20 years to…where?

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

imageNext year, in June, world leaders will get together in the joyful city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to mark 20 years of UNCED—the Earth Summit (see Down to Earth, May 15, 1992).

Unbelievably, it will be 40 years since the Stockholm conference, when the question of the environment first caught global attention. At Stockholm, developing countries—then prime minister Indira Gandhi was the only leader from this part of the world to attend the meet—were uncertain. They were just feeling their way to articulate what the environment meant for them, how their own development would need resources and how their growth could lead to pollution. Mrs Gandhi’s famous phrase, “poverty is the biggest polluter”, has been interpreted in many ways. At Rio in 1992, this set of countries, sobered, decided to put their foot down: they asserted their right to sustainable development.

This Rio+20 comes at a crucial time in global affairs. A possible double digit recession in the US, financial crisis in the Eurozone, peak oil prices, everything is provoking a rethink on the current growth model. What are the interconnections between this model, built on consumption for wealth creation, and the challenge it poses to sustainability? We know, today, an underlying cause of the financial strain is dependence on cheap loans or cheap production to induce consumption, to fuel growth. The world has not been able to design a growth model that meets the aspirations and purchasing abilities of people, indeed the needs of all. There are limits to such growth, a fast-growing world is learning. It is not possible to emulate the lifestyle of the already-industrialised without compromising the survival of the Earth. Such limits will require the world to share the Earth, so that growth can be afforded and sustainable, for all.

The world is in danger of losing its development dividend. The poor, already living on the margins of survival, are even more vulnerable with each natural disaster. The gains of development investment are now lost. So, on the one hand, the world has to reinvent the growth paradigm because it is costing growth itself. On the other hand, the world has to reinvent growth for it is costing the Earth.

What should the planetary blueprint look like? First, we need new economic indicators to measure prosperity in an inclusive and carbon-liable world. It is increasingly accepted the current method to measure economic progress in terms of gross national product does not provide the right signals for valuing growth, just and sustainable. Bhutan has adopted Gross National Happiness to indicate a way to wellbeing, outside of wealth. In 2008, responding to concerns about the inadequacy of current measures of economic performance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy set up the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The choice of the economic measure is important, for it makes the world assess economic performance and social progress in a new light. But what are the “right” indicators, which will value the next-generation, low-carbon development paradigm? This is a key issue, still needing resolution.

Second, the world must buy into the demand for a global framework for equal rights and entitlement to global atmospheric space for all, which will, in turn, build in conditions for limits on consumption and production. The world’s atmospheric budget must be shared. Such sharing will create the right conditions for critical economic choices related to changes in consumption and production patterns. Such acceptance of limit has to be a key economic-political driver the world over. If we can’t put it in place, there will be no real incentive to move away from the current, unsustainable, economic growth model.

Third, can we transition to green energy? For it, do we have the guts to build a global feed-in tariff mechanism? It is well understood the transition to low-carbon growth will require massive investment in new renewable technologies, as also in distribution systems which reduce transmission costs and losses. The challenge is compounded: the global majority of households remain energy-deprived and energy-insecure. The world has to find energy options, affordable to all and sustainable.

It is also clear the South has the opportunity to leapfrog into new energy solutions, for it has still not invested, completely, in the fossil-based energy systems that threaten the Earth. The transition to low-carbon energy futures can be paid through a global feed-in tariff mechanism, which would pay for the differential cost of generating more expensive energy-using renewable technologies. Many countries have adopted domestic feed-in tariff regulations. Germany, where consumers are relatively wealthy, requires power utilities to pay the differential. In India, where energy insecurity and energy costs are high and consumers poor, the approach is to bundle cheaper energy with expensive energy to cut prices. These approaches will make us learn the options for the future.

But it is not enough. Global leaders have to stand up for some “inconvenient messages”, which challenge the current business-as-usual model. In Rio, all leaders should take a bus, to say they want a car-free world. Say it clearly, openly and without hesitation. Change the game. We want that. We are not waiting.

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  • Sunita, Thanks for this


    Thanks for this insightful article. Just to add that the concept of a ÔÇÿgreen economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development', that is 'peddled' as one of the themes for Rio + 20 must work for the poor.

    With the numerous challenges around them (some of which you mention), Rio + 20 should show affirmative responsiveness to poor communities around the world

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Even developing nations may

    Even developing nations may abide to car-free future, but not the wealthy countries. It high time, every individual must conform and emulate the low-carbon trends followed by few of the Northern world. However, there is a long way to foster a low-carbon industrialization and consumerism-which need a global partnership for atmospheric budget for an harmonious planet.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you, Sunita - excellent

    Thank you, Sunita - excellent article. I would just add - as a forth point - that Rio+20 should also address consumption goals, especially for the North - see http://www.millenniumconsumptiongoals.org

    And yes, we should indeed ask the summit participant to take the bus, or bike, or walk...that would be a real experience for most of the G20 leaders!


    Uwe R. Fritschr

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • We must also find ways to

    We must also find ways to reuse/recycle alloys and depend less on virgin metals. I would definitely like to see car-free travel in the near future. who could set the example better than the G20 group?

    Government could also encourage individuals to invest in solar power for their lighting etc so that it reduces the burden on other conventional methods.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, the present development

    Yes, the present development model based in GDP growth is too simplistic and energy-inefficient; we are still far away from developing a sustainable development model cutting across the differential between developed and developing nations. thnks
    Geo-Consultant & Advisor

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you, Sunita, for an

    Thank you, Sunita, for an excellent essay. May I suggest a bold paradigm shift already in process? Buckminster Fuller said, "Never try to change things by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Mine is the CooperShip, a new transportation model using solar power and water for fuel, coopership.com. Others are giving cellphones to several hundred thousand Indian women to start businesses, microloans to others to buy goats, Sudith Matra's illiterate children in groups teaching themselves the computer, Sal Khan's Khan Academy with free videos on YouTube to teach the world math. Empowering and inspiring the poor to lift themselves is the new model. Best to all. Dale Cooper Harris

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • do see this

    do see this video

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply