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Asia must drive the post-2015 global agenda and global goals

There is an ongoing debate within the United Nations whether a sustainable development and a security lens will be needed for dealing with climate change. The new High-level political forum on sustainable development, recently created by the UN at the Rio+20 conference to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development, will review progress of all major conferences and result in a “negotiated ministerial declaration,” blurring the distinction with arrangements like the climate treaty.

A recent article in Nature (21 March) argues for sustainable development goals that consider both people and planet. Will the goals now being negotiated in the UN General Assembly for the post-2015 global agenda also deal with climate change along with development? Responding to emerging challenges, scientific consensus and geopolitical shifts, the G8 have recognised climate change and sustainable development as “mutually reinforcing,” while also describing climate change as a security threat. China and India have yet to formulate a comprehensive response to the new global agenda developing in the three parallel negotiations in the – Climate Convention, General Assembly and the Security Council – that will take place between now and 2015.

Current strategic thinking focuses on the size of the military and the strength of the economy as determinants of the influence countries exert in world affairs, ignoring the role of global rules in maintaining that influence. The design of new global goals provides an opportunity for countries with a bold vision to build a coalition and ensure that the new order serves their interests.

The world is at such a defining moment, much like at the end of World War II when the United States established the multilateral system. Economic concerns were placed under the Bretton Woods Institutions with ‘one dollar one vote,’ and keeping political concerns in the Security Council where the victors had a veto. Humanitarian concerns, meanwhile, were given to the United Nations’ General Assembly and other committees with its system of ‘one country one vote.’ The leverage that went with that arrangement is now unravelling – China’s aid to Africa exceeds the amount provided by the World Bank. It has also become clear that in a multi-polar world the new global challenges can no longer be dealt with in a fragmented system.

The emerging agenda

The climate treaty, negotiated at Rio in 1992, is an experiment in bringing together environment and development to reconcile a continually growing global economy within a finite global ecosystem. However, international environmental law has not been able to resolve how to accommodate the rising living standards of all those who have so far been excluded from the benefits of globalization through burden sharing. Post-Rio 2012, development and environment are coming together around global sustainable development goals to shape patterns, trends and drivers of global change. The new rules for the post-2020 climate regime are also focusing on aggregate emissions pathways rather than percentage reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases. The distinction between climate change, development and sustainable development is blurring.

The political problem is that the billion richest accounts for over 70 per cent of world consumption with the poorest billion accounting for only 1 per cent of natural resource use; how the ecological limits are approached depends on lifestyles and associated consumption. These in turn depend on what is used, and how and what is regarded as essential for human wellbeing, and the G8 is reluctant to even put these trends on the global agenda.

The G8 see the collective response in terms of new rules for intervention to meet environmental risks rather than for societal and technological transformations. A redefinition of national security is being pushed by raising the question whether traditional roles of national states and international agreements will prove adequate for dealing with the adverse effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier.” The deliberations in the Security Council mirror those in the other forum and have ignored the complex interactions between human activities, ecological limits and international cooperation.

New global goals

The policy issue for China and India is whether to continue with the comfortable but fraying principle of environmental law, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ agreed in 1992, even as the deliberation shifts to other forums. Or they may acknowledge the significance of the different concerns coming together around human wellbeing and take a more forward looking approach, by following, for example, new research like the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2013. The report states that severe income disparity is a greater disruptive risk by likelihood and impact than climate change.

By shifting the global agenda from environmental risk to seeking human wellbeing within ecological limits, these countries can shape the new global goals to focus on the gaps in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG. Eradicating poverty has, after all, been central to the agenda of the United Nations since it was established in 1948.

This new global vision will have five key elements.

First, the reduction in poverty in recent decades has been overwhelmingly dependent on the rapid growth in China, which alone accounts for three-fourths of the global reduction and was carried out without a MDG focused policy. A review of past trends suggests that two-thirds of poverty reduction depends on growth and one-third on equality; poverty will be eradicated only when all have assured access to affordable services, like energy, food, housing, transport, education, health and employment. A consensus is needed to define global goals around standards of living that ensure exercise of universal rights and economic opportunities, otherwise we will fool ourselves into thinking, once again, and that poverty is history.

Second, the key global concern should be modifying longer term trends in production and consumption patterns to determine how standards of living can be raised within ecological limits. As developing countries shift to urbanization and manufacturing to provide employment and services, limiting natural resource consumption while still achieving high standards of living will require a review of existing global rules (for example, intellectual property rights) and new rules (for example, energy efficiency and sharing biotechnology).

Third, the guiding principle for the new partnership should be “sharing responsibility for the Planet and prosperity of the People.” The MDGs, for example, did not include adequate and affordable energy, which has an environmental impact. They also framed development cooperation narrowly as an aid-driven relationship and ignored other policy instruments like trade, investment and technology transfer. New goals will need new rules and a new partnership.

Fourth, all the analyses suggest that the most rapid growth of the middle class will occur in Asia, particularly in populous China and India. These countries will have to think about global ecological limits in new ways. The volume of urban construction there for housing, office space, and transport services could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history. The future health of the global economy, society and environment will, therefore, be increasingly linked to how these countries do – more so than the traditional West – and they must take the lead in shaping the new goals.

New climate framework

The design of a fair climate agreement is already drawing on the wider scientific and policy debate around new global goals, because keeping global emissions within agreed limits has very different implications for fast growing economies and where growth has stabilized. For example, three-fourths of the electricity produced in developing countries is used in manufacturing and any limitations on emissions will impact on economic growth. By contrast, two-thirds of the electricity generated in developed countries is used in buildings, and restrictions will affect lifestyles. Emissions, standards of living and global ecological limits are inter-linked, and cannot be considered in isolation.

Up to now less than one billion people have accounted for three-quarters of global consumption; during the next four decades, new and expanded middle classes in the developing world could create as many as four billion additional consumers. The volume of this urban construction for housing, office space, and transport services could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history. Currently, per capita generation of electricity in India is one-fifteenth and in China and one fifth that of the United States. The use of cheap and widely available coal will continue because of the imperatives of growth, which also provides opportunities for re-shaping the pattern of demand, or lifestyles.

First, in the face of continuing reluctance of the rich countries to modify longer term trends in consumption and production patterns – which they had committed to under the Convention – and geopolitical shifts in the power of developing countries, a rigid environmental perspective giving sole consideration to risk management is giving place to a more flexible sustainable development perspective of economic growth within ecological limits. Temporarily over-shooting of the global temperature limits using carbon budget or paths over time rather than an end-point is gaining prominence amongst scientists, and is likely to be reflected in any new agreement.

Second, fairness is no longer sought to be defined as differentiated commitments for burden sharing but rather in terms of methodologies for reviewing national actions. There is, however, no agreement on whether this would be based on common accounting rules and a consultative process to enhance commitments or patterns and trends of natural resource use should shape the multilateral reporting and assessment of national actions; environment first came on the global agenda in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference and global growth is expected to continue till at least 2060. The fear is that international approval should not be accorded to a lack of ambition on the part of developed countries to the detriment of the others as energy use reaches the planet’s ecological limits before comparable levels in standards of living are achieved.

China and India are still building their infrastructure and, according to BP’s forecasts in its latest Energy Outlook 2030, energy use per capita is predicted to increase at a similar rate to that in industrialized countries in the period 1970-2011. Despite energy intensity of GDP in 2030 being less than half of the level in 1970, incomes and population are expected to drive a 40 per cent increase in global primary energy use. This implies that the international review of national actions should consider national circumstances, or stages of development.

Third, the specificity of the global goals and the monitoring arrangements will depend on the extent to which redistribution, which has so far been kept out of the UN, becomes a part of the global agenda. Given the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the environmental, social and economic processes upon which pathways to sustainable development depend, the guiding principle for the new partnership will update the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ to focus on ‘sharing responsibility and prosperity.’ International cooperation will then be seen in terms of sharing technological development and exchanging experiences on societal transformations that will lead to emissions reduction, and not the other way round.

Developing countries, particularly in Asia, will have to think about global ecological limits in new ways. In an interdependent and multi-polar world, global goals are more likely to be based on negotiated political agreements in the High Level Policy Forum that has replaced the Commission on Sustainable Development, rather than legally binding commitments in the Climate treaty. As China re-shapes its urban future, with its planned urbanization involving 250 million farmers, its willingness to lead by example in reforming the UN, rather than the United States defending the current arrangements, will determine the outcome, and the rules. It may well be a complete break with the past, equitable and democratic.

Mukul Sanwal has served in various policy positions in the Government of India and represented India as a principal negotiator at the UNCED, Agenda 21, Rio Declaration and the Climate Change Treaty. This article originally appeared here, then here.

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