29 November 2011
Development and Environment: The Nexus
story highlights

An elegant word has appeared recently in our conversations – nexus – to illustrate that issues are interlinked.

But the nexus of all nexuses is the planet, which remains the blind spot, not only because it is difficult to assess its state, but above all because there is no political forum to take care of it.

Heading towards Rio+20, governments and civil society must raise their eyes to assess the situation and prepare for commitments commensurate to the challenges. Extreme poverty and the degradation of the environment will be at the center, as two sides of one coin. It cannot be that both the poor and the planet bear the brunt of crises, such as when water, energy and food become unaffordable or when resources for fighting climate change and its impacts are diverted for other needs. People and the Planet are too big to fail! Since the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the world community has agreed never to speak of the global environment without also addressing the issue of development, in the sense of improving the lives of people from the poorest nations. This is how the Brundtland Commission, 10 years later, considering the necessity of growth in poor countries, came to the concept of sustainable development.

Over time, this phrase has acquired a larger meaning and actually signifies the advancement of all societies, developed or developing, bringing together on an equal footing improvements in social equity, economic efficiency and environmental sustainability with a special consideration for safeguarding the livelihood of future generations. This concept has become familiar to most governments, but it often has been understood as a specialty of environmentalists. And it is a fact that environmentalists are usually more open to the other pillars of sustainable development than practitioners of the economy or specialists of social affairs are themselves aware of ecological constraints, especially in times of crisis, such as a recession, when politics tends to disfavor the environment and international cooperation. As governments move into fire-fighting mode, they are tempted to shelve the less seen and less noisy, but no less burning, threats of world poverty and a planet under stress.

Therefore, leaders and heads of governments, but also ministers of finance and social affairs, should prepare for and attend Rio+20 with their environment colleagues, to avoid short-term or fragmented and incoherent policies.

As an overarching and universal concept, sustainable development applies to all countries, each one having its own way to implement it, following the relevant parts of a universal checklist like, for instance, Agenda 21. That is one of Rio+20’s objectives: getting all countries, developed or developing, on a sustainable development track. Tool boxes and road maps will be welcome. And it would be useful that an accountability mechanism could review all stakeholders’ commitments: States, local governments, business, etc.

Another objective of the 2012 Conference relates to the concept of development in the sense of the economic progress of developing countries and addressing the gap between the richest and the poorest. Development is the center of a major debate in multilateral institutions. How can the international community better help poor countries to develop? How is it possible to introduce more equity between nations? These questions will also be on the table in Rio. So, ministers of development should also be present. Despite improvements in the field of aid, the impressive growth of many countries, the large number of professionals who work with developing countries and a huge body of expertise, there is still too much fragmentation. The fragmentation exists between national governments and their private sectors, between bilateral and multilateral donors, between public finance and investors. This is why collaborative platforms are necessary to achieve the “tailor-made” approach in helping developing countries on the sustainable track, along with innovative financing to increase the flow for development – or, in UN language, “means of implementation.”

One of the best results of the stronger link between environment and development is that the two communities work more closely together. It has now been clearly demonstrated that the health of natural capital is even more important to the poor than to the rich. It would be a pity that some misunderstanding of the words “green economy” – which in fact refer to implementation of sustainable development – could hinder negotiations on the way to Rio. The environment must not be a collateral victim of a misunderstanding, nor of a political divide.

All countries, whatever their level of advancement, not only should develop in a sustainable manner, with or without help from the international community, but they also belong to the Earth and have the duty of keeping the planet healthy and hospitable.

Our multilateral institutions, being assemblies of member States, have difficulties in tackling global and, could I say, supranational issues. Each country looks first at its national interests and tries to get the best out of the negotiation process, and the UN or the Convention secretariats have no mandate to force negotiators to concentrate on matters of global interest until they find a solution. Actually, no powerful voice really speaks on behalf of the global commons, the atmosphere, the oceans, the vital ecological infrastructures, the animals and plants. And to make it worse, we hear of scary planetary boundaries, thresholds or tipping points. Can someone tell us if we have passed one?

Indeed, all ecosystems rely on the working order of the ecosphere which sets the priority framework of all environmental policies and calls for equity between the world’s inhabitants’ needs and greed. An elegant word has appeared recently in our conversations: nexus, to illustrate that issues are interlinked. But the nexus of all nexuses is the planet, which remains the blind spot, not only because it is difficult to assess its state, but above all because there is no political forum to take care of it, except for a bunch of famous conventions striving in isolation to solve one element of the nexus. Of course if some crucial pillar of the biosphere falls apart, it will be difficult for any country to develop. Therefore, Rio+20 should not forget to take care of planet Earth, even though the notion has a romantic flavor to some pragmatic and seasoned negotiators. In my view, it is the third objective. The United Nations is the only place where the international community could have a look at the state of the biosphere and at mankind as a whole.

A number of governments have suggested in their submissions to the UNCSD Compilation Document the idea of elaborating Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the international community, and possibly merging them with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after their review in 2015. This would be one of the best ways to address the nexus, combining international solidarity with human development, economic improvement and environmental sustainability. To make a long story short, there can be no environment without development, certainly, but neither can there be development without the environment. People and the planet, that’s Rio+20.

For additional thoughts and reflections from Brice Lalonde, please see “Coordination Notes on the Road to Rio+20.”

View the French translation of this guest article

Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

related posts