Reflections on International Environmental Policy: CSD-19

As part of our U.N. Liaisons Program, in May of 2011, the Human Impacts Institute sent seven representatives to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development 19 (UN CSD-19), six of whom were participating in policy development for the first time. During the two-week commission, Hii representatives worked with the Major Group for Children and Youth, the Major Group for Women, and the Major Group for Indigenous Peoples to lobby, review policy, and develop international environmental policy. Although the CSD-19 process ended in a stalemate, the networks built, policy debates, and partnerships made are paramount to our next steps in sustainable development and living.

Below are the reflections of the process from one of Hii’s youth representatives to the Commission:

Looking back at the whirlwind two weeks that were the UN’s 19th Commission on Sustainable Development, I wonder how the countries and people of the world have been altered by this process. A gathering of leading minds from across the planet to discuss and debate sustainable development seems remarkable and full of promise for the future. And yet, even after months of preparatory work and twenty-hour days negotiating at the UN, the delegates failed to collectively agree on any policy text. Such a gaping failure would have seemed unimaginable over the course of the conference, and its disappointing end took many by surprise. Nevertheless, I believe that we can learn from both the successes and failures of these two weeks to truly make a difference in our approach to the future.

From my fortunate position as a member of the Major Group for Children and Youth, I was able to participate in the conference as a young member of civil society. This meant that my generation’s perspective on the evolving text was welcome, yet we were still slightly removed from the debate process. Unable to make actual changes or amendments to the policy like national delegates, we relied on lobbying representatives and sparse opportunities for speeches to get our ideas across. Most governments that we spoke to–notably including the representatives from the United States–encouraged our participation in, and respected our opinions on, the discussion. Yet we still faced frustrations with our limited speaking power, and I believe that only with a broader inclusion of civil society can UN decisions truly represent all people.

My focus was on the management of chemicals in the process of sustainable development, and my thematic group worked hard to incorporate care for future generations into the text. Our main lobbying point a bold call for action that we felt was direly missing throughout the chemical discussions. It is of the utmost importance for our planet that we put an end to the utilization of dangerous toxins, and that we substitute their use with safe, well-researched alternatives. Many healthy chemical options are already in existence and ready for adoption, and so we urged governments to insist on their full “implementation” in the global marketplace. It was a struggle to convince delegates that this strong language was necessary, and we experienced many frustrating negotiations in which the text was watered-down, right before our eyes. We felt the happy feelings of victory however, when, on the last night of negotiations, the US proposed a far-reaching amendment to “Encourage industry to continue developing cost-effective safer alternative chemicals and techniques for substituting or reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in products, processes and pesticides.” This might seem like a simple sentence, however, it is a result of much effort and determination, and would truly be a success for the future sustainability of our world.

I do feel some sadness, then, when I think of the complete lack of decisiveness that ended CSD-19 in a complicated mess. There are obvious obstructions in this decision-making process that must be overcome if we hope to make any serious progress for our environment, for we cannot afford to fail again. But I cannot help but feel a confident hope for the future, as I left the conference truly inspired by the young people that I was working with each day. We developed strong, well-reasoned points that challenged the weak actions of our leaders, we ignored the limitations imposed on us and reached far beyond expectations, and we formed true friendships with each other that ignored race or nationality. Our collective spirit and willpower is exactly what the world must adopt to solve the environmental problems that become more threatening the longer they are ignored. The Major Group for Children and Youth is already looking ahead to the all-important summit taking place next year at Rio+20, and we will again bring our full energy to fight for our futures. I only hope that the rest of the world is ready to do the same.

By Kate Offerdahl, 2011 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Leadership Intern

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