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The end of Sustainable Development as we know it

By Felix Dodds and Jan Gustav Strandenaes

In the September UN General Assembly session President Mbeki of South Africa and the Current Chair of the Group of 77 and China exploded the myth that the global partnership between developed and developing countries is progressing in the right direction. In a very hard hitting speech he said:

"Precisely because of the absence of a global partnership for development, the Doha Development Round has almost collapsed. Indeed, because the rich invoked, without shouting it, the slogan of an over-confident European political party of the 1960 's, and directed this uncaring declaration to the poor of today - "l'm alright Jack!" - we have not implemented the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, thus making it difficult for the majority of the developing countries, especially those in Africa, to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and have reduced the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation to an insignificant and perhaps forgotten piece of paper."



President Mbeki has shown considerable leadership in clearly stating the situation. This is déjà vu similar to the aftermath of the Rio Conference when developed governments promised $125 billion in development aid to deliver the Earth Summit agreements only to see those funds be reduced within five years from $60 billion to $54 billion. The UK Government has taken a lead in increasing aid and debt relief but it needs to be more, it needs to be quicker and if ‘’I’m alright Jack" isn’t to be the situation as we move into an even more complicated nexus of environment and security issues over the next ten years then we need to fast track the Millennium Development Goals and the implementation of the Johannesburg commitments’."

Recently Ambassador John Ashton, the UK’s first Special Representative for Climate Change, added his voice to those linking environment and security issues. He highlighted the increasing link between climate change and global security. He said climate change is "potentially the most serious threat there has ever been … We need to treat climate change not as a long term threat to our environment, but as an immediate threat to our security and prosperity. We need to see the pursuit of a stable climate as an imperative to be secured whatever it costs through the urgent construction of a low carbon global economy, because the cost of not securing it will be far greater."

The challenge of climate change is enormous and its impacts are already being felt. But it is not the only environmental issue that is now being looked at as a security issue. Over the coming years the world could increasingly be seeing conflicts over energy, water, biodiversity, migration, food, and economic well-being.

Security – particularly in the post 9/11 era – has usually been seen in a more traditional sense. But even prior to 9/11, there was a new paradigm evolving. As early as the mid -1980s, the then - Deputy Head of United National Environmental Programme (UNEP), Peter Thatcher, said "Governments have a choice: Trees now, or tanks later." Former U.S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said in 1996, "As we move to the 21st Century, the nexus between security and the environment will become even more apparent. Unfortunately, there is little clarity about the nature of this nexus, the policies to address it, and responsibility for leadership."

Just prior to 9/11, Maurice Strong [the former Secretary General of the UN Conferences on Human Environment (1972) and Environment and Development (1992)], suggested that the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg should focus on Human and Environmental Security. The events of September 11th, 2001 suddenly focused the world’s energies elsewhere, but over the past year, governments have started to map out that agenda.

The UN -coordinated Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, issued in 2005, estimated that up to 60% of the world’s ecosystems services are in decline and that humans can no longer rely on their services – a stunning revelation that hardly received the media or political attention it required. Another shocking statistic was that global fish stocks have been reduced by 90% since the beginning of industrialised fishing. In addition, one third of amphibian species, more than one fifth of mammals and a quarter of coniferous trees are threatened by extinction.

UNEP estimates that by 2010 there could be fifty million environmental refugees: people who flee their homes and communities because of floods, droughts and other extreme weather. The number of environmental refugees is already larger than that of refugees fleeing from political and military crisis.

As the world’s population grows over the coming years, it is estimated that up to three billion people will be born in water- stressed areas. Given the impacts of climate change, this number will only rise. Water security will then become an even more significant factor. At a key water conference in Stockholm last month, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a coalition of 180 international companies, launched its Water Scenarios Report. The report contained a number of important predictions: "By 2020, financial markets are trading water virtually, and companies with large water footprints engage in virtual water trading on the basis of fully priced externalities." Virtual water is a measure of indirect consumption of water resources in the form of agricultural products, silicon chips and other goods requiring significant quantities of clean water in their production. That means that in the future the world would be trading in "virtual water" as a strategy to deal with global water scarcity, just as it is now starting to trade in carbon as a strategy to deal with global warming. Industrialised nations are already importing food products that are high in water content from water- stressed regions whose people are severely limited in access to water for their own consumption.

At present, 90% of the world’s conflicts are in the poorest 30% of its countries. People fight for resources and for an ability to live.

Our best chance, therefore, for addressing security issues stemming from political and ecological factors is to seriously accelerate the world’s efforts to implement sustainable development. Dealing with the challenges ahead will require the type of decisive political leadership that the world has not seen in generations. It will also require a strong, vibrant and quick moving United Nations that contains a strong environment and sustainable development pillar.

This November, the High Level Panel on UN System Wide Coherence in the Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance, and Environment – a panel among which Chancellor Gordon Brown and three prime ministers sit – will make its recommendations on structural reform of the UN. In the areas of environment and sustainable development its recommendations will need to be bold. A key reform, proposed by France, is whether UNEP should be strengthened and transformed into a United Nations Environmental Organisation. This proposal deserves - broad support. The reform faces two primary hurdles: the legitimate concerns of developing countries, and the ongoing budget -based opposition of the US.

The UN has for a long time been in need for strong advocate for sustainable development. The existing UN Commission on Sustainable Development is generally seen as a weak -functioning commission of the UN Economic and Social Council. Stakeholder Forum has argued that, like human rights, sustainable development should be elevated to the status of a Council accountable to the General Assembly. It would then have the political mandate to adequately address what is likely to be seen as a new paradigm: issues of human, economic and environmental security. The European Union has suggested the formation of an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural Resources that would help to ensure that science underlies a new Council’s decisions.

The political realities of the 21st century pose new challenges and the multilateral community is in search of a new paradigm that can deal with these challenges, conceptually and practically. The UN is presently undergoing a number of reform processes, which is an expression of this: The Right to Protect, the Process on Terrorism and Humanitarian Intervention are three of these. How can the international community respect national sovereignty and simultaneously advocate global responsibility that supersedes national authorities? One answer to this complex question is a new understanding of security.


As important as reform of the UN is, it is as important that governments and stakeholders discuss this evolving new paradigm. The most effective way to generate such a discussion is to call for a UN Summit on Human, Economic and Environmental Security, in 2012. Forty years after the first UN Conference on Human Environment (1972), twenty years from the "Earth Summit" on Environment and Development (1992) and ten years after the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), a 2012 Summit on Human, Economic and Environmental Security can map out the emerging landscape. It can start exploring how, together; we might address the new paradigm. In preparation, the new UN Secretary General could establish a High Level Commission to set a new security agenda, similar to the way the Brundtland Commission did for sustainable development.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was a success because it combined soft and hard law, and a 2012 Summit should do the same. In addition to a Programme of Action on Human, Economic and Environmental Security, governments should also negotiate a broad -based global Framework Convention on Risk, that would enable these issues to be addressed as and when they are needed through a formal, legally binding process.

Engaging each new generation of world leaders in the critical issues of the time is one of the key roles that the UN plays. Virtually no Head of State who was in power in 2002 will still be in place in 2012. Therefore a UN Summit in 2012 is vital.

Environmentalists have often been accused of crying wolf, and perhaps there has been some merit to this criticism. But in a globalized world where events move rapidly and what happens in one place can affect people everywhere, the world needs an effective system of global checks and balances. It needs leaders who are able to address issues quickly when they need to. The agenda of Human, Economic and Environmental Security will be the defining agenda at least of the next twenty years. It will also define our political leaders. The next generation need not become a generation of crisis. It need not be a generation of fear. It can be a generation of hope and solidarity and vision. In the words of Warren Christopher, "This is not simply an issue for some nations, but all nations."



Felix Dodds is Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, and co-editor of  "Human and Environmental Security: An Agenda for Change" (2005). Jan Gustav Strandenaes is Political Advisor to ANPED – an international coalition of environment and sustainable development NGOs, and CEO of the Norwegian IGEA Forum (Information, Governance, Environment and Advocacy)

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