The high-level Segment of the 19th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) began on May 11, 2011, at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations. The chairperson Mr. László Borbély, the Minister of Environment and Forests of Romania, opened the meeting by welcoming the ministers from the various countries who have come to conclude negotiations on the themes of the conference. These include transport, chemical, waste management, mining and the ten-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Reflecting on the past 10 days he said that, while the negotiations have been intense, they have been marked by a high degree of understanding and co-operation. Still he noted that there was a lot of work to be done on the Ten-Year Framework on Sustainable and Production Patterns, as well as on Linkages, Crosscutting Issues and Means of Implementation. When history looks back at CSD 19, he believed that everyone involved would wish that it would be remembered as “a forward-looking and action-oriented session.” In his opinion these negotiations have the potential to “reinvigorate international cooperation and be remembered by its productive and candid discussions leading to an agreement on concrete deliverables.”
The next speaker was the economist Jeffrey D. Sachs. He is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. From 2002 to 2006, he was Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-Genera Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, (the internationally agreed goals to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by the year 2015).
He is widely considered to be one of the leading thinkers on the three pillars of sustainable development – ecological constraints, social equity and an economy which does not damage the natural world. For more than 20 years Professor Sachs has been in the forefront of the challenges of economic development, poverty alleviation, and environmental sustainability. His lecture on Wednesday morning was timely, powerful and frightening. For him there are no more if’s and buts about whether human beings are living within the biological limits of the planet. He said bluntly that we have already gone beyond the ‘tipping point’ in our ‘uses’ of global resources. We now need one-and- a-half planets to meet our growing needs and cope with human generated pollution. He listed some of the natural disasters of the past 12 months, the devastating floods in Pakistan and Queensland, and droughts in China and elsewhere. Capping all of these is the challenge of dealing with climate change and the increasing acidification of the oceans. The cost of food across the world is high. In many places it is simply prohibitive for poor people who lack land on which to grow food, or a decent job to provide them with the income to buy food.
He warned that, unless we effectively tackle the juggernaut which is already almost upon us, everyone will ultimately be affected. Naturally, the poor and the middle class will be the first to bear the brunt of what is coming. He said that the rich may think that they can buy their way out of the worst impacts of the disaster. He believes they are mistaken. As the powerful of the world scrambles for resources, the tensions and possible wars that this may give rise to will affect everyone, sooner rather than later.
He bemoaned the fact that the only political entity on the planet that seemed in any way to be taking this crisis seriously is the European Union. And Europe is still a relatively small player on the global economic and ecological stage. He was particularly scathing about the lack of leadership from the US, especially the Congress. He blamed the oil lobby for this lack of engagement with the current ecological and social realities among US Congressmen, Congresswomen and Senators. Corporate lobbyists have massive political power and dictate much of what goes on in Washington. As one would expect from an economist, he called for massive investment in technology, especially research and development in the area of energy and food. He felt that regional centre, where new ways of addressing the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and ecological, would be nurtured – were very important.
One of the only ways to circumvent the power of corporate lobbyists was to set up a new global knowledge network. But, unlike many economists, at least three times in his presentation, he called for a new global ethic. The tragedy is that many of institutions which promote the moral life, such as religions, are not hearing this message. They are still obsessed with issues that have little to do with the central issues of our times.
At about 12 pm, Mr. Phil Hogan, T.D., the Irish Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government addressed the Assembly. “I recognize my responsibility to contribute to the themes of this Commission on Sustainable Development in an integrated way, and to chart a new path towards a more sustainable lifestyle. This is critical if we are to protect our planet for future generations.” He stated that, “the focus on the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Production and Consumption offers the opportunity to create a common vision and an action-based approach on the sustainable use of natural resources.”
He called attention to the “Resource-efficient Europe” flagship under the EU 2020 Strategy. These include:
- Decoupling economic growth from the use of resources,
- Support the shift towards a low carbon economy,
- Increase the use of renewable energy sources,
- Modernize our transport sector, and
- Promote energy efficiency.
He told the assembly that, in Ireland we are active on all of these agendas. For example, “we are working towards a significant increase in renewable energy and the achievement of 20 percent energy efficiency savings by 2020.” On waste management he said that, “a more progressive approach sees waste as a resource with economic value (which) can create jobs, drive innovation and reduce pollution.”
He argued that, “the global economic crises (has provided) us with a stark wake-up call. A call that emphasizes how the old ‘business-as-usual” approaches that created the crisis simply will not do, if we want to achieve sustainable growth while protecting the environment. We simply cannot remain on our present unsustainable path.”
He reiterated that Ireland “is strongly committed to meeting the UN target of spending 0.7 percent of GNP on Oversee Development Aid (ODA) by 2015. Ireland is also working closely with other donor countries and ‘developing’ country partners to reach the MDGs agreed (goals) by the international community at the United Nations in 2000.”