Changing the Global Environmental Status Quo

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.

Sustainable Consumption and Production at CSD19

The 2011 UN Commission on Sustainable Development was my fourth CSD in NYC and, as usual, it was an inspirational and disappointing process. This year, we collaborated closely with the Major Group for Children and Youth, which was an amazing experience in itself. As a thirty-two year old, I have aged out of the Major Group, however, I was welcomed as an “observer” on paper, but a full participant in reality.

I focused my efforts on the 10 Year Framework on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP), which was supposed to be developed this year as an output of theMarrakesh Process, which developed out of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Eleven years later, we met in New York at CSD19 to formalize this process, with the aims of globally addressing the destructive patterns of consumption and production throughout the world.

As a focus group, we targeted key components of the proposed policy on SCP to lobby governments to support, including:

  • Strong Language: Much international environmental policy ends up being “watered down” due to the need for consensus to pass anything. For SCP, we argued, it was crucial to have strong language since this is one of the most pressing cross-cutting issues: how we use and waste resources for production and consumption are at the core of all environmental, and many social, issues;

  • Monitoring and Evaluation: Policy is just paper if it’s not implemented and evaluated. We didn’t want to see strong targets set and have no required country implementation or reporting mechanisms in place to see if what we think the impacts would be are the actual impacts. Monitoring and evaluation mechanisms also create an internal review process, where we can evaluate what’s working and what’s not working;

  • Producer responsibility: Without governmental pressure for producers to take responsibility for the impacts of the full life-cycle of their products (production, use, disposal, etc), then it’s impossible to stop unsustainable consumption. We also called to a ban on the process of planned obsolescence in production. Lastly, we emphasized that producers must honestly communicate the impacts of their products to consumers;

  • Education: Even if there is producer responsibility, consumers still have a responsibility to choose wisely. In order to produce a collective consumer consciousness, sustainability education–both formal and non-formal–is paramount;

  • Programs: SCP is such a huge, open-ended concept. We wanted concrete actions in the format of distinctive programs for Sustainable Consumption and Production in the policy, as well as specified groups, organizations, institutions, etc responsible for heading these programs. It was also important to us that there be opportunities for an evolution of programs as the M&E progressed;

  • Inclusion of stakeholders: One of the most impressive components of the CSD process is the existence of the Nine Major Groups, which is a way to facilitate a diversity of groups and individuals (stakeholders) in policy development and implementation. We called for the increased participation of these groups (including women, children, indigenous, NGOs, etc) in this process, with increased visibility, legitimacy, as well as access to information;

What Did We Get?

The official output of CSD19 is that there was no output. Governments could not come to an agreement of policy and, although negotiations went throughout the night for nearly a week (of a two-week process), the policy process failed. So, what’s next? Since we came to no agreements on the issues of this year’s topics of: SCP, Transport, Chemicals, Waste Management, and Mining, where does that leave the global environment?

According to IISD’s analysis of CSD19, “The failure of CSD 19 to adopt a negotiated outcome dealt a blow to the standing of this UN body, and sowed doubts regarding the ability of governments to collectively and effectively address crucial sustainable development issues.” However, when we look at issues of sustainable development, failure is not an option. Most environmental and developmental issues are cross-boundary issues, meaning that they do not merely function or impact communities within National borders. For example: Lack of access to healthy natural resources in one region causes migration to another–often leading to conflicts; Water and air don’t stick to National boundaries and the use and pollution of these resources affect communities near and far; and Globalization and increased global trade means that production, consumption and economic well-being is no longer a local issue, it’s a global issue.

Over the past few years there has been increasing skepticism over the effectiveness of the CSD process. Having international conferences in New York are very costly; country delegates are often very low on the “totem pole” in their governments; major group participants are often the same–year after year—and may or may not truly represent, or be knowledgeable of the topics or processes; and all processes are non-binding that come out of the CSD, meaning that there are no real consequences for breaking agreements. With the decline of funding opportunities for this process, major group representatives have also stayed home, making the halls significantly more empty than years past and the goals of significant stakeholder inclusion a major challenge.

In the Major Group for Children and Youth, there was a distinctive majority of American and European representatives. Althought the MGCY was innovative in including others–through online forums and file-sharing such as piratepad, googlegroups, and even offered a training for other Major Groups to use file-sharing technology for policy development and negotiations. However, it was not the reduced presence of Major Groups representatives at the CSD that halted negotiations.

There are many reasons for the lack of output for the CSD19 process, including disagreement over language in the text referring to “occupied territories”, as well as approaches to methods of implementation (MOI). Thorough analysis of the proceedings can be found here.

Looking Forward

In 2012, the world is coming together for Rio+20, the twentieth anniversary of the “Earth Summit” in Rio, which is known by most as the basis for modern global environmental policy. The disappointment of CSD19 leaves many questions as to the potential success of the Rio+20 proceedings. What many agree upon is that: we need a fundamental change in the way we do “business”. One of the three themes of Rio+20 is the “Green Economy”, which is controversial in itself. According to IISD reporting, “Venezuela termed it [Green Economy] as “green capitalism,” and Bolivia urged that “the green of nature prevails over the green of money and profit.” However, despite the incoming debates concerning Rio, there is an imperative need for global, high-level participation in this process. The degradation of the global environment and the persistence of global poverty are not an acceptable status quo. It is not enough to have Ministers of Environment in Rio, who often have little power and even smaller budgets for implementation, we need to have state leaders coming together in Rio to decide upon our collective fate and collective vision for the future.

Take Action!

The Human Impacts Institute is working with U.S.-based groups to create political will around the Rio process. Have you heard of Rio+20? Do you care about it? Have your told your elected officials about your views? What do you want from the process? What do you want our world to be? Join us! Send us your Visions for Rio today.

by Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director of the Human Impacts Institute

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