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Sustainable development in an unequal world

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“Every country needs to contribute, to save both its own future and our common, global future.” Climate campaigner Marvin Nala welcomes the recent UN report placing sustainability at the centre of the post-2015 development framework, examining what this means for China and calling for greater clarity on who should be financing this effort.

The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has prioritised the threat of climate change and suggests a single sustainable development agenda after 2015, according to its final report released two weeks ago.

Brought together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the 27-member Panel invited presidents, ministers and leading experts with different country backgrounds to give recommendations on the development agenda beyond 2015, when the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to expire. Following an extensive consultation process with different civil groups in all regions, the Panel put forward some bold suggestions – although it held back on some thorny but more practical issues.

Can we improve the ‘grow now, clean later’ approach?

“China’s economic miracle over the past 20 years is at the cost of the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and unchecked pollution.”

By 2030, Mother Earth is going to witness 8 billion people on this hot and crowded planet. How will we secure food, water and energy, while enhancing quality of life for all? I was glad to see that the Panel’s report addresses this fundamental question, going beyond the MDGs’ focus on poverty eradication. It urges countries to transform patterns of consumption and production and, at the same time, to halt the alarming pace of environmental degradation.

This is also the top priority for China, in my mind. Because I can't see a future where China’s 300 million middle-income citizens – a number expected to double by 2030 – all insist on following the luxurious lifestyle that some Westerners enjoy.

China’s economic miracle over the past 20 years is at the cost of the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and unchecked pollution. China's past development path is definitely unsustainable. None of the top leadership, from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, could totally dismiss environmental destruction – all seek a transformation of the economic model. However, with economic growth as the top priority, China never managed to find an alternative to the “grow now, clean later” (先污染,后治理) model.

While regulations are now being tightened in China’s coastal regions, high polluting and resource-intensive industries are just moving further inland under the cover of the “Western Development Campaign”. Ambitious industry expansion programmes, like the 16 large-scale coal power bases, are seriously aggravating drought and endangering vulnerable local eco-systems.

Shengli open-cast coal mine in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia

Shengli open-cast coal mine in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, China. Photo: Lu Guang | Greenpeace

So is China going to witness a sustainable growth model in the next twenty years? The World Bank’s ‘China 2030’ report offers a comprehensive map toward the reforms that are needed; I hope that policy makers will heed it.

Sustainability at the core of the new development agenda

Significantly, the report highlights the importance of developing a single, universal post-2015 agenda. Currently development and environment issues are often treated separately, with separate mandates, finance and tracking systems. A single agenda can help address the overlap and confusion when it comes to developing specific programmes and projects on the ground.

The Panel’s report may also help to keep climate change negotiations on track. Right now, greenhouse gases have reached historically and dangerously high levels. As well as recognising the need for governments to build climate change adaptation into their national and regional strategies, the report calls for strong action to mitigate emissions and limit global warming to 2°C. Since 2015 marks the deadline for governments to negotiate a new treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions, this proposal increases the urgency for countries to reach a consensus by the time of the next big climate change summit in Paris that year.

How will we finance sustainable development?

The Panel members seem to hold a divergence of opinion on financial support. Developing countries will need substantial external funding if we seriously demand structural changes and new solutions. However, rich countries keep preaching market methods for technology transfer and diffusion, while failing to propose concrete plans to ensure the predictability of financial flows to help poor countries make such a dramatic change happen.

For instance, countries saw broken promises in the battle against climate change. At the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, developed countries promised to ‘mobilise’ USD 30 billion from 2010-2012 and USD 100 billion per year by 2020 from new and additional sources. But analysis shows that during 2010-2012, developed countries counted in loans and export credits, at the same time covering old money as new contributions. Meanwhile, financial support after 2012 is totally out of sight.

Such disputes seriously discouraged developing countries and gave rise to conspiracy theory-style doubts. In China, I have often heard the theory that Western countries are pushing for environmental standards to deliberately constrain China from replacing them in the economic ranks.

Unfortunately, the High-Level Panel hasn’t reassured me on this issue. Some parts of their report criticise developed countries for failing to fulfill their existing financial commitments, i.e 0.7 per cent of gross national product as official development assistance (ODA). However, other sections try to distract our attention from developed countries and repeatedly emphasise the potential of domestic revenue and private sector capital. This is not an answer I can trust; and neither can most developing countries.

Sharing the effort

Global governance has entered into a new and challenging era. Every country needs to contribute, to save both its own future and our common, global future. But the report has not helped me to imagine how countries will share this effort equitably.

“I believe we urgently need answers if we are going to see bold actions and build trust.”

What does justice mean for poorer populations and the young generation? What if a country has a substantial number of people struggling for a living while a few others become extremely wealthy? When it comes to emission mitigation and financial compensation, how bold are the big polluters prepared to be to make a fair deal for the other countries? Is it fair if technologically advanced countries urge others to take actions that would leave them unable to afford those same technologies?

I believe we urgently need answers if we are going to see bold actions and build trust. The report doesn’t try to provide all these answers. But I hope to see more creative and practical ideas, as well as political will at the highest levels, to envisage a sustainable world built on equitable, shared efforts.

Marvin Nala is a Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia. He is also one of the four 'Youngers' who participated in our Elders+Youngers online debates in the lead up the Rio+20 summit last year.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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