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Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

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DSDS 2002: Keynote address 3, 10 February 2002

Prof. Gus Speth
Dean, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, USA

Success at Johannesburg

I must begin by praising TERI for its extraordinary accomplishments. Our school at Yale is very pleased to now have a formal partnership with TERI in its new degree–granting programs.

The phrase sustainable development has come to mean so many things – to carry so much baggage – that it is helpful when someone comes along and reduces it to the essentials. And for doing this, we must thank Ashok Khosla, who wrote the following words of wisdom:

"The simplest and most effective way to arrive at a sustainable future is to take care of the two primary preconditions of sustainable development:

  1. Meet the basic needs of all
  2. Protect the environment."

This is what Johannesburg should be all about in my view: protecting and regenerating the environment and eliminating large-scale poverty.

I want to begin today by reviewing some basic facts about poverty and environmental conditions in our world today. If we are going to make progress at Johannesburg, we have got to be honest about how deplorable these conditions are and, indeed, how deplorable our record is in addressing these conditions. We desperately need new sense of urgency.

Today, our information on global environmental trends is far more complete and sophisticated than at Stockholm, but it is not more reassuring.

    • Half the tropical forests are now gone, and non-OECD countries are projected to lose another 10 percent of their forests by 2020. For twenty years, we have lost an acre a second tropical forests. But actual clearing is only part of the problem. Eighty percent of Borneo’s forest cover is said to be allocated to commercial logging and plantation development.
    • The rate of extinction of birds and mammals today is estimated at 100-1000 times the natural background rate. Some experts believe that deforestation in the tropics may have already committed 10% of earth’s species to extinction.
    • Over the last 50 years, agricultural productivity in an area larger than India and China combined has been significantly degraded due to overuse or misuse.
    • We are now appropriating, wasting, or destroying about 40 percent of nature’s net photosynthetic product annually. We are consuming half the available fresh water. Most people will soon live in water stressed areas. We are fixing nitrogen at rates that exceed nature’s, and among the many consequences of the resulting overfertilization are fifty dead zones in the oceans.
    • In 1960 five percent of marine fisheries were either fished to capacity or overfished. Today 70 percent of marine fisheries are in this condition.
    • Half of the world’s mangroves and wetlands have been destroyed.
    • Hardest hit of all are freshwater ecosystems around the globe.

On top of these processes of biotic impoverishment comes the biggest threat of all, global climate change. Here, the US is the world’s biggest polluter, so it is relevant to note the degree to which the US is fouling its own nest. The best current estimate is that, absent major corrective action, global warming in the lifetimes of today’s children will likely make it impossible for about half the American land to sustain the types of plants and animals now on that land. In one projection, the maple-beech-birch forests of New England simply disappear. In another, much of the Southeast becomes a huge grassland savannah unable to support forests because it is too hot and dry. And, of course, the developing world will be the hardest hit.

We know what is driving these global trends. Environmental Impact is a product of the size of human populations, our affluence and consumption patterns, and the technology we deploy to meet our perceived needs. What this useful formulation can obscure, in addition to the impacts of poverty, is the vast and rapidly growing scale of the human enterprise. It took all of history for the world economy to grow to $6 trillion in 1950. Today, it grows by more than that every five or so years. Since 1960, gross world product has doubled, and then doubled again. The scale of human activity – economic production – is doubling every 20-25 years.

Today the world economy is poised to double and then double again in the lifetimes of today’s young people. We could not stop this growth if we wanted to, and, indeed, the world economy must grow if we are to meet the needs of half the world’s people who live on less than $2 per day. If only the next doubling could be for the benefit of the poor!

There are good reasons to believe that the next doubling of world economic activity will differ in some respects from the growth of the past. But there are equally good reasons to believe that the next doubling of the world economy could, from an environmental perspective, look a lot like the last. The OECD estimates that its members’ CO2 emissions will go up by 33 percent between 2000 and 2020. Motor vehicle use in OECD countries is expected to rise by 40 percent by 2020.

The implications of all this are very profound. We have entered the endgame in our historical relationship with the natural world. The current Nature Conservancy campaign has an appropriate name: they are seeking to protect The Last Great Places.

Humans dominate the planet today as never before. Whatever slack nature cut us is gone. We live in a full world. We impact hugely on the great life support systems of the planet. Nature as something independent of us is dead. We are in a radically new ethical position because we are at the controls.

How have we responded to the challenges? There are outstanding success stories but rarely are they scaled up to the point that they are commensurate with the problem. For the most part, we have analyzed, debated, discussed, negotiated these issues endlessly. Our generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. But on action, we have fallen far short. As a result, the same disturbing global trends highlighted 20 years ago by UNEP, Worldwatch and others are still very much with us, depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer being the notable exception.

The results of twenty years of international environmental negotiations are, if truth be told, pretty dismal. It is not that what has been agreed, for example, in the framework conventions on climate, desertification and biodiversity, is wrong or useless. But the problem is that these agreements, as we know, do not drive the actions that will be needed. And the same can be said for the extensive international discussions on world forests. In general, international environmental law is plagued by vague agreements, lax enforcement and underfunded support. We still have a long, long way to go to make these treaties effective. My own view is that we have overinvested in international environmental law to the neglect of other means. In any case, it is a frightening thought to consider that we have wasted much of the 20 years we could have spent preparing for action.

The Kyoto Protocol is an effort to step beyond the framework and reach a binding, action-forcing agreement on climate change. I congratulate those who negotiated it. I find it deplorable that the US is not joining.

Poverty must also be addressed with a new seriousness. This is so even if your only concern is the environment. An ongoing transition to a world without mass poverty, where the prospects for widely shared prosperity are good, is essential even from an environmental perspective. Over much of the world, poverty is an important destroyer of environment because the poor have no other choices than to lean too heavily on a declining resource base. Also, the only world that works is one in which the aspirations of poor people and poor nations for fairness and justice are being realized. Developing country views in international negotiations on environment are powerfully shaped by fear of high costs of environmental compliance, preoccupation with their own compelling economic and social challenges, and distrust of industrial country intentions and policies. Sustained and sustainable human development provides the only context in which there is enough confidence, trust, and hope to ground the difficult measures needed to realize environmental objectives.

There is good news to report on the human development front. Since 1960 life expectancy in developing regions has increased from 46 years to 62. Child death rates have fallen by more than half. Adult literacy rose from 48 percent in 1970 to 72 percent.

Yet the bleak realities of poverty remain. Among the 4.5 billion people who live in developing countries, three-fifths live in communities without basic sanitation; one-third is without safe drinking water; a quarter lacks adequate housing; and a fifth are under-nourished. Fully two billion people lace modern energy services. For the 1.2 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day, there can be no doubt that poverty is a brutal denial of their human rights.

On the policy front, an impressive consensus has emerged around objectives. The world community has come together with a concerted commitment to the goal of halving the incidence of absolute poverty by 2015. This goal – and related goals in health and education – were endorsed by all governments in the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations. Eliminating large-scale poverty is not a crazy dream. It could be accomplished in the lifetimes of today’s young people.

These combined challenges of environment and poverty underscore the importance and the urgency of the Johannesburg Summit. Johannesburg is the opportunity to move beyond talk to action. Johannesburg is the opportunity to reignite public concern before it is too late. Johannesburg is our chance to get it right, this time - to correct the mistakes we have made in the past in our efforts to address these issues. We need major success at Johannesburg. We need to do a lot better than merely avoiding a failed summit

So how should we measure success?

As Maurice Strong, Jan Pronk, and others have indicated, Johannesburg will succeed if agreements are reached on specific plans of action to which governments are unambiguously committed, with targets and timetables and commitments to funding. Nothing else will close the huge credibility and accountability gaps that have opened since Rio. Given the shortness of time, these initiatives must build on past progress. The real agenda for which action is expected must be well focused and not diffuse, vague or overly broad.

There are many areas where I believe we can still develop concrete, actionable initiatives. In each area there are communities of experts who could be tapped to develop action plans. I suspect they are eager to be called upon.

1. A poverty initiative. Here we need to provide the funding and other support to realize the Millennium Development Goals, including the overall goal of halving world poverty by 2015.

The countries that have reduced poverty greatly have been studied. We know what it takes. I want to spend a little time on this. I wish to suggest a progression in terms of the means needed to realize the goal of halving world poverty by 2015. I will start at what I think of as a very na´ve and incomplete strategy and move towards a full, more integrated, and successful strategy.

At the na´ve end of the spectrum, one just stresses economic growth as the solution. We do indeed have to stress economic growth and all the things that are necessary to achieve high levels of economic growth. These things include, inter alia, peace, the rule of law, and a macroeconomic framework conducive to encourage savings and investments.

Growth alone will never suffice. Yet most people in the advanced industrial states believe that it will.

The next step is to add social safety nets. Unfortunately, there are still people who think that growth plus social safety nets are an adequate strategy against poverty. I think we would have to put most US policymakers in this camp.

The next level of sophistication would add infrastructure – physical infrastructure – reaching to the poor, e.g. farm to market roads.

The fourth level would add very large investments in basic social services for the poor – in health, in education, particularly for girls, and in family planning services.

The fifth level would add a concerted effort on sustainable livelihoods for the poor, empowering the poor with access to productive assets, such as credit, land, training and upgrading skills, appropriate technology, and energy services. This empowerment must respect the traditional knowledge of the poor and build on existing social capital.

The sixth level would add to this agenda issues of the environmental resource base on which the poor depend. It is estimated that fully half of the world’s jobs depend on fisheries, forests, and small-scale agriculture. Dr. Pachauri and TERI have properly stressed the huge returns to investments in environmental regeneration and restoration.

The final level is the social and political empowerment of the poor – not just the economic empowerment of productive assets, but access of the poor, particularly women, to political and social assets.

If one works up the scale of increasing sophistication, one finally gets to the proper development model. It includes all these elements.

Now, it is clear, when one reflects on these points, that a successful national anti-poverty strategy is not going to fall into place accidentally or easily. It must be the product of conscious political decisions taken at the highest levels, backed by substantial resources, and pursued with commitment for a sustained period. To mount a successful national strategy to reduce poverty dramatically, a country must make that strategy one of its very highest priorities and keep it there. And the international community must create the external environment, for example regarding trade and aid, that helps national strategies succeed.

2. A financing for development initiative. Success in the "financing for development" process is essential both because developing countries need external finance to realize sustainable development and also because new and additional concessional assistance (ODA) is necessary to achieve North-South cooperation on global-scale environmental concerns. The United Kingdom and others have proposed that ODA be increased by $50 billion, and this initiative should be pursued through the Johannesburg process if not fully realized at the Monterrey Summit. Also, the work on new and innovative ways to generate development and environmental funding from public and private sources should be used in the preparation for Johannesburg. One interesting idea is Maritta Koch-Weser’s proposal for a Millennium Fund created through the decisions of millions of citizens around the world to authorize very tiny surcharges on a myriad of routine expenditures which are booked electronically.

3. A climate and energy initiative. Following the agreements reached in Marrakech to finalize the procedures and institutions needed to make the Kyoto Protocol fully operational, the WSSD should be used to spur ratification of the Protocol. We also need immediately to supplement Kyoto with commitments to hasten the energy transition away from fossil fuels. We need commitments to end energy subsidies and adopt renewable technologies. The recent report on WSSD by the German Advisory Council on Global Change has some excellent suggestions.

4. A desertification initiative. This huge problem was worth an international convention, but progress under it has been shortchanged and totally inadequate. A plan of action to give resources and impact to the convention should be developed and agreed to at WSSD.

5. A biodiversity and forests initiative. Similar to desertification, the Biodiversity Convention signed at Rio has thus far been ineffective in protecting biodiversity and the tropical forests that are home to two-thirds of the world’s species of plants and animals. And, again like desertification, a plan must be developed and agreed to that would put real force into the Biodiversity Convention. We also need to commit to country-specific international (South-North) compacts to stem deforestation and protect threatened ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots.

6. A global water compact initiative. A group should develop an initiative that would give life to the human right to safe drinking water.

7. A globalization and sustainable development initiative. Clearly globalization and global justice must be addressed. A fundamental problem is that integration of the world economy is far outpacing the development of an international politics and political system that could protect the weak and the environment and generally put a human face on globalization. New fora and institutional arrangements are needed to provide a platform for the development of norms and rules of the road that can guide the globalization process.

8. A global environment governance initiative. The institutions put in place after Stockholm and Rio, principally UNEP and CSD, are woefully inadequate. The goal at WSSD should be to take a number of key institution-strengthening steps while laying the groundwork for later moving to a Global Environmental Organization, the long term merits of which are largely beyond debate.

9. A market and sustainability initiative. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has just issued a breakthrough report on "Achieving Sustainability Through the Market." A group, including the WBCSD, should be asked to develop an action agenda to carry forward the recommendations in this report. Part of this effort would be focused on the elimination of perverse subsidies and incorporating environmental costs into prices. Another part would focus on science and technology for development.

10. An information, accountability and transparency initiative. This effort would prepare an initiative in the areas of reporting and performance measurement, indicators, benchmarking, data-driven policymaking, citizen access to information, transparent pledge and review, dissemination of information on best practices and technologies, and a new IT deal for internet access.

I do not believe it is too late to develop actionable initiatives in these and other areas. But it is almost too late. We should invest in this effort with urgency in the weeks and months immediately ahead.

Thank you.