Sustainable Development And The Political Treadmill Of No Will

By Julian Velez

Rio+20 was supposed to renew political commitment to Sustainable Development (SD) and poverty eradication by integrating the social, economic and environmental “pillars,” or dimensions. It was a conference that was supposed to build on previous agreements to bring the Sustainable Development agenda to the next step. But the spotlight of the conference was taken by the Green Economy initiative, which hijacked the conversation, and took all the energy away from Sustainable Development. The European Union (EU) along with Korea strongly pushed for the Green Economy. The EU wanted to reinforce the environmental pillar through economic policies that would reactivate their economy with the opening of a new green market strategy in the developing world, based mostly on private investment of green products and technologies in the developing world. To protect  nature, it was argued that the solution was to commodify  nature, in order to value its ecosystem services and create a framework for its  privatization. This strategy, framed as inclusive for all nations, actually undermines the economic reality of the developing nations. It would force the developing world to depend on the corporations of the developed world given that that they do not have the infrastructure to support the transition towards a “Green Economy.” Some barely have the infrastructure to support the socio- economical well being of their nations within the old/dirty economic development roadmap.

The developing world does not have the technology, capacity or finance; therefore it would depend on the developed corporations to sell these services, products and technologies in the developing world. This concept of  “A Green Economy” as the road for all nations did not include a concrete plan to support the developing world in the transition towards a GE. It also avoids targeting the issue of overproduction and overconsumption, which addresses quantity not only quality, a fundamental point in economies and lifestyles of excess that that exist mainly in the developed world. The main problem with this plan is that it undermines Equity. The underlying discussion spun around weather the principle of Equity was going to be respected or not.

The EU wanted three main things to reboot their economy: The Green Economy as a one size fits all concept that would become the central path to follow towards the achievement of SD; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal set of goals, that were focused on the Environmental dimension soley to support both in principle and with timeframes the GE road map. This would not properly include the social and economical dimensions binding all nations to equally fulfill these goals with out questioning the reality of these other dimensions in the developing world. And third, the upgrading of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to a Specialized Agency that could formulate GE policies and enforce them as the authority in the global environment agenda.

This GE trinity would have weakened the SD agenda that is based on the integration of the three pillars through the framework of the Rio Principles. This outcome would have bound the developing world to a new form of dependence, to an accepted “green” market structure that would further the inequitable and unjust neocolonial structures that exist within the neoliberal economic system. It would have created trade barriers and conditionality’s for the developing world for its lack of “green” products and technologies. Basically it would have completely undermined the principle of Equity.

There were several factors and political realities that shaped the outcome document “Our Common Vision:” The unity of G77; the fact that the EU is dealing with a financial crisis and probably had some restrictions on putting money forward to leverage their positions; and the positions of Canada, USA, Japan, New Zeland and Australia that did not appear interested in any real outcome or package from this conference other than lessening the developed world’s commitments and responsibilities to Means Of Implementation (MOI), protect Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), not recognize basic human rights and undermine the Rio principles, in particular Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), these where factors that formed the which is short sighted outcome document. It is the vision of a dog that chases its tail and never gets anywhere. We are biting our own tails with this outcome, the need for ambition is greater that ever.

The GE trinity was to a certain degree tamed in Rio+20. The Green Economy, is framed as “Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” it is framed as an available tool for achieving sustainable development and that it could provide options for policy making but should not be a rigid set of rules. Now it’s referenced as Green Economy policies instead of “A” or “The” GE, taking away the one size fits all perspective from it

Apart from the EU, initially the support for the idea of an upgraded UNEP came mainly from Kenya, the host nation for UNEP, who must have assumed it would bring prestige, jobs and greater finance opportunities. However G77 kept a strong stance against these proposals, understanding the awfully detrimental implications for the developing world. They also took a firm stance on strengthening the Rio Principles to bring Equity to the heart of the talks and reaffirm and further the previous unfinished commitments to Means Of Implementation. The G77 withstood attempts to divide their group, and was able to stand united till the end, which is a rare and exceptional task. The G77 was able to bring Kenya and the Africa Group to the rejection of the trinity of proposals on the basis of their broader repercussions for the developing world.

UNEP got strengthened as an authoritative advocate for the global environment, with secure, stable and adequate funding from the UN budget and as the body that will formulate UN system-wide strategies on the environment. It did not receive specialized agency status with enforcement power.

The SDGs will fully respect all Rio Principles, taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities, build upon commitments already made and will incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their inter-linkages. This will build on the Millennium Development Goals rather than dwarf them and will integrate Sustainable Development as a whole.

Behind all of this, the underlying quarrel was around weather this high level summit with heads of state would recognize and respect Equity and CBDR and whether these principles would guide the SD agenda. All the decisions made at Rio+20 will be used as an outcome from which other UN regimes will draw from to inform their decisions.

The real fight over Equity and CBDR continues in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) where countries are dealing with a legally binding treaty and  with a universal and all encompassing issue that is threatening the integrity of life in this planet. It is in the UNFCCC where governments have to decide weather they will comply through Equity and CBDR.

In the fight for Equity, the outcome reflects some positive steps, which is crucial because if this principle had been buried in Rio it would have been really hard to dig up in other UN conventions.

In this regard there was a win at Rio+20 in the struggle against climate change –governments agreed to protect the climate system on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. There was a recognition of the need for funding to support nationally appropriate mitigation actions, adaptation measures, technology development and transfer and capacity-building in developing countries.  And governments where urged to fully implement their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, which addresses the historical responsibilities of countries. While no ambitious steps where taken to do anything additional to deal with one of the worlds biggest challenges.

Nevertheless the EU will keep forcing the Green Economy in the Sustainable Energy for All initiative and in Climate Change through private investment with very specific terms and conditions and market strategies.

Now here we stand with an outcome that through contentious discussions only reaffirmed previous agreements; an outcome that does not recognize the rights of nature, that barely acknowledges the right to water and that recognizes the right to access to food not the full recognition of “the right to food”. It was a long 20 year walk that left us in the same place. Above all the text reflects inaction, lack of political will and commitment to Sustainable Development, the eradication of poverty and the well being of our planet. MOI has no concrete or ambitious commitments. The 10-Year Framework of Programmes on sustainable consumption and production has been adopted only on voluntary terms.

We clearly need to raise the capacity and status of the SD regime, it is evident that we cant pretend to create solutions to all the social, economic and environmental problems  of the world with a text from the Commission on Sustainable Development, which meets once every year and has no priority or power in the UN structure. It is obvious that it needs to be upgraded to the Council on Sustainable Development , instead of the alternate proposal of the upgrading of UNEP, as there is a immense lack of vision and interest in regards to SD. There is a need for a strong UN structure that can properly integrate the three pillars of Sustainable Development and that has weight in domestic policies.

As I said we are biting our own tail with this outcome, our government representatives are unwilling to look beyond their present political interests. And the developed world is not willing to step up and show some responsible leadership for the inequitable and unjust reality that they have shaped around lifestyles of excess and exploitation of the people and nature of the world for 500 hundred years.

Also the governments of the developing world work to protect their middle to high class, and hide behind the red line or bottom line needs of “poor countries” in order to not compromise the lifestyle of their elites and continue the miss care of their poor.

The poor cannot live with this political agreement, their life rather than lifestyle is at stake; their red line, their bottom line for a dignified life is being buried.

Please! Let us not sit and watch comfortably in our safe little couches as the consumption machine devours our natural environment through its gluttony mentality of growth that propagates injustice and oppression in our planet. We need to leave the jaws of the machine, we need to cleanse our selves of its slime and mock. This moment has shown a clear signal a clear message that it is the time for us to take action, all of you and all of me, governments wont. It is the time to embrace our responsibility as creatures of this earth and take action, to take care of the other sentient beings of this planet and challenge the structures that undermine the right to a dignified life.


Achim Steiner, Youth Development and the Future of Exploitation for the Natural World


by Bogdan Zymka

Achim Steiner is the Executive Director of United Nations Environment Programme. His background includes international development and enviornmnetal policy. 

“The environment usually loses to talks of economics.”

Steiner was greeted with quiet applause when he arrived for his impromptu visit to the Youth Blast, (a space designated to voice the concerns of the Youth group that oddly welcomes UN bureaucrats and figures of power). His demeanor is calm and he carries himself as most UN representatives do when grabbing photo ops with youth, with an aura of “I’m here to listen, but I’m also here to push.”

His position, and the official position of the Major Group for Children and Youth, is to elevate the UN Environment Program to a specialized agency, putting it on the same level of influence as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), both cited as representing the economic and social pillars of Sustainable Development.  From the point of view of Steiner and MGCY, the elevation of UNEP to a specialized agency would give the environment its first high-level global platform of influence.

He’s right. Most conversations about development put environment on the back burner, claiming that economic development is the priority and that preserving the environment comes after nations and their people have the capacity to do so.

For a man who advocates for environment, he talks like an economist – but an out-of-touch one

“The global financial crisis is not affecting the whole world. Some countries are doing fine and are saying, ‘Please don’t disturb our economic prosperity.’”

But it is affecting us, the 52% of the world who are under 30.

Unemployment and class hierarchies have become one of the defining characteristics of our generation. In the U.S, youth unemployment is 19.1%, more than double the national average of 8.1%. In Spain, the national unemployment average is 22.9% while youth unemployment is 51.4%. In Greece, 21% is the national average while over 51% of the youth are unemployed. This is not only a problem of the developed world; in most developing countries that provide statistics, youth unemployment is double or more of the national unemployment average.

What have most of us done? In the U.S, we go to college to wait out bad job markets, resulting not in a bunch of bored youth with “fine arts” degrees living off of their parents’ money, but rather a mass of educated workers without jobs, who are pissed off. But not everyone has the opportunity to get an education while waiting out rough economic times.  In Egypt, the go-to example of youth inciting revolution, two thirds of the population is under 25, and while 80 percent of the youth population is unemployed they retain a 88% literacy rate.

“We’re not interested in the monetization of nature, we are interested in the valuation of it, which manifests itself through monetary means.”

UNEP’s solution to incorporating economics into the environment: Turn everything into markets, “natural capital.” The idea is that free-markets regulate themselves, you use a lot of water, and you pay a lot of money. But that doesn’t work for the human rights and needs. For example,  when communities that are already stripped of their rights to water and land have to then pay multi-national corporations for use of the commons, the focus shifts from providing basic needs and services to people who need it most to the further and more detrimental exploitation of the environment. Natural capital means foreign investment and foreign investment isn’t interested in the development of peasant communities, it is solely interested in profit.

“If bees could send us invoices for their services, they’d be for billions of dollars.”

The bees won’t ever send us an invoice because the bees don’t believe in markets, and that’s the point. Steiner’s position directly reflects what the ever-industrializing developed world wants to do with the environment. They pillage, exploit and rape the natural world until it degrades to dust and then we figure out how to turn the rest into “capital” so the rich keep getting richer and the ultra consumers continue on their tirade of pollution with a little less guilt on their shoulders because they’re “investing in the natural world.”

Put simply, it’s the commodification of nature. Putting monetary values to the natural world that can’t and shouldn’t be traded or capitalized. It’s not only a bad idea for communities but it’s a terrible idea for the natural world.

Quotations provided are directly from Archim Steiner at an informal meeting with Youth during the second day of Youth Blast.