Sustainability for Whom?
SAM BURCHER / Science in Society (web) n.15, Summer02
Sustainable development is linked with global economic and political processes. It cannot be achieved without addressing poverty and its interactions with environment and development issues. Yet, who decides on sustainability? Lim Li Ching examines the debates raised at a UK preparatory meeting.
Despite the promises made at Earth Summit in Rio ten years ago, there has been little progress, both in terms of protecting the environment and stimulating peaceful, sustainable development.
On the positive side, the Earth Summit has built the conceptual and political link between environment and development; environmental issues must be dealt with in connection with development, and not in isolation. The linkages between poverty, environment and development are thus crucial in this respect.
The persistence of poverty can be often traced to underlying environmental problems (see ‘Linking Environment and Development’, Issues Paper 1, DFID, January 2002). That is because access to natural resources is critical to poor people’s livelihoods - for jobs, food, shelter, medicines and informal incomes. And as claims to resources are contested, power relations come into play – from local to global levels – with the poorest and marginalised often the losers.
Environment-related diseases affect poor people disproportionately, for example, through unsafe drinking water and pollution. Furthermore, the poor are particularly vulnerable to shocks and stresses, especially environmental disasters. Yet, most environmental degradation is perpetrated by the non-poor. For example, the world’s richest countries with 20% of the world population, account for 86% of total private consumption. But developing countries often have less capacity to deal with the consequences of environmental degradation.
Thus, attempts to foster sustainable development without addressing poverty are likely to fail. In this light, the global context of the current economic paradigm failing to benefit the poor is a major focus of the WSSD agenda.
The ‘UK in the Wider World’ Working Group recommended international cooperation through financial architecture and trade agreements to forward reforms that benefit developing countries. Developed countries have a crucial role in increasing developing countries’ access to environmentally and socially sound technologies and financial resources. The group called for implementation of the International Development Goals, targets set for reductions in poverty, improvements in health and education, and protection of the environment.
Minister of Environment Michael Meacher was heckled by many in the audience when he said at the closing speech that, "the UK’s overarching strategic objective is to eradicate poverty by making globalisation work for sustainable development". They seriously doubt that globalisation is compatible with sustainable development. The ‘UK in the Wider World’ Working Group felt that there is a need for "a mechanism" whereby the two are reconciled. For example, binding rules to guide the conduct of governments, business and international institutions are needed. They recommended that trade agreements be made compatible with sustainable development, while establishing environmental and social standards for transnational corporations (TNCs) and independent audit of such standards. Further, the South’s debt must be reduced, as must over-consumption in the North.
While these are good proposals, the biggest threats to the WSSD agenda remains the outcomes of the WTO Doha Ministerial (see ‘Rough Road from Doha to Johannesburg’). Despite some positive trends in multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), they are not enough to protect the environment and developing countries. For example, trade negotiators are shoring up the defences of the WTO such that it takes precedence over environmental and social issues. Thus, core issues on sustainable development are being decided outside the WSSD.
Despite Meacher’s unqualified optimism for the Doha Ministerial, claiming that developing countries would benefit, this is not so, as the Doha process was manipulative, and its outcomes anti-development (see ‘Manipulation and Deceit in Doha’, Science in Society 13/14). While the rules of the WTO need to be made fairer, good global governance is also needed to set the rules for the global economy, bringing international institutions together into a framework that prioritises sustainable development. This should not be left to the WTO.
While the UNED-UK meeting in general was fairly strong in its consensus that poverty and development must be addressed at the WSSD, it was disappointing to hear some of what Meacher said. Any positive statement he made was tempered by large doses of ‘realism’. For example, his insistence that whilst regulation of TNCs is important, there are few realistic options to warrant its placement on the agenda. He also agreed with a legal right to a safe and healthy environment, but deemed it "difficult to deliver". The same pragmatism was evident in his comments on the Tobin Tax (a small tax on currency speculation, the proceeds of which are spent on development); while considering it a good idea, he stopped short of providing any political impetus for it.
Yet, political will is sorely needed if the WSSD is to have a people’s agenda and to ensure that it is not subordinated to the WTO. And while environment and development problems may be global, they are not necessarily adequately addressed by international conferences, themselves prone to reproducing power relations. These problems are not standard or universal, or require universal solutions. Often, global problems aggregate local problems, blurring polarisations and highlighting interconnectedness. Multi-level interventions are thus needed, involving all stakeholders.
This must be translated into practical action. Emil Salim, chair of the preparatory committee meetings for WSSD has reiterated elsewhere, "Most of the participants are fed up with speeches that don’t bring results. We need doable programmes".
The WSSD is thus a crucial moment to seize the opportunity to address the failures of the last decade, in making sustainable development a reality for all.
Science in Society
No 15 Summer 2002
Edited by Mae-Wan Ho
Institute of Science in Society
and Department of Biological Sciences,
Open University, Walton Hall
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, U.K.
source: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isisnews/SIS15web.php 28nov02
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