I'm 53 this week, and this prompted a game with my kids (11 and 10) in which they told me what they thought their world would be like when they were 53 (the years 2053-54).
We talked about what they might end up doing, where they would live and, of course, hovercars.
I couldn't help wondering about what the air, oceans and rivers would be like.
It's hard to know what to make of this temporary defeat of our chronic attention deficit on sustainable development. Undoubtedly it's an opportunity for all of us to rededicate attention how we achieve three things simultaneously:
(1) complete the MDG agenda,
(2) bring the planetary management agenda to maturation, and
(3) continue to pursue national interests
If you think of these three as circles, the overlaps are not necessarily large. For example, green growth does not have to be poverty reducing growth (indeed, some G77 countries think it is rich country code for slow growth); poverty reduction might entail high levels of GHG emissions, and national interests such as energy subsidies (which favour the richer groups who use more energy) serve neither MDG nor planetary management goals.
But the signs are not great that Rio+20 will be a watershed moment:
* as of last week, 70 of the 329 paragraphs of the revised zero draft were agreed, with 259 containing bracketed text--historically this is a very low proportion of agreed on text only 10 days away..
* confidence in intergovernmental collaboration is very low in the wake of the last 3 climate meetings and the eurozone crisis
* I am told there is a sense among those within the negotiating processes that Environmental ministries have struggled to bring Finance ministries along with them and are not terribly well practised in the art and craft of international relations, thus slowing down agreements..
But there are some causes for optimism
* national policies still really matter because: (1) many environmental issues are local and national (e.g. water and air pollution), and (2) many actions driving global environmental externalities are a result of decisions taken by national governments, e.g fossil fuel subsidies which dwarf ODA and subsidies of other energy sources. This means that national and local civil society has a good chance to influence national and global policies--this realisation is important in the wake of events like Copenhagen that give us little faith in the ability of world leaders to forge agreements.
* there is a recognition that metrics matter: (1) several African countries have signed up to an initiative to include natural resources in their national accounts, (2) the Sustainable Development Goals will force everyone to think about what dimensions we really want to track and how we would do that and how does that link to the MDGs, and (3) for the first time business performance could be measured by, say, a beefed up Global Reporting Initiative
* there is a realisation that the UN environmental norm-setting agenda is weak and that there is a need for something like a World Environmental Organisation (WEO) or a substantial strengthening of UNEP, the UN's Environmental Programme. Set against this, there is the reality that WHO and FAO are far from perfect, although part of this is historical baggage that any WEO would be free from.
But if the optimism is to be converted into achievement beyond Rio, then the following need to happen:
* Politics needs to take centre stage. This will appal some of the scientists who already think science is not getting a look in at Rio. But think about it: sustainable development involves tradeoffs between current and future generations, between countries with a lot of growth under their belts and those who are just getting a taste for it, between those who will be winners, losers or neutral from climate change, between different government departments and between national sovereignty and international common good. (As an example, the politics over where a new WEO would sit--France/Germany or Nairobi--and who would run it have threatened to kill off the idea.) All of this sounds like a lot of politics to understand and negotiate and we better bring it out into the open. My IDS colleagues Melissa Leach and Matthew Lockwood have written interesting pieces on this issue.
* More lateral thinking to understand multilateral inertia on the environment. What can we learn from other multilateral efforts? For example, can we learn from the 1987 Montreal Protocol which has led to a near closure of the ozone hole? A treaty was agreed because the evidence of the threat was relatively uncontested, the nature of the threat was tangible for most people--especially the richer countries (cancer), the chemical and industrial changes were relatively straightforward, and no great changes in lifestyle were required (unless you really have problems with roll on deodorants). Pretty much none of these conditions hold for global warming, so we know we have a big challenge on our hands, but can we learn from any of the ozone strategies? Can we learn from the trade failures (see an interesting article from Patrick Low at WTO, an IDS alumnus)? Or on financial regulation? Or on nuclear proliferation? The environment is not the only component of sustainability.
* To ensure the impact and value for money movements do not divert resources away from research for the kinds of institutional and governance interventions that will be required to incentivise an alignment of the planetary, MDG and pure national interest agendas. How would you justify , ex-ante, the development of new metrics based on value for money? How would you do an impact evaluation ex-post? Not impossible, but as Kahneman says in "Thinking Fast and Slow", when confronted with a really difficult question we tend to substitute an easier one for it.
Finally, we should not forget about people (see this nice piece from Camilla Toulmin). It will be a real challenge to remember human welfare when we start talking about energy targets, ocean targets, city targets and atmospheric targets.
The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was fuelled by the optimism of the post Cold War era. The 2012 Earth Summit has optimism tempered by the current global economic slowdown and the nationalism that fuels.
But if the Rio+20 meetings can:
* fire up national movements to nudge national consensus positions towards more responsible resource use
* put in place a practical but inclusive process for developing a realistic set of SGDs by 2016
* strengthen the UN to set and monitor norms, and
* generate some interesting ideas about financing
then maybe, just maybe, the Earth Summit of 2022 will be able to capture this consensus to deliver on definitive actions that make 2053 liveable and sustainable.
With hovercars (green, naturally).