This is Part 15 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22. The full series is available here.
One of the major branding maneuvers at the Rio+20 has been the phrase “The Future We Want.” Ban Ki-Moon wrote an editorial with that title, the public was given the opportunity to vote on it, and others have responded to the call by writing about the future they want. I’m not going to focus on any particular issues that I want dealt with in the future (vulnerability, for instance), but since this blog is my ability to push the boundaries, talk about things I’d like to see, even if they aren’t actually on the table, figured I’d do that. These are things that I think are achievable, but do not make up the agenda right now.
The Basics: The ability to choose
I want an international environmental order that can assist or empower any individual or community to improve their environment or the sustainability of their economic system. If a community in the Americas wants to reduce its vulnerability to natural disasters, I want them to be able to do so. If a community in Africa wants to ensure its energy system will last for generations and not be subject to shocks, I want them to be able to do so. This is an order that does not rely upon shared standards but instead the ability for different groups to set their own agendas, establish shared goals, and be empowered to reach those goals.
I find that too often communities around the world are unable to take the positive goals they may want. If energy sustainability comes at significant initial investment or if technology is simply unavailable, they don’t have full autonomy to choose and have to instead rely upon fossil fuel sources (which are at their core unsustainable energy sources). In addition, pollution from some communities negatively impacts others and interferes in their ability to establish the type of environment they want. Climate change impacts millions of people by increasing their vulnerability in a way that is not clearly understood.
This goal is different from some other people and groups who want to achieve decreased pollution or increased development or other goals. My basis allows people to establish their own goals and achieve them in the ways they see fit; it does require stringent agreements to cut pollution necessarily. However, it does require that we not hinder or constrain other communities’ ability to set their own agenda. Institutions that allow such constraints are problematic and institutions that remove such constraints are necessary.
So, what type of international architecture will need to change?
Trade and the Environment
We have treaties on biodiversity, climate change, ozone, oil spills, etc.; but the discussions on trade and environment have happened in a very vague setting within the WTO (or in some of the environment and trade treaties like regarding endangered species or biosafety). The problem is that the WTO is a trade organization first and foremost and so whenever it has to figure out issues of trade and the environment, it privileges trade. Now, they do entertain some space for domestic environmental regulations, but they require that that not be a trade hindrance. This relationship is vague and stacked fundamentally against the ability of communities to take steps for their own environment or for the global environment. A formal treaty or convention on trade and the environment would be a key part of any effective global green economy arrangement. This isn’t on the table at Rio+20, but I would like it if it became one soon.
We have the technology to help tremendous amounts of people improve their lives, become healthier, and live more sustainably. But, it is constrained to a great extent in the current infrastructure. Patents, for example, keep life saving drugs away from millions of people. Advanced agricultural technology is unavailable to the mass of world farmers. Green energy technology and energy efficient technologies are often priced out of the range of most of the world. Investment and credit are often required and are not available. The result is not surprising, people use the technologies that are available and cheap–with dire consequences for the environment. The tradeoff is difficult, I know it is. Should U.S. or European citizens be asked to pay, through taxes or higher consumer prices, for sustainable technology to be available to developing countries? The worst part is the current institutional system: The west promises to have some technology transfer and then doesn’t deliver. Intellectual property protections internationally should be modified, green technology should be more widely available, and, when possible, increasing expertise (both engineers and mechanics) in green technology should be fostered in developing countries. Rio+20 will not set this agreement, but it might set up a forum for the discussion to be fostered.
A Clearer Division Between Small and Big Environmental Topics
Some environmental issues require international negotiations, treaties, and hard decisions. But others require small action by millions of people, educated and empowered to make smarter decisions. Climate change needs to have the Big environmental discussion, sustainable agriculture may actually be helped through small action by empowered small-holding agriculturalists around the world. Right now, we don’t have any institutional difference between these issues. So that at Climate negotiations, they have to discuss a lot of small issues. At the same time, small efforts are hindered by governance gridlock where progress could be made quite easily if international institutions could just set a clear baseline. Take the recent agreement on soot by the G8, while a good step of progress, this is not going to provide the breakthrough on carbon that is necessary to stop climate change. I think we need a clear division: these issues are Big and need negotiations and they won’t have ever-expanding topics, these other issues are Small and we will empower action by people on their own helping to deal with them. Along with this, there needs to be clearer global institutions for the different problems. Big issues go to UNEP, Small go to GEF or something. Rio+20 knows this needs to happen! And I think steps in this direction will result, but nothing huge should be expected.
Do organizations flushed with funds become less effective and more wedded to retaining funding than achieving clear goals? Of course! Should that mean that the U.S., Europe, and Japan, should be excused for their promises to increase official development assistance, fund development, etc. and then not achieve those goals? No. If we are going to prevent increasing environmental damage, if we are going to help the problem, if we are going to empower individuals and communities to make the decisions they want to make, it is going to mean doubling the development assistance and doubling the funding to international organizations. Period. I know that these programs have some spectacular failures and corruption, side payments, etc. are rampant. I also know throwing money at the problem will not fix it. So, I propose this change: Escrow. A fund is created where the Western states deliver upon their promised contributions and it sits there unused until transparency, effectiveness, etc. issues are dealt with appropriately and then the money flows. The G8 and friends, has been promising increased aid for years and not delivering because of the problems with the aid provides political cover. The result is no efforts on changing the system because there isn’t any clear benefit if they do and that aid for improving the lot of the world’s population does not happen. Time to increase the funds for real, and if you have a problem with the transparency or impact of aid, then it goes into the Escrow account and when we have fixed those issues, it gets released. That way, you deliver your promises and there is direct benefit for aid working because it means that it gets money just sitting there.
That’s it. Nothing too crazy I don’t think. Clarify some things (trade and the environment, big issues and small issues, etc) and change some priorities (significantly more funding and technology transfer). These four I think will go a long way toward improving the ability for communities around the world to set their own priorities for a better future. It isn’t all inclusive (I also want another climate treaty!), but is some changes I wish would have been on the agenda at Rio+20 that are either not on at all or are there in a significantly smaller role. Take them for what they are, one person’s attempt at thinking through the green economy and how we can change the international system to more adequately support that system.
Think about it yourself: How would you change the international institutions to help communities set and achieve their own environmental goals? Send me your ideas (email@example.com) and I’ll post them. What future system do you want?