Let’s reconnect green issues and development post-2015

Post-2015 discussions offer a chance to link the environmental and development agendas — it shouldn’t...

Post-2015 discussions offer a chance to link the environmental and development agendas — it shouldn’t be bypassed, says Myles A. Wickstead.

A quarter of a century ago, scientists could justifiably take some sense of satisfaction from their ability to set in motion policy shifts towards protecting the global environment.

They had become increasingly worried by the emergence of holes in the ozone layer, which allowed harmful ultraviolet rays to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere — and, in 1987, the Montreal Protocol began the process of banning CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) because of their damaging effect on this layer.

In that same year, ‘Our Common Future’ — known as the Brundtland report after Gro Harlem Brundtland, chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development that produced it — highlighted several other environmental concerns, leading to some of the key themes to be picked up at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

That conference had some important outcomes, including the Convention to Combat Desertification, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Again, the scientists justifiably deserved a pat on the back.

But one unintended consequence of the success of the 1992 summit was to reinforce the emerging breakdown of the links between ‘environment’ and ‘international development’ issues, with different international organisations, governments and specialists pursuing different agendas.

Brundtland herself had recognised the dangers of this happening and, in her foreword to ‘Our Common Future’, said: “The ‘environment’ is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”[1]

She was, of course, quite right. And there is an opportunity over the next two-and-a-half years to bring these agendas back together again as the development community looks beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have an end date of 2015.

Development goal opportunity

There is much still left to be achieved in development. Because many of the MDGs are proportional rather than absolute goals, even if the world fully meets them, hundreds of millions of people will remain in absolute poverty, millions of children will fail to reach their fifth birthday and hundreds of thousands of mothers will die needlessly in childbirth.

The discussion on what a successor to the MDGs might look like is already well under way. A High-Level Panel being co-chaired by the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the British prime minister is due to report to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at the end of this month, providing a framework for further discussions until September 2015.

It is already clear that any successor to the MDGs must look at progress as being not just about increased prosperity, but also about greater equity.

But there is a third element, too, that needs to be incorporated into a new set of goals. There is only one small reference to the importance of environmental sustainability in the current set of MDGs; and yet, of course, the environment could have a huge impact on progress towards the other goals.

The pollution of the oceans, overfishing, changes in land use and the loss of biodiversity are key areas of concern. And no common challenge is greater than that of climate change: unchecked rises in temperature will have — indeed, are already having — profound consequences for food security and agriculture, and for the very survival of the nine billion people likely to inhabit the planet by 2050.

Parallel processes

As the post-2015 High-Level Panel prepares to report, a parallel process is under way. An inter-governmental Open Working Group established as a result of last June’s ‘Rio+20’ conference — following on from the original Rio de Janeiro summit two decades earlier — is beginning work to look at the creation of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The working group is due to report to Ban in mid-2014.

The danger is that the post-2015 and SDG processes take on separate lives, simply deepening the existing chasm between the environmental and developmental communities. But there is also an opportunity to make the two processes mutually coherent, so that over the next couple of years, the two sets of goals can be brought together in recognition that they are not only compatible but inextricably linked.

Ban has already made it very clear that he wants the two processes to be integrated. One very welcome development is the widespread consultation process — the My World global survey, for example — that has been put in place by the UN and supported by DFID and others.

Scientists must ensure that they become an integral part of that process. They need to communicate the fact that environmental degradation and climate change are already affecting food security, access to water and the health of the world’s poorest people, and that the medium- and long-term consequences can impact on the very sustainability of the planet on which we all depend. It is a crucial — indeed an existential — debate.

An article by SciDev.Net’s Nick Perkins and Anita Makri in the latest edition of The Networker, the quarterly publication of the international development NGO umbrella organisation BOND, lays out some of the common ground between science and development practice. [1] It shows how scientists and writers about science and technology can help to build bridges — in the context of post-2015 debates — between the environment and development communities.

Whether or not they will remains to be seen. But our common future depends on it.

Myles A. Wickstead is visiting professor at the Open University, United Kingdom, and advisor to Hand in Hand International and Development Initiatives. He is on the boards of a number of NGOs, trusts and foundations. He has been head of the British Development Division in Eastern Africa, British ambassador to Ethiopia and was head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa.



[1] The World Commission on Environment and Development Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (UN, 1987)
[2] Perkins, N. and Makri, A. Science and development are closer than they appear (The Networker, 2013)


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