, it will make little progress. Most reaction was pragmatic – green growth should be seen as improving mainstream policies rather than as some radically new paradigm.
The next consultation with developing countries will take place at the Rio +20 conference on June 17th, and this effort will guide the articulation of a report that should be available by the end of 2012 and further refine the elements needed for a green growth policy framework.
Two panels in this session, on “Lessons from successful green growth reform” and “Stimulating change in business practice and consumer behaviour”. The amphitheatre is lit like a 1970s ballroom – dim blues and reds, perfect cover for cowardly hecklers.
In fact, the trouble comes from the podium, where Chandran Nair, who intervened briefly this morning, shatters the consensus. I had expected WWF’s Jim Leape to lead the charge against big business, but the panda kept its claws sheathed.
Leape praised the various companies the WWF works with. These include cement makers Lafarge (responsible for 1% of global CO2 emissions by itself at one time according to the WWF director), and a number of big companies like Coca Cola who’ve pledged to help put an end to deforestation by 2020. Other business initiatives include Unilever’s decision to do away with the quarterly report and the short-termism it engenders. Conclusion: business can lead and government can back them up.
For Nair, all the talk of “green” this and that trivialises the whole debate. If we don’t recognise that we’re faced with massive constraints, we’re victims of the corporate fairy tales firms like to peddle to improve their image. It’s simply not possible for billions of Asians to live and consume like Americans. In fact, he argues, restricting consumption is not a bad thing, except for business. So, governments’ role is not to follow, but to lead – by imposing rules on car ownership for instance.
Thomas Koenen, speaking for German industry, is a surprise ally on some points at least. He doesn’t find classifications like “green” sectors all that useful either. Offshore windfarms for example all need steel for their construction.
The first panel ends with no consensus. Then they inflict Björk on us again until moderator Simon Upton asks somebody to put her out of her misery (and turn up the lights so he can see who wants to intervene).
Jeremy Rifkin kicks off, practicing what he preaches by recycling his talk from this morning. Marie-Louise Knuppert of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions reminds us why so many businesses have “suggestion boxes”: workers don’t leave their brains at the door when they arrive for a shift. They know the products and processes of any business as well as anyone and should be involved in changing not only what firms do, but how they do it.
Bjorn Stigson of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development still hasn’t forgiven Nair for his earlier comments and insists that business is well aware of the constraints. In fact, competition for access to resources is being transformed into a “green race” to dominate the world economy, with China well-positioned coming out the starting blocks.
One of the most interesting exchanges is between a business consultant from Africa and Stigson. The consultant said that Africa was being neglected in this dialogue. Stigson replied that they’d tried to engage African business leaders but without success – they weren’t interested in sustainable development.
There’s general agreement however that “greening” will need a combination of tools, including technology, pricing, rules, and better information for consumers. Simon Brooks of the European Investment Bank reminds us that greening will mean that some things are more expensive.
Nobody said “there’s no silver bullet”.
This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY.
Coalmines don’t leak, but there are few other ways that the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Virginia in April differs from that of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico just a month later.
The tragedy is the same. Men went to work on the day of the disaster in the usual way they set out for their well-known tasks on any day. Then a terrible thing happened that got very quickly of their control. A total of thirty-nine people lost their lives; 28 at Upper Big Branch, 11 in the Gulf of Mexico. This is not a large number in comparison to other industrial accidents but all loss of life is tragic especially when it is life cut short. It seems out of order. Fathers will now outlive sons. The norms reversed. In a sense that is what a disaster is; our world turned upside down. In that there is no difference between coalmine and an oilrig.
It is far too easy to point out that in both cases the objectives were the same – the mining of a fossil fuel to provide cheap energy for economic growth in the US. Coal and oil are almost the same chemically. Coal is more or less pure carbon, oil has hydrogen atoms as well; hence we call oil a hydrocarbon. Different processes in the Earth create them — coal by the transformation of ancient land plants like ferns, oil from the transformation of microscopic marine organism with unfamiliar names like dinoflagelates. Both are actually still being formed in the Earth but the rate of transformation is very slow and our rate of use is very high and so we call them non-renewable. It’s a comparative statement but a fair one.
The ready availability of coal in Britain made the industrial revolution possible. The unavailability of coal in most of Africa may have made an industrial revolution in that continent impossible and doomed it to poverty. There is nowhere in the world that has achieved progress absent cheap abundant energy. We need cheap energy to prosper; coal and oil provide it. The only way to get access is to mine it, either through a drill pipe or an excavation. Both forms of mining have always been and remain very risky, and countless people have died throughout the world in mining disasters. We need the fuels so we take the risks. Mining is not the most dangerous profession; agriculture and fishing have higher worker death rates in the US. We need to farm and fish so we take the risks that go with farming and fishing.
The two disasters are similar in very unsettling ways. To many they seem to speak of our addiction to fossil fuel. Like a drug addict they suggest we will go to any lengths and take any risk necessary to get the substance we crave. If drugs ruin an addict’s health, no matter; if fossil fuel addiction ruins the planet, that’s no matter either. Both of these disasters can be seen as one more example of our reckless drive for cheap energy that is rooted in a hedonistic desire for greater material wellbeing.
Just over 25 years ago the worst industrial accident of modern times occurred in the small town of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh north central India. Vast quantities of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate were released from a chemical plant. Generally referred to as the Bhopal Disaster the incident caused deaths estimated by official government sources to be a precise 2,259 but maybe as many as 16,000 by including deaths that occurred immediately plus those that happened subsequently from extended health effects. Nothing was exactly being mined at Bhopal, something like the opposite was taking place. The plant was producing fertilizers needed to catalyze the so-called Green Revolution, a revolution that turned agriculture in India around so that the country is now more than self-sufficient in food it is a net exporter. Union Carbide, the company that owned the plant could hardly be accused of a rash drive to satiate an obscene drive for luxury living, it was helping to remove the specter of starvation from India. Yet the criticisms are the same. The company was accused of putting profits ahead of safety. And maybe they did. When poor people are the ones most likely harmed we care a lot less. Writing in The Observer John Vidal has pointed out that oil leaks, spills and fires every year in the Nigerian Delta region dwarf the scale of the Deepwater Horizon in oil spilt and lives and livelihoods lost. Nigeria is very far away and is none of our business while the Gulf of Mexico is very nearby and is very much our business.
Construction cranes topple while building skyscrapers, trains collide all over the world, nuclear power plants melt down, space craft explode, unsinkable ships collide with icebergs and sink. We think of these as disasters because a lot of people die all at once or in a very spectacular way but, as everyone knows road accident fatalities far outweigh those from disasters but they happen one or a few at a time so we think of them quite differently, and never describe them as disasters. Even though they happen all the time and we know how they happen we cant prevent them.
No one could imagine the Titanic sinking. No one sounded a warning. No one imaged the space shuttle exploding. It is hard for me even to imagine being in a car accident, let alone a plane crash though every one that happens receives graphic media coverage. I am not going to apologize for BP but it is hard to imagine the unimaginable. BP did the things that the oil industry knows how to do. They put a blowout preventer on the well. That’s what everyone does and blowout preventers usually work. It is hard to imagine a blowout preventer not working. They are using everything the industry knows how to do to stop the flow after the preventer failed. No one has had any better ideas so far.
The oil leak in the Gulf is a new and terrible version of an old story. We take preventive actions against small to medium sized problems because we are familiar with them and we know what to do. In earthquake prone areas we strengthen our houses against minor events but no one tries to build to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, first because it is almost impossible and tremendously costly to do and second because these huge events are hard to imagine. Our roads and road rules prevent a lot of accidents but cannot prevent the unimaginable tragedy of a person getting drunk and driving the wrong way on a freeway with a car full of children. It is not astonishing that the levees failed in New Orleans and the Army Corps of Engineers has been rightly criticized for its lack of attention to their state of repair, but it was hard to imagine the failures that occurred.
As an industrial accident what happened in the Gulf is principally distinguished by the way continues on. At Upper Big Branch coal gases exploded, coal miners died, the mine was shut down, and families continue to grieve. But the coalmine disaster is over. The Titanic sank, many drowned, some survived and then it was over. The Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, caught fire and collapsed but the disaster of the leak continues. What happened in the Gulf is not entirely without precedent. There is a long history of oilrig failures some of which have lead to extended leakage taking months to stop. Magnitude 9 earthquakes have occurred. Category 5 hurricanes actually make landfall fairly often.
I don’t know why we don’t properly prepare and many people have pondered the question without coming to a good answer. Maybe it is that we simply cannot prepare for things that are so terrible just because of their scale. They are just too big to prepare for.
Or maybe it is that we are a breed of risk-takers and that is a trait that has, for the most part served us well. The exploration and settlement of new lands is risky. Starting a new business is risky. Every step in human progress has required taking risks. Many people will say that these disasters happen because we don’t properly calculate the risks. I wonder if instead it is that we do more or less know the risks and are willing to take them. We may not be able to calculate a probability density function but to say we are unaware of the risks is wrong in my view. We can’t imagine exactly what might happen but no one working on an oilrig could possibly think they we working in a risk free environment or that the consequences of a accident could not be catastrophic. I don’t think it is a manic drive for profits or an addiction to oil or a callous disregard for people or pelicans. I think that those who died on the rig were killed by the essential hubris of our industrial society.
We have to use the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon to teach us how to avoid another similar catastrophe. We can even try to imagine another unimaginable event. We need to be smarter and more careful. The continuing leak is a daily reminder. We should be much less reckless. But we cannot and should not try to engineer our hubris away. We need it and would be the lesser without it.
The photo below from the Wildverband web site sums up a lot of the issues debated in this wide-ranging session.
These children are recycling waste. Are they doing a green job? If we admit that they are, then that prompts another question. Does defining this as green make it any better?
The second question is easier to answer. Nobody would justify child labour on a rubbish dump by saying it’s good for the planet. Another way to look at it is to say that underlying the notion of green jobs is the idea that they’re “better” than other jobs from the standpoint of sustainability, and that means not just the environment, but social and economic aspects too.
One idea on which there was consensus was that if green jobs means anything, it’s as part of a revolutionary change in the way the economy is organised – in how goods are produced and how they are consumed.
In Denmark, for instance, the government decided to promote the windpower industry, and the country is now a world leader in windmills. So you could say that the workers building them are in green jobs. But what about the steelworkers who make the masts and other parts? Their factories may be highly polluting, but their end product is designed to reduce pollution.
One suggestion was that the real debate is not about green jobs, but about what progress means, and the fact that this involves tradeoffs, perhaps of material wealth for other forms of well-being.
As I said at the start, the session was wide-ranging, with more questions than answers:
Will the fact that the babyboom generation is retiring make the economy greener?
Will all the green jobs go to China, and does it matter?
Can policy makers promoting green jobs be smarter than the markets or will green jobs just be white elephants?
The people in Safaa Fathy’s film Dardasha Socotra about an island off the coast of Yemen love talking (“Dardasha” means sweet conversation). They debate knowledge versus intuition, the interpretation of dreams, the meaning of death, and respect for life. One of the fishermen in the film talks about how God has blessed Socotra with mountains, rivers, and bees.
You might find such a statement quaint, but the teams of scientists who produced the third edition of the UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook would agree with the fisherman’s reasoning.
Economics teachers the world over would applaud too. Bees are a favourite example of an “externality” – something that has a value not captured in the market price of goods. In this case, bees pollinate flowers and allow crops to flourish without getting paid, although this example is under threat from industrialised swarms hired out to orchards and other clients.
Today, the bees themselves and the ecosystems they support are threatened by environmental degradation due to human actions. And unfortunately massive loss of biodiversity is becoming increasingly likely according to the Outlook, and with it, a severe reduction of many essential services to human societies as well.
The report warns that important ecosystems including the Amazon forest, coral reefs and many inland waters are shifting to alternative, less productive states from which it may be difficult or impossible to recover.
This despite the target set by world governments in 2002 “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level”. In fact, none of the 21 subsidiary targets accompanying the overall 2010 biodiversity target has been achieved globally, although some have been achieved partially or locally. Ten of 15 headline indicators developed by the Convention on Biological Diversity show unfavourable trends.
There is some hope though. Forward-looking scenarios developed for the report suggest that there are greater opportunities than identified in earlier assessments to address the biodiversity crisis while contributing to other social objectives, for example, by reducing the scale of climate change without large-scale deployment of biofuels and accompanying loss of natural habitats.
See this student guide to Superfreakonomics for an example of bees as an externality.
Pr May R. Berenbaum warns the US Congress of the dire consequences for agriculture, food security and quality of life of colony collapse disorder and pollinator decline