To Rio and beyond: Africa seeks sustainable solutions

Paving the path to “the future we want”
From Africa Renewal: 
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Ensuring safe drinking water is a top priority for AfricaEnsuring safe drinking water is a top priority for Africa, since about 340 million people across the continent now lack access.
Photograph: Africa Media Online / Guy Stubbs

It is rare for a head of government to be greeted with applause at the very beginning of a speech before the United Nations General Assembly. But that’s what happened last September when Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan took the podium and signalled his intention to talk about “happiness.” The prime minister’s seeming change of subject from the discussion of global crises immediately provoked the audience’s curiosity.

After a brief pause for effect, Mr. Thinley complained that the annual ceremonial debate had become a mournful discussion of promises broken, endless conflicts, depleted resources, new diseases and threats of economic ruin. Instead, the Bhutanese leader preferred to talk about promoting happiness and well-being as a global objective, with minimum conditions for human survival and development.

It was Bhutan that convinced the UN to adopt a resolution on “Happiness: a holistic approach to development.” The resolution commits nations to create “the necessary political, social and economic conditions to enable the pursuit of happiness by citizens within a stable environment.”

The desire of the prime minister — and of humanity — for a better future will dominate the agenda in June when more than 50,000 people converge on the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro, for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Dubbed “Rio+20” — following a similar conference in the same city 20 years ago — the gathering will give participants a rare opportunity to agree on a new approach for achieving a prosperous and sustainable future.

But what exactly does “sustainable development” mean? The most widely accepted definition was crafted by the Brundtland Commission, which defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The report of the commission — named after its chairperson, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland — strongly influenced the debate at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The leaders at the then biggest-ever political gathering agreed to set up new global standards to stop nations from destroying irreplaceable natural resources and polluting the planet. They accepted that human behaviour had to change to prevent more divided societies, increased poverty and worsened environmental damage.

Footing the bill

As recently noted by The Economist magazine, that summit acknowledged “that environmental protection had to be part of the promotion of development rather than a check on it; that poverty eradication was a part of the process; and that while all the world’s nations had a responsibility to protect the environment, rich nations that had done more damage had a different sort of responsibility — one that developing countries thought should include a willingness to foot some of the bill for keeping development clean.”

What are the pressing issues for Africa at Rio+20? First, let’s start with poverty. Nowhere is it more acute than in Africa, where new challenges are giving rise to new diseases, worsening hunger, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and youth unemployment.

Climate change is another hot-button issue. UN studies show that Africa’s climate is warming faster than the global average, significantly compromising its development possibilities. The continent’s low capacity to adapt threatens food and water supplies, especially in the Sahel region and in central and southern Africa.

Green economies

Another pressing issue is the much-talked-about move to green economies, which would emit less carbon and use fewer resources. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the transition to green economies is being “driven by concerns about climate change, air pollution and energy security” and by a desire to create jobs in new industries. Africa fully supports green economies, but is concerned that wealthy nations might use the global transition as an excuse to impose trade restrictions or not to fulfil their commitments to poor countries.

An issue of particular interest to Africa is renewable energy. About 3 billion people on the planet — many of them in Africa — lack access to electricity. They are forced to use wood, coal or other unhealthy materials for cooking or heating homes, which expose them to harmful smoke.

Already some African governments have adopted “smart and forward-looking” energy policies. Kenya has an ambitious green-energy programme to increase the production of energy from geothermal, wind and bio-fuel power. Uganda is promoting an organic agriculture initiative that has attracted thousands of farmers and increased exports of organic products. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is pursuing a Sustainable Energy for All initiative and has asked the world to improve energy efficiencies and double the share of renewable energy in the energy mix by 2030.

More than a dozen issues are up for discussion in Rio, including food security, access to clean water, sustainable cities and protection of the environment. African governments have agreed to adopt common positions and to speak with one voice in Rio.

At a flower farm near Lake Naivasha, Kenya, a greenhouse is heated with geothermal power from underground steamAt a flower farm near Lake Naivasha, Kenya, a greenhouse is heated with geothermal power from underground steam.
Photograph: Redux / Hollandse Hoogte / Fred Hoogervorst

‘Economies are teetering’

The challenge in Rio will be to craft measures to ensure that the poor and vulnerable benefit from economic prosperity. To that end, a UN report released early this year has attracted global interest. The report, “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing,” is intended to chart a new path to sustainable growth. Unprecedented prosperity, it says, has put the planet under unprecedented stress. It warns that multiple crises across the world have made sustainable development more important than ever.

“Economies are teetering, ecosystems are under siege, and inequality — within and between countries — is soaring,” notes the report, which was compiled by the 22-member High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability appointed by the UN Secretary-General and headed by South African President Jacob Zuma and his Finnish counterpart, Tarja Halonen. The panel blames the current economic crisis on narrow speculative interests that have “superseded common interests, common responsibilities and common sense.”

Advocacy groups concur. In a discussion paper for Rio+20 entitled “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity,” Oxfam, a UK charity, adds its voice. The biggest cause of stress to the planet, says Oxfam, is excessive consumption by the wealthiest 10 per cent of the world’s population and the means by which companies produce what they buy.

While mounting concern over the state of the planet is reflected in the diagnoses contained in several reports produced by governments and civil society groups to stimulate debate in Rio, it cannot be denied that some areas have seen progress. According to a World Bank report released in March this year, sub-Saharan Africa succeeded in reducing extreme poverty from 55.7 per cent in 2002 to 47.5 per cent in 2008. At the global level, reports the UN, the damage to the ozone layer is declining, civil society participation in policy decisions is rising and corporations are more aware of their social responsibilities.

Additionally, technology has made information widely available and decision-making more transparent. There is now a better understanding of the ecosystem and the use of appropriate sustainable technologies.

Retooling the global economy

Yet this progress has been insufficient to significantly reduce poverty among the world’s population of 7 billion — expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. More than a billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day and many more are facing hunger. Also troubling is the amount of food going to waste: 222 million tonnes wasted annually by consumers in rich countries, a figure roughly equal to all the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2030 the demand for food will have risen by 50 per cent, for energy by 45 per cent and for water by 30 per cent, according to the report of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

To retool the global economy, preserve the environment and provide equal opportunities to all, the panel lists 56 recommendations. It proposes that prices of all goods and services reflect their true costs to people and the environment, and that new means of measuring development be created to go beyond the current measure, gross domestic product (GDP), which many economists believe has outlived its usefulness. It further calls for the setting of “Sustainable Development Goals” to take the place of the Millennium Development Goals, whose deadline expires in 2015.

For now, governments are busy finalizing the Rio+20 outcome document that they intend to provide a clear guide for action towards sustainable development. Under the theme of “the future we want,” the negotiations are focusing on global commitments to expand access to the essentials of life, such as water, food and energy. The negotiators face a difficult task in balancing the diverse views in more than 6,000 pages of contributions from UN member states, international organizations and other stakeholders.

The document is still a work in progress — some of its proposals are modest, others potentially ground-breaking; some will be modified or dropped, and new ones may be added before a final text is adopted. Still, it gives a reasonable picture of the issues likely to dominate in Rio. Africa, for example, wants to see the Nairobi-based UNEP transformed into a specialized agency with a bigger budget and a stronger mandate. It argues that the current global structures do not fully address the continent’s needs. Other proposals include adopting a set of sustainable development goals—akin to the MDGs.

At this point, even with many leaders signing up to go to Rio, it’s too soon to determine if Rio+20 will be remembered as a turning point or a lost opportunity. What is obvious, though, is that progress will require strong political will from global leaders. When that happens, the world will have taken a significant step towards bringing happiness to present and future generations.