Reach for the stars, but build a rocket to get there

As the global economy slowly pulls itself out of crisis, more and more governments and organisations are Starsrealising that the economic system is broken. Beyond the basic band-aid fixes such as revising lax rules that guide financial institutions – some governments are also starting ask the bigger picture questions: How do we make our country a better place to be in the next 50 years? How do we ensure that our people are living well, are happy and satisfied?

While this is certainly progress in the right direction – I question whether governments will actually take the tough decisions required to reform economic systems to achieve true social progress over the long term. How can these intentions, and the initiatives that aim to translate them, be shaped to achieve ‘real’ change on the ground? I have had the good fortune to be part of several efforts that aim to do just this, which is why the issue of achieving positive progress is very much on my mind.

In some ways, my skepticism comes for looking back at the many declarations, agreements and grand statements made by governments over the years in relation to the importance of environmentally sustainable end equitable development. At the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, governments around the world agreed, among other things, that:

MoutainA point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences […]. Through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes […]. To defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations has become an imperative goal for mankind – a goal to be pursued together with, and in harmony with, the established and fundamental goals of peace and of worldwide economic and social development.” 

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, governments similarly reiterated that they would “co-operate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.”

Fast forward another 20 years, and the sad news is that the state of the environment is worse off now than it was back then. The 2012 State of the World Report, published annually by the Worldwatch Institute summarised that, “Twenty years and several summits later, human civilization has never been closer to ecological collapse. One third of humanity lives in poverty, and another 2 billion people are projected to join the human race over the next 40 years.”

Similarly, a report that I wrote for the International Energy Agency last year Tracking Clean Energy Progress highlighted that while some very positive progress is being made in the renewable energy sector, construction of coal fired power generation continues at an unprecedented rate. On top of this, one-half of new coal-fired power plants are being built with inefficient technology. This infrastructure lock-in will make achieving a clean energy transition harder and more expensive.

While I am generally an optimist, I highlight these failures to emphasise the importance and need of focusing more effort on translating grand ideas and statements into real action on the ground. Only by working with the economic realities, priorities and systems in front of us, can progress actually be made. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to opportunity to engage in a number of interesting meetings and processes that aim to do just this:

Dasho Karma Ura1) The New Development Paradigm Initiative was launched by the Prime Minister of Bhutan at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in April 2012. The process has brought together some great minds including  Hunter Lovins, Ashok Khosla, David Suzuki, Dasho Karma Ura, and Robert Costanza  to name just a few.  Their task is  to question the concept of ‘growth’ and focus on how best to pursue the ‘wellbeing’ of people, address inequity, and generally come up with a ‘New Development Paradigm’ for discussion again at the UN General Assembly. The job is indeed a difficult one, but the main challenge as I see it, will be to move this effort beyond an academic exercise. While some may wish it were possible, tearing apart our current economic system is simply not realistic. The need is to look at the system in front of us, and propose practical, yet significant changes to policies and economic tools that can be implemented by governments around the world.

2) The Global Green Growth Institute looks at similar questions from quite a different angle. Rather that starting with the premise that growth in itself is bad, it questions how growth, or economic progress of developing and emerging countries can be ‘green’. While this process focuses more on the environmental dimension, it recognises that countries will continue to pursue growth as a means to pursuing better livelihoods for their people. The question here is how to ensure that growth is measured, and takes into account the limited natural resources available to us. The “Global Green Growth Best Practice” study that I’m involved in will be seeking to explore practical examples and approaches that have been successful (and those that have not) by governments and businesses to achieve this very objective.

3) Low-Emissions Development Strategies (LEDS) are yet another approach which many countries are pursuing, using the need to address climate change as the rationale for pursuing alternative development pathways. A recent meeting of almost 200 experts shared experiences in the development and implementation of such strategies in countries around the world. Time and time again, I listened to participants from Environment Ministries voice their frustration with the lack of buy-in for such strategies from Ministries of Economy and Planning. Additionally, they voiced frustration with the difficulty in maintaining support for such programmes through political transitions and cycles. This leads me to question whether LEDS as a separate ‘Strategy’ is the right approach, or whether more effort should be focus on embedding ‘low-emissions development’ principles into existing national economic strategies and priorities. By really working together with Planning Ministries, Finance Ministries and the broader citizens, a sustainable development path may be more effectively achieved. Not a simple task, but one that is less discussed than I would expect.

I am hopeful, but not certain, that we’ve learned from past failures in protecting the environment, and that perhaps we are entering an era of openness to innovative ideas for achieving sustainable economic ‘progress’ rather than just ‘growth’. By working to effectively and strategically shift the building blocks of the economic system we have – I remain optimistic that things can still change.

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