The global challenge of green growth

Janet Strachan

With an understanding of, and appreciation for, the fundamental groundwork of environmental policy forged over the last 50 years, Janet Strachan looks ahead at how these ideas must be adapted to ensure a sustainably ‘green’ future.

In the 1960s, scientific understanding of the negative environmental impacts of industrialisation steadily grew. It was during this period that the UN General Assembly agreed to host talks on the environment, and in 1972 the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment was held. From the outset, some saw this as an opportunity to learn from and avoid the expensive mistakes made by industrialised countries in their development, while others, like Brazil, noted that since these countries were largely responsible for environmental problems, they should be held accountable for redressing them.

The Stockholm Conference agreed on a set of overarching principles for future work on environmental issues, including that while a country has the sovereign right to exploit its own resources, it also has the responsibility to ensure that activities occurring within its jurisdiction do not cause damage to the environment of other states. The Stockholm Declaration also set a framework within the UN system for international treaty-making on environmental concerns.

Environmentally sustainable development became a core interest and goal of the Commonwealth. The Secretariat published a number of innovative reports in the 1980s on newly emerging environmental threats, including the environmental crisis in Africa and the likely consequences of climate change.

It was consideration of the 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development, as well as proposals for a new UN conference on environmental issues, which formed the context of discussions during the 1989 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Langkawi Declaration on the Environment was agreed on 21 October that year, and remains the Commonwealth’s principal declaration on environmental concerns. Through the declaration, member states made a commitment to tackle these problems through collective and national action. The response initially centred on consensus-building in the implementation of agreements made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the development of training programmes, and support for the Iwokrama Rainforest Initiative in Guyana.

The strategic focus shifted to climate change through the 2007 Lake Victoria Commonwealth Climate Change Action Plan, and the principles of international environmental governance as set out in Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma’s Marlborough House Statement on Reform of International Institutions. In 2009, the Commonwealth nations again led the way with the Port of Spain Climate Change Consensus. This called for the establishment of fast-start funding for the most vulnerable countries – a commitment that found expression in the outcomes of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

The evolution of the environment/development challenge into an emphasis on sustainable development has resulted in significant gains since the 1980s. Over 200 multilateral environmental agreements have been concluded, the hole in the ozone layer is repairing itself, and various national environmental legislative frameworks and institutions have been developed. There has been much progress on norm-setting and law-based rule-making. Yet these efforts are also running in parallel with an approach to economic development based on competition and the excessive use of shared environmental resources as though there were no ecological limits. In just one area, the health of our oceans, scientific data reveals a host of predominantly negative trends that illustrate the failure of existing governance and management frameworks to deliver resilient forms of development.Herein lies the challenge of the future: the realisation of sustainable development on the ground.

As Commonwealth member states begin to emerge from the global financial crisis, the call is growing for a more holistic form of development that would avoid the damaging shocks of boom to bust. Sustainable development provides us with that framework, but it will only be achieved through dedicated leadership. Only heads of government can forge and implement a wholesystem approach to sustainability across different sectors and competing interests. We need new language and a new debate to drive forward ownership of sustainability.

To date, sustainable development has been embraced by the environmental movement. However, this concept needs to be accepted more broadly across sectors and within governments. A focus on the ‘green economy’, one of the themes of the forthcoming Rio+20 conference, can help to open up new approaches. There is much work to do to define investment strategies for the transition to a green economy and to help build public trust in a new model of development as economic incentives change.

Regarding climate change, efforts are still needed to close the significant gap between the Copenhagen agreement to limit global warming to 2°C and the current pledges for voluntary emission reductions; to mobilise the $100 billion per annum pledged by developed countries for the Green Climate Fund; and to maintain high ambitions for a deal on global emissions to be implemented by 2020.

The report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, published in January 2012, recognises the need for a more decisive transformation of the global economy towards ‘green growth’. This deep interconnectedness of the economy and the natural resource base, in which economic activity and social wellbeing are embedded, remains a key leadership challenge of our generation. Commonwealth consensus can give encouragement to national action and the coalescing of political will. National actions – not international accords – will drive progress towards sustainable development and determine the pace of change.

About the author:

Janet Strachan is Adviser and Head of Small States, Environment and Economic Management at the Commonwealth Secretariat


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