DAC Chair Atwood | Credit: OECD - Collage: GMedia - Photo: 2012

‘The Global Challenge is Already Upon Us’

By J. Brian Atwood*
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

PARIS (IDN | OECD) – The 20th century American environmentalist John Muir said, “Everything is connected to everything else”. Yet while this is true in the natural world, it is sadly still not true in the policy world, which is subject to a diversity of views, objectives and competing agendas – particularly when it comes to environmental issues. If we are to achieve the common goal of “sustainable development”, more policy convergence is essential.

This year’s Development Co-operation Report (DCR) explores the ideas and orientations of leaders, thinkers and pioneers in diverse public policy areas and disciplines who are contributing to connecting everything to everything else in this sphere as well.

Creating the political interest and will to act comprehensively in the broad sustainable development arena is no easy task, as we were reminded once again at the 2012 Rio +20 Conference. Sustainable development has many elements and each discipline that engages on the issue tends to focus less on the whole than on its relative parts. We are beginning to see more integration, but disciplinary blinders still make communication and the sharing of concepts difficult. Add to this, cultural differences and the political and ideological polarisation that can divide groupings of countries, and one begins to comprehend the magnitude of the challenge we face.

The scale and scope of future natural resource degradation and scarcity – compared to growing demand for these resources – will challenge development and future security. This is where science and the environment confront our development models. The question before us is whether we will work together to find solutions, or continue to act in silos.

While there have been positive movements in recent times, the numerous disciplines involved have not traditionally spoken the same language. I saw this several years ago when, as Dean of the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, I hosted a conference on climate change and development. R.K. Pachauri, representing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winning organisation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and a contributor to last year’s DCR), and former UNDP Administrator Gus Speth were both keynote speakers. They joined development professionals and scientists in a novel, thought-provoking dialogue that sought to view the climate issue through the eyes of development and vice versa.

We produced a report that was much in demand at the time because of its uniqueness in attempting to bridge the disciplines. Several years later, we were still trying to do the same after the OECD released a report called Towards Green Growth. This report addresses mainly the situation of developed and emerging countries and has been very useful in this context. Yet this report did not adequately consider the perspective of developing nations, whose perceived need for growth far exceeds their concerns about energy use and climate change. To close this gap, the OECD is working on a new report that takes account of developing country partners’ specific situations and has launched a consultative process on the draft report to ensure that their perspectives and realities are embedded in its analytical and policy work on green growth.

This DCR looks at practical ways and means the members of the DAC and our partners have found of closing many of these gaps. It brings together authors from the fields of environment, science, business, international finance and various development sectors that play a role in ensuring environmental sustainability, promoting inclusiveness and fostering green growth. Their experience suggests many valuable lessons.


The authors explore the use of official development assistance (ODA) in mitigating environmental degradation, natural resource scarcity and greenhouse gas emissions and in helping the poor to adapt and become more resilient to climate change. They also deal with relevant financing issues – notably the need to use the pool of ODA resources currently available to create partnerships and leverage other sources of finance, but also, as stressed at the Rio +20 Conference, the continuing importance of reaching our longstanding ODA commitments. The polemic surrounding the question of how we find the means to support the solutions we require is yet another deterrent to political action.

The demands of a growing population for energy, food and water, and the need to preserve these life-giving (and growth-inducing) commodities will surely increase tensions between industrialised and poor countries, but also among poor countries. Environmentalists and development professionals alike see unsustainable growth as part of the problem.

Yet developing nations will always – understandably – place the emphasis on growth. They argue that developed countries were free to exploit resources and pursue their development strategies without heed for scarcity and sustainability and that they have already created the wealth to support a broad middle-class. Why should developing countries not be free to use their natural resources for expanding the economies of their countries? How, then, do we refocus the debate on the global commons and other shared resources that require collective – if differentiated – action?

One answer lies in new ways of defining and measuring growth – national leaders need to look beyond GDP as the only indicator of progress – agreeing on new approaches to value scarce resources. Policies should also be adjusted and reinforced, and market mechanisms deployed to create the right incentives for sustainable behavior at all levels.

To reinforce trust among countries and exercise peer influence, a transparent and strategic process of defining sustainable development goals must be championed at the highest level, as proposed by the UN Secretary-General. When intergovernmental processes falter, voluntary coalitions and partnerships must forge ahead, prodded by peer pressure and accountability mechanisms.

The cover of this publication represents an effort to portray its message; several puzzle pieces are beginning to converge, but the circle remains incomplete. What is the missing piece? How can we create the link that will cause these disparate parts to come together around a common understanding of “sustainable development”?

Galvanise political will

We need global leadership to galvanise political will to protect and manage our global commons while recognising the vital role that inclusive and sustainable growth and poverty reduction play in the equation. We need Heads of State and ministers across governments to champion long-term national green strategies and influence their neighbors and peers around the world. This DCR offers several examples of such leadership.

People living in low-income nations will give first priority to their ability to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Unless they are an island or coastal state, their governments are more likely to argue that growth is more important than reducing carbon emissions or protecting the environment. And yet, there are real dangers to ignoring the consequences, as the following observations attest:

● Demand for natural resources has doubled since 1966, and the world is currently using the equivalent of 1.5 times the resources needed to support global activities on a sustainable basis.

● In the 20 years since the initial United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, global forest cover has decreased by 3 million square kilometres – an area the size of India. All told, roughly a quarter of the forest lost over the past 10 000 years has been destroyed in the past 30 years.

● About one-third of global freshwater biodiversity has already been lost, and further loss is projected to 2050.

● Biodiversity in general declined globally by around 30% between 1970 and 2008 and by 60% in the tropics.

● Pollution, mostly water and air pollution, is responsible today for almost 10% of the deaths of people living in low-income and middle-income countries.

● Agriculture uses about 70% of water worldwide, but an estimated 60% of irrigation waterstill never reaches crops.

● Asia’s high economic growth in recent decades has meant that its share in global carbon emissions jumped from 25% in 1990 to 44% in 2010.

The global challenge is already upon us, and we need solutions that major stakeholders can accept. This will call for a judicious balancing of priorities and incentives. For example, over the period of one year, two hectares of land in Rwanda could provide enough food for two average Rwandan families – or, alternatively, it could sequester the emissions of one European family-sized car. Where are the incentives for the Rwandan family to maintain the forest on their land if the choice that they face is between survival and sustaining the global environment? Protection of the global environment cannot threaten local livelihoods – solutions must be found where the two can co-exist.

Such solutions must include addressing issues of competing demands on limited financial resources. In a first-of-its-kind report issued early this year, the DAC announced that in 2010 its members had expended some USD 22 billion – a high-end estimate – on climate change-related activities. Possibly as much as USD 9 billion of this was spent on adaptation (versus mitigation), an amount that critics consider insufficient in the face of mounting needs. There are also charges that ODA expenditures on climate change are “crowding out” resources that would otherwise be devoted to the social-sector goals of the MDGs.

Yet, the consequences of doing nothing to combat the effects of climate change – and environmental degradation, more generally – would undermine development progress and threaten security. So we do not have an option to ignore environmental challenges. Ultimately, they will slow or hinder growth – it is simply a question of time. Do we ignore long-term consequences for what might be shorter-term gains?

The OECD’s Environmental Outlook projections show that acting now to mitigate climate change and manage natural resources is not only environmentally rational, it is also economically sound. Investing in reducing air pollution in emerging economies could yield benefits that outweigh costs by as much as 10 to 1. Investing in safe water and sanitation in developing countries can yield benefit-to-cost ratios as high as 7 to 1.

*J. Brian Atwood chairs the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD. This Viewpoint comprises excerpts from an editorial in the OECD’s Development Co-operation Report 2012 and is being republished with a view to drawing attention to this important publication. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 20, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image: DAC Chair Atwood | Credit: OECD – Collage: GMedia

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