-The Economic Times
The largest United Nations conference in history is happening now in Brazil. Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, is assembling over 50,000 people and more than 130 heads of state and government. Beyond the politicalcommitments world leaders are promising to make by the end of the summit, how can Rio+20 help us promote actual changes in policymaking towards socio-environmental synergies?
The two main themes of Rio+20 - the green economy in the context of poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development - can help us mobilise civil society in building a new, inclusive development agenda that recognises the differentiated responsibilities and capacities of not only countries and multilateral organisations, but also those of individuals, enterprises, grassroots movements, the media, as well as rich and poor people.
Building civil society support for a global change agenda will require immediate policy efforts that prioritise inequality reduction. The cost of inequality is clear when one is confronted with the fact that the average income of the world's richest 5% is 165 times higher than the poorest 5%. In a world where the richest 5% earn in 48 hours as much as the poorest in a year, the need to reconcile growth with equity is clearly evident.
In this context of accentuated global inequality, promoting social equity without harming the environment requires the combination of strong political will and vigorous civil society mobilisation as a means of fostering accountability and participation in policymaking. With no productive inclusion and employment opportunities for the poor and vulnerable, mounting scepticism and the bitter aftertaste of the global financial/economic crises will hamper effective changes in discourse and policy.
Recognising the interdependence of the 'social' and the 'inclusive' in the environmental agenda is at the core of sustainable and sustained development for the current and future generations living on this planet.
Escalating crises highlight the dynamic nature of three pillars of sustainable development - particularly the extent to which societal well-being and nature are intertwined and interconnected. Evidence of cyclical disequilibrium - economic, social and environmental systems out of sync - reinforces the need for new models of development and resilience. Policies that integrate the social and environmental aspects of development will be pivotal in this context. We can neither postpone this reality nor secure a mortgage that future generations will have to pay. Policy failures from such short-sightedness have already been costly - in the lives of people and in the economies of the North and the South.
The foundations of a consensus around sustainable development goals would represent a significant contribution of Rio+20 for the future. Such goals must not focus only on environmental targets, they must address critical links between human beings and nature so as to guarantee (i) improved access to employment for marginalised groups as we 'green' the economy, (ii) reduced social impact of environmental crises, (iii) reduced differences between urban and rural people in access to basic services, particularly water, energy and sanitation, and (iv) that more renewable energy does not come at the expense of either the availability of and access to food.
There is no doubt that there is a sense of urgency at Rio+20. Twenty years ago, we looked into the future and became worried and concerned about the possibilities of that future. We asked ourselves what we could do to make sure future children did not receive a bill they could even imagine how they could pay. Now, some of those children are adults in Rio+20 asking the same questions and why did we not do more. Today, I heard a young lady ask the latter question in a Rio+20 side event. We have to be able to answer. The task for the next few days and weeks is, therefore, less about restating the priority of sustainable development and more to agree on how we will act like as if it is a priority, and how soon.
A toolbox of options and a menu of varied experiences already exist in global thinking and practice, some of which are included in a special issue of our Poverty in Focus magazine to be launched today in Rio de Janeiro.
Defining a right 'mix' of choices and making these tools available and adaptable to all needs to start right after Rio+20 ends. How? With you, me, our families and our friends. Let us not only ask our leaders to make the hard choices. To turn this ship around, as a colleague Gaia Paradiso has described it, will take the entire crew as well as the passengers. We cannot just leave it to the captain(s) alone.
Our commitment should be to continue to work to find innovations and bring them to light, ones that build social capital and promote innovation, particularly engaging our youth in the dialogue and the solutions. We also want to be better at recycling, reusing and being more carbon-neutral. We all need to do better. How will you start?
(The author is policy specialist and team leader for rural and sustainable development at the UNDP Brasilia-based International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth)