Whither Sustainable Development? | May 30, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 22 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 22 | pp. 39-41
Issue Date: May 30, 2011

Whither Sustainable Development?

Recent failure of UN talks raises concerns over likelihood of success of efforts to create a green economy
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: UN, sustainable development
UN Secretary-General Ban (center) addressed the Commission on Sustainable Development.
Credit: Mark Garten/UN Photo
UN Secretary-General Ban (center) addressed the Commission on Sustainable Development.
Credit: Mark Garten/UN Photo

The United Nations is revving up for a major conference next year that it hopes will set the stage for a global green economy. That meeting, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, commemorates and builds on the work of the 1992 Earth Summit, a highly influential meeting held in Rio de Janeiro that brought together scores of global leaders who signed the world’s first treaties on climate change and biodiversity protection. In addition, governments attending the summit endorsed an agenda for sustainable development. In the past 15 years, it has led to the creation of two new international treaties on chemicals and a global strategy for helping countries that lack a regulatory system to manage chemicals.

But given what happened at UN headquarters in New York City in mid-May, the outlook for the 2012 conference is not good. The negative omen came when negotiators attending the UN Commission on Sustainable Development meeting walked away from the table on the morning of May 14, several hours after the two-week gathering was scheduled to end on May 13. Discussions broke down, and completed—or nearly completed—draft agreements on commercial chemicals, waste management, mining, transportation, and sustainable patterns of consumption and production were abandoned. The causes were disputes over the definition of “green economy” and provisions for financial and technology assistance.

This wasn’t the first stalemate for annual negotiations by the Commission on Sustainable Development, which was established at the Earth Summit to continue the work begun at that meeting. In 2007, the commission’s talks also failed to produce agreement.

The current deadlock left in limbo a long-anticipated international agreement: a 10-year global action plan to create sustainable patterns of production and consumption. UN countries agreed in 2002 that they would create this plan of action. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has emphasized the importance of the action plan to transform current patterns of protection and consumption and reverse trends of excessive resource use. Negotiators finished work on the document at the May meeting, but it is not official because the commission did not adopt it.

Countries represented at the May meeting also agreed on policy options for managing commercial chemicals. Speaking on behalf of a coalition of more than 130 developing nations—called the Group of 77—Silvia Merega, an Argentine diplomat, told the commission that the benefits of commercial substances for developing nations “cannot be overemphasized. However, the main challenge that developing countries face lies in the local capacity to manage production, effective uses of chemicals, prevention of chemical hazards, and protection of the environment as well as in promoting corporate, social, and environmental responsibility.” In their discussions, negotiators recognized a major transformation within this sector, namely that commercial production of chemicals is shifting to developing countries, some of which lack the know-how and money to manage this industry effectively.

But the chemicals talks ran into fatal snags on how best to help developing countries surmount these challenges through funding, training, and technology. In UN parlance, these types of assistance are collectively called “means of implementation.” The G-77 and China—which is not a member of the G-77 but generally joins the coalition in policy stances—were at loggerheads with industrialized countries over what this assistance should include and how it should be provided. The bloc’s argument was that simply establishing worldwide consensus on commercial chemicals does no good if many developing nations lack the wherewithal to implement these policies. They want the industrialized world to support these efforts with money and other aid.

Industrialized nations—notably the U.S.—balked at calls for funding made not just in the chemicals sector discussions, but throughout the commission’s meeting. Several of these countries pointed out that they are facing serious economic problems at home. For instance, John M. Matuszak, chief of the U.S. State Department’s Sustainable Development & Multilateral Affairs Division, told the commission as it kicked off its recent meeting that “the U.S., as with many other countries, is actively cutting budgets to reduce our deficit and cannot make new financial commitments or support costly new initiatives.” Instead, governments, the private sector, and others must engage effectively to “leverage our collective resources” to help the developing world on sustainable development issues, Matuszak said.

Although arguments over funding and related means of implementation will almost certainly carry over to the 2012 gathering, another obstacle may pose a bigger threat to the success of the upcoming conference. At the commission’s meeting this month, the G-77 and China steadfastly opposed use of the phrase “green economy” in any documents, saying there was no agreed-on definition for it.

This debate over the term green economy is “not a welcome sign” for the meeting next year, said Jeffrey Barber, executive director of Integrative Strategies Forum, a nonprofit citizens group that works on sustainable development issues. That’s because one of the two major focuses of the 2012 conference, which will be held in Rio, is “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” The second main theme of next year’s meeting is governance for sustainable development.

For some developing countries, a main sticking point is whether a green economy must involve significantly lower emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Emerging economies, including India, China, South Africa, and Brazil, are increasing their emissions of CO2 as they rapidly industrialize.

But that’s not the only dispute related to defining a green economy. The European Union is recommending that a transition to a green economy include the removal of environmentally harmful subsidies and the use of incentives for more environmentally friendly goods. Some developing countries balk at this notion. For instance, a delegate from India told the commission that requirements for green products may distort free flow of global trade and erect barriers to some products. Importing countries’ environmental standards, subsidies, and market incentives for green goods could limit the ability of developing countries that export to achieve their sustainability goals, the Indian representative added.

UN chief Ban either was unaware of the developing countries’ concern about the term green economy or chose to dismiss it when he addressed the commission on May 13. Looking ahead to the 2012 conference, which the UN has dubbed “Rio + 20,” Ban said, “Our vision must be clear—a sustainable green economy that protects the health of the environment.” A green economy, he said, must support development “through growth in income, decent work, and poverty eradication.”

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