Preparations for the Rio +20 Summit - Environmental Audit Committee Contents


2  Progress on sustainable development

10. When the UN decided to hold the 2012 Conference, the Secretary General outlined progress on sustainable development since the original 1992 Rio conference.[15] He noted that on the three pillars of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection — 'overall the trends are mixed'.[16] There has been significant economic growth overall — a 60% increase in global GDP since 1992[17] — but the benefits have not been universally felt.[18] The UN noted that only half of the countries with data on Millennium Development Goal performance (paragraph 20) were on track to meet their MDG poverty-reduction targets.[19]

11. In terms of social development, the Secretary General noted that per capita income levels across the globe, which closely correlate to social development, still displayed huge disparities between countries.[20] Income poverty[21] remained 'an enormous problem' in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Large disparities remained between regions on other MDG indicators, including school enrolment levels and maternal and child health, particularly in AIDS-affected areas. A billion people are still undernourished.[22]

12. The environmental protection pillar perhaps shows least progress,[23] despite action being taken to address the ozone layer and acid rain.[24] The Secretary General noted that pressure on ecosystems continued to increase, and loss of forests and biodiversity had continued, albeit at a decelerating rate.[25] A study by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009 identified nine 'planetary boundaries' within which 'humanity can operate safely', of which three may already have been exceeded: ecosystem biodiversity, climate change and the nitrogen cycle.[26] (The other boundaries identified were: the ozone layer, chemical dispersion, ocean acidification, freshwater consumption, land system change and atmospheric aerosol loading.)

13. It is difficult to quantify how much biodiversity can be degraded before ecosystems resilience is lost. However, the rate of species loss (as a proxy measure) is running between 10 and 100 times above the 'safe' threshold. The targets for reducing biodiversity loss by 2010, under the UN convention on biological diversity, were not met. As the Secretary General noted, 'since the majority of the world's poor live in rural areas and rely on local biological resources for their lives and livelihoods, the rate of biodiversity loss has a direct impact on the most vulnerable populations'.[27]

14. Sustainable development is not just about considering its three pillars independently. As the Secretary General put it: 'The ... ultimate test of sustainable development is the convergence among the three trajectories of economic growth, social improvement and environmental protection', and that test has not been met.[28] The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) told us that 'we are currently losing the battle for sustainable development'.[29] Oxfam believed that progress since 1992 has been 'weak',[30] and several witnesses told us that threats to global sustainable development have grown since then.[31] The Foundation for Democracy & Sustainable Development (FDSD) identified 'signs of erosion in the overall global political commitment to sustainable development'.

15. The UN Secretary General considered that relative to the other two pillars, progress on the environmental protection pillar has lagged behind:

    The most promising trend is the improved convergence between the economic and social dimensions, and although this is partially compromised by rising income inequality, the growth rate remains the strongest predictor of timely achievement of key social targets. Beyond this, most indicators of environmental improvement have not demonstrated appreciable convergence with those of economic and social progress; indeed, the overall picture is one of increased divergence ...[32]

IIED, on the other hand, considered that a weakness of the original Rio conference in 1992, only partly corrected subsequently at Johannesburg, was an 'inadequate regard for the social dimension of sustainable development'. The poverty-reduction imperative, flowing from the Brundtland Commission giving the 'over-riding priority' to meeting the needs of the world's poor, led to 'an over-emphasis on economic growth'. Rio+20 might further that imbalance.[33]

16. The Secretary General suggested that sustainable development progress in the long term needs to be weighed in terms of three 'transitions':

  • A demographic transition, with a global population stabilised at between 8 and 10 billion later this century.
  • A developmental transition, extending the benefits of development equitably.
  • A de-coupling transition, to de-couple resource use from consumption and production. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the use of materials and the generation of wastes is within the regenerative and absorptive capacities of the planet.[34]

On that 'transitions' basis, there is still far to travel. The developmental transition 'is at best at the one-third mark of the ultimate target, given that the share of the global population with a high human development index is between only 25% and 30%', and on the de-coupling transition the Stockholm analysis suggests that planetary boundaries have moved closer and are being breached already (paragraph 12). Furthermore, since 2008 the outlook for development has deteriorated because of the global recession, food price crises and further evidence of accelerating climate change.[35] The problem, as the Secretary General pointed out, is that the approaching crisis is difficult to see in the real world around us:

    The practical importance of sustainable development thinking for development policy has been diluted by the still common perception that, even if, in theory, limits are real, in practice they are sufficiently remote in time and malleable as to be ignored in practice. More than anything else, climate change has begun to challenge such complacency.[36]

17. The Secretary General summed up the global sustainable development challenge as follows:

    Billions of people remain poor and their living standards must rise. The question is whether the development transition can be completed (as indicated, for example, by near universal attainment of a threshold level of human development and well-being) before resource depletion and environmental degradation short circuit the process. That depends in part on developed countries blazing the trail towards a de-coupling (or sustainable consumption and production) transition, and in part on developing countries pursuing a sustainable development transition.[37]

Oxfam pointed out that it is not just the developing countries which would be affected if we do not find a way of solving this dilemma. Research comparing countries' ecological footprint and human development index scores indicates that if developed countries (with both a large ecological footprint and a high human development index score) do not reduce their footprint they 'risk sliding backwards to lower levels of human development as resource scarcities undercut their model of development'.[38]

18. Globally, there has been inadequate progress on sustainable development since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. There is still far to travel. Some 'planetary boundaries' having been breached, and others approaching, make the task more urgent than ever. It is a difficult message to convey to an often sceptical audience, but that makes it all the more important that the Government use the run up to the Rio+20 Conference next year to raise the profile of the case for action, both internationally and at home.

New 'Goals'

19. There is debate, ahead of Rio+20, about whether new metrics and targets are needed to put more momentum behind the sustainable development performance of the developed world, rather than the developing world which has been in the spotlight of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

20. The emerging consensus is that many MDGs will not be met by their 2015 end-date.[39] The Brookings Institution concluded that 'it is time to take a fresh, fair look at where we are and why we haven't gone further, and to make sure we use good measures of success in the future; failure to achieve the MDGs throws a wrench into any form of global cooperation, so we need to figure out how to move those goals forward'.[40] In August 2011, Colombia submitted a proposal to the UN to introduce Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[41] It sees these as a possible foundation for building international political commitment at Rio, providing measurable 'tangible goals' for the sustainable development debate. The SDGs would address the Agenda 21 aims produced at Rio 20 years ago. Because the SDGs would apply in all countries, Colombia envisages them complementing the MDGs which focus only on developing countries. SDGs would also shift the centre of gravity away from the economic (poverty reduction) pillar of the MDGs, and more towards the environmental and social pillars of sustainable development. In doing so, they could address environmental 'planetary boundaries' (paragraph 12), to provide hard constraints - a 'non-negotiable backdrop of biophysical reality'[42] - against which the three pillars of sustainable development could be pursued.

21. The High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability (paragraph 4) in its May 2011 meeting concluded that while it would consider calling for SDGs to be developed, time constraints prevented it being able to address details. SDGs were examined at a UN discussion in Indonesia in July 2011, which concluded that seeking to set specific goals might bog down negotiations at Rio, but that the Conference could agree in principle to develop the SDGs.[43] In such negotiations, however, careful consideration will have to be given to possible concerns of aid-recipient countries who may be suspicious of any dilution of focus on the MDGs. In the UK, the Government's Sustainable Development Indicators (currently being revised) could make a useful contribution to any Sustainable Development Goals discussed at Rio+20.

22. A further possible initiative at Rio+20 is the development of Millennium Consumption Goals, put forward by Professor Mohan Munasinghe, a former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[44] WWF's 2010 Living Planet Report calculates that globally we are currently using 50% more natural resources than the planet can sustain.[45] 'Per capita use of resources as well as fossil energy, and consequently greenhouse gas emissions, remain stubbornly high in developed countries, at several multiples of those in developing countries'.[46] Sarah Best of Oxfam regarded it as 'morally unjust' for developed countries to continue to leave a large ecological footprint because that leaves insufficient space for developing countries to use more resources to increase their own human development.[47] Oxfam highlighted the need for Rio+20 to find a way to allocate 'fair shares' of resource consumption in the areas with planetary boundaries.[48] Stakeholder Forum told us that while economic growth must remain a key objective for developing countries still striving to achieve a decent quality of life, because we are now coming up against environmental limits future economic growth will need to follow different pathways and be consistent with the sustainable use of natural resources; favouring 'leaner, cleaner, greener' modes of production and consumption.[49]

23. There are existing locally-focussed initiatives in the developed world aimed at making communities consumption-sustainable, including for example 'one-planet-living'.[50] Millennium Consumption Goals would help underpin such initiatives. Applied to developed countries, they would complement the MDGs which were focused on developing countries. In our report on the impact of overseas aid, we called for Defra to develop a strategy, and metrics, to address UK over-consumption where that has a significant impact on the sustainability of production in developing countries.[51] Prof Munasinghe envisages consumption goals being adopted by individuals and businesses in rich countries, rather than governments, but with governments facilitating that approach. Possible Consumption Goal target areas could include conservation of scarce resources such as energy and water, efficient transport, sustainable dwellings, healthier diets and obesity reduction, healthier lifestyles and greater fitness, progressive taxation and taxes on luxury goods, sustainable livelihoods, reduced working hours and improved working conditions.[52] They could help to balance people-oriented Southern priorities (including promotion of development, consumption and growth, and poverty alleviation and equity) with environment-oriented Northern concerns (about natural resource depletion, pollution, the unsustainability of growth, and population increase).[53]

24. The Millennium Development Goals have helped shape aid programmes, including the UK's, over the last decade. But, globally, their targets appear likely to be missed by their 2015 end-date, and they have focussed attention on what needs to change only in the developing world. The Government should support work aimed at launching new Goals - Sustainability Goals and Consumption Goals - at Rio+20, to shift the effort towards the sustainable development and sustainable consumption contributions that the UK and other developed countries now need to make. It should engage with other European countries to ensure that the EU pushes this agenda strongly ahead of Rio+20.


15   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, Report of the Secretary General, UN, April 2010 Back

16   ibid, para 10 Back

17   Objectives and themes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Report of the Secretary General, UN, December 2010, para 6 Back

18   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 11 Back

19   ibid, para 15 Back

20   ibid, para 13 Back

21   Incomes below $1.25 a day in a UN 2005 analysis (Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 16) Back

22   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 16 Back

23   ibid, para 19 Back

24   Ev w33 Back

25   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit,para 19 Back

26   A safe operating space for humanity, Johan Rockstrom and others, Nature, vol. 461, No. 7263, pp. 472-475 (September 2009) Back

27   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 20 Back

28   ibid, paras 22-23 Back

29   Ev 22 Back

30   Ev 27 Back

31   ibid, Ev w33 Back

32   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 23 Back

33   Ev w19, paras b1, c9 Back

34   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 36 Back

35   ibid, paras 36-37 Back

36   ibid, para 40 Back

37   ibid, para 39 Back

38   Ev 27, para 8. Oxfam cited data from Global Footprint Network and UN Development Programme. Back

39   Ev 22; Ev w33 Back

40   Global Environmental Quality: Recommendations for Rio+20 and Beyond, William Brown, Brookings Institution, August 2011 Back

41   Rio+20: Sustainable Development Goals - a proposal from the Government of Colombia (http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/content/documents/colombiasdgs.pdf)  Back

42   Ev w23 Back

43   Chair's summary: High level dialogue on institutional framework sustainable development, Solo (Indonesia), UN, July 2011, para 17 Back

44   The MCG proposal was presented during the first inter-sessional Rio meeting in January 2011. Back

45   Ev w33, para 13 Back

46   Progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development, as well as an analysis of the themes of the Conference, op cit, para 19 Back

47   Q 6 Back

48   Ev 27, para 11 Back

49   Ev 33, para 4.3 Back

50   Ev w88 Back

51   Environmental Audit Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, The impact of UK overseas aid on environmental protection and climate change adaptation and mitigation, HC 710, para 69 Back

52   Millennium consumption goals: how the rich can make the planet more sustainable,Professor Mohan Munasinghe, January 2011 (http://www.mohanmunasinghe.com/pdf/Island-MCG-1Feb20112.pdf) Back

53   ibid.  Back


 
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Prepared 26 October 2011