Reviving Rio? Global Sustainability Panel Report throws a life-ring

The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development got a small boost as Ban Ki Moon’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP) launched its report last week. Made up of 22 global bigwigs, their goal was “to formulate a new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity along with mechanisms to achieve it.” The hope was that it would inject life into Rio+20 preparations. This is urgently needed: from Davos to New York, governments have been busy talking Rio down.

Oxfam’s verdict? The GSP’s vision for a sustainable, fair, and resilient future is a strong one. On the substance of their 57 recommendations, it’s more of a mixed bag. There are good ideas which should be pushed at Rio and beyond. But it’s not the strong medicine needed.

Starting with the good stuff

Inequality matters

In their vision statement the Panel makes an explicit call to “reduce inequality”, while “combating climate change and respecting other planetary boundaries” (p. 13). This is important: the gap between rich and poor is widening and growing resource scarcity risks deepening poverty. Some of the Panel’s stronger proposals are to:

  • Expand access to education, jobs, energy, technology and land.
  • Prioritize gender equality. For Oxfam, the emphasis on rural livelihoods and women’s access to land, finance, health and extension services is particularly welcome.
  • Invest in adaptation and disaster risk reduction. We’d add that governments should make resilience a measure of development success (is this new road flood-proof?) and focus much more on the local level.
  • Measure inequality. The Panel wants to “quantify social exclusion costs” to mirror environmental pricing. It’s a fuzzy idea, but could help – for example, by valuing better the care economy.
  • Shift the politics. Intriguingly, the Panel calls for “a process to explore the concept and application of the critical issue of equity in relation to sustainable development, with a view to feeding the outcome into the Rio+20 process and its follow up”. This is a nod to debates on “common but differentiated responsibilities” – an excellent principle, but one linked to stalemate in the climate negotiations. Governments should definitely run with this idea. A high-level dialogue outside of the climate talks on countries’ responsibilities – past, present and future – could help break the impasse.

Sustainable economics

The Panel’s big pitch is to get sustainability into mainstream economic policymaking. This continues in the tradition of other reports, like Stern on Climate Change. There are good, albeit familiar, ideas to:

  • Measure what matters, beyond GDP, with a UN technical taskforce to define new sustainable development indices or indicators.
  • Phase-out fossil-fuel and environmentally distorting subsidies, whilst protecting people on low-incomes from negative repercussions.
  • Consider making sustainability reporting for big companies mandatory and get the finance sector to apply sustainability criteria in their decision-making and incentives. (Though we’d go further: how about full disclosure by global firms of profits and taxes, broken down by country and project?)

Better policy-making

The Panel’s push for science to be at the heart of policy-making is also good. It calls for a “major global scientific initiative” – similar to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change – which would assess environmental “tipping points” and be combined with socio-economic analyses. The “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), one of the only prominent ideas for Rio, also gets a broad endorsement. This is interesting: some Panel members serve governments thus far a bit cautious on the SDGs (US, China, India).

So what’s wrong with the report?

It comes down to being a bit bland – after all, who objects to more jobs for young people? – and actively ducking the bigger, harder reforms needed.

Take agriculture. The Panel is right about the need to increase productivity, cut resource use, scale-up R&D and extension services, and protect poor people's rights to land and water. But the proposals on how to address systemic failures in the food system are thin.

For instance, we know that biofuel mandates and subsidies are a major driver of food price volatility and in many cases do nothing to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Yet search the word “biofuels” from this 100 page document and you get a disheartening “not found” in response. This tells you a lot about the grip the agro-fuels industry have over governments.

At Oxfam, we’d also take issue with the Panel's backing for “Responsible Agriculture Investment” (RAI) principles: we need strong rules to protect poor people from land grabs, but the RAI is pretty toothless.

Another glaring omission is around public finance. The report highlights many areas where money is required since markets alone won’t deliver. But it fails to back the two big ideas in policy debates: a levy linked to tackling emissions in the shipping and aviation sectors, or a financial transaction tax.

These gaps are not entirely surprising: stacking the Panel with so many serving politicians meant a replay of tussles which have stifled ambition in other fora, like the G20.

That said, the fact that many Panel members are in power is big plus. Rather than just punting their report to the Secretary-General and shuffling home, what we need is for Zuma, Halonen, Rudd, Ramesh, Teixeira and co. to get out and champion their ideas, just as Stern did on climate change.

The GSP may not be a cure-all, but with active support from the Panel, it could throw a life-ring to Rio.

(See below for presentation skills training)  

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