Global Sustainability: Pursuing the Elusive Prize

January 30, 2012

As the world’s political and business leaders head home from the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is right asking which of the world’s toughest challenges were identified, let alone solved, on the “Magic Mountain.” Timely, then, that today the UN launches the report of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. Co-chaired by South African President Jacob Zuma and Finnish President Tarja Halonen, the panel seeks to build on the Brundtland Report, now a quarter-of-a-century old, to shape our common future and, more immediately, the forthcoming Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012. 

Over the past 25 years, sustainable development, definitions aside, has moved from being a marginalized aspiration to become a mainstream frame for many aspects of public policy, business strategy and civil-society-inspired movements. This is far from trivial, and the report exudes a sense of confidence that gaining attention on the topic does not require evangelicalism, a positive sign of the times. Over the same time, the urgency of addressing the sustainability imperative has become ever greater. Moreover, as one after the other environmental limits are breached, political leadership has proved lacking in advancing adequate local and national, let alone global, action.

Whereas Brundtland voiced what needed to be heard, the new UN panel has focused on what needs to be done. Most significant is that sustainable development since Brundtland has embraced the economics imperative — development, growth, income and jobs. At no other time has this been more important, not just because of the constraints imposed by today’s multi-faceted economic crisis, but because of our greater appreciation today of the need to go beyond “doing less harm” by surging our efforts through technology and new enterprises in delivering a greener, more inclusive, economy.

The panel’s report offers ample directional policy guidance for advancing such an economy. Moving the pricing of natural resources figures to centre stage is obvious, perhaps, but obviously right. Contentious but crucial is a strong policy push to remove fossil fuel subsidies that currently deliver the perversely negative carbon prices and cost global taxpayers about US$1 trillion annually, money that could be used more effectively elsewhere. Also highlighted is the incredible potential of the annual global public procurement of US$4 trillion (or more) as a powerful policy instrument for incentivizing new enterprises, business models and entire sectors.

Reforming financial markets so they play their historic role of investing in a resilient, sustainable economy for future generations is a notably brave feature of the panel’s message, highly relevant at a moment where financial market reform is on the policy table, but without the right connections to the sustainability agenda. The need to go to the core of financial markets in reforming the fiduciary base that guides institutional investors in what they can and cannot do is emphasized. The potential role of sovereign wealth funds in investing long and taking account of both policy and commercial factors is highlighted, as well as the need to consider fiscal and regulatory measures to overcome the short-termism that not only catalyzed the current economic recession, but also forms a particular constraint in investing in sustainability-aligned businesses and infrastructure.

In its report, the panel has not provided a recipe for sustainable development or a crystallized set of targets that would signal success if met. While this may frustrate some, it is just as well that the fashion for “make it simple” has been avoided. Technology will certainly help in advancing sustainability, as will being smart and connected. Caring would help too — greater empathy has a more important role to play, one suspects, than the survival instinct. But it is a complex affair to reshape an intricate system of seven billion souls living within a US$70-trillion-a-year economy of interconnected sovereign jurisdictions housing communities with diverse histories, cultural mind maps and interests. Anyone pointing to “silver bullet” solutions is almost certainly part of the problem. On that score, the panel’s report highlights the profound governance gap in addressing the sustainability challenge. While it does call out these weaknesses and make some practical proposals for change, for my taste, it would have been appreciated if the panel had taken us further along this crucial part of the journey.

The panel does, however, offer a rich portfolio of highly leveraged policy guidance. Interventions in the workings of the capital markets, dealing with fossil fuel subsidies and taking advantage of public procurement as a change instrument are solutions commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Similarly, the report offers policy guidance for upgrading international environmental governance, inserting sustainability directly into corporate decision making through requiring greater transparency, and stepping up ongoing efforts to reform the basis on which progress is measured, by overcoming our addiction to measures such as GDP that do little more than count the volume of financial transactions.

These and other proposals, acted on with focus and urgency, can take us a long way in overcoming perverse incentives and unlocking and directing the talent, creativity and resources of people, business and societies in shaping the change we need. Acting is, in part, a matter of taking the policy guidance forward to the UN’s event in Rio this coming June. But the real action will not be in such spectacular events, however successfully executed. Much can and must be done at the national level, all the more so given the manifest weaknesses of today’s intergovernmental processes. Business has a critical role to play, and at its best, has demonstrated its capacity and will to advance the sustainability agenda in practice along its supply chains and in the products and services on offer. Civil society in its many forms, likewise, has a role to play in shaping the international agenda, building on the successes of the Occupy and other social movements in building the broader debate that encourages politicians to act — ambitiously and with haste.

Read correctly and acted on with a sense of urgency and inspiration, the panel’s efforts can contribute to the “Great Transformation” needed, which was discussed last week in Davos. 

A revised version of this commentary was published on The Guardian's Sustainable Business Blog.

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