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Filed under: Climate change Development Development 2.0 Health

As the last region to hold its Preparatory Meeting for the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Commission for Europe (UNECE) region is a bit of a test case for the global debate since it includes low, medium, and high-income countries. For the first two days of December, 350 representatives of governments, academic experts, United Nations, civil society and business organizations exchanged their proposals for what will come out of the meeting in Rio de Janeiro. (See: speech of UNDP regional deputy director Jens Wandel – well worth the read.)

What is at stake?

This regional debate touches the heart of the development conundrum. Daniel Ziegerer of Switzerland described the issue as the intersection between economic development, social justice and environmental protection. We at UNDP asked the question: is fossil fuel driven growth, which leaves a large gap between rich and poor, human development? Joachim Spangenberg put it this way: how do we look at two key questions: How do you transform economic advancement into something about humans rather than profit? And how do we imagine economic growth within the framework of actual planetary constraints?

Of course, this discussion comes in a context of global economic tensions, high unemployment, and cuts in aid budgets. Can countries afford to cut carbon emissions right now? How much would this u-turn cost in terms of jobs? Peter Poschen of the International Labour Organization (ILO) gave the conference some interesting figures: within the EU 15 economic sectors generate 90 percent of carbon emissions, but only 12 percent of employment. Maybe our assumptions that emitting carbon and creating jobs necessarily go together is incorrect. In the big picture, the United Nations and others argue that this region needs to move towards a full scale transformation to sustainable and inclusive development. One thing is clear from this meeting: it is increasingly understood that a green economy is only part of this broader transformation, given the need to correct social injustices and to address the massive health impact of pollution and inequality.

What’s on the table?

Practically, what can be done about all of this? There are a few proposals floating around the global debate which have taken hold in the region. The first is the idea of a green economy roadmap, backed by the EU and others in Europe. The idea is to get a framework in the form of a 20-year vision with targets and a tool box for countries to work with, as suits their national context. Another idea, coming from Columbia and Guatemala, is for sustainable development goals to be agreed upon, building on the Millennium Development Goals which set targets to reach by 2015. Such sustainable development goals need to be universal, not only given the nature of the problem but also the need for data comparability. In this regard, Armenia made a practical suggestion for the region to consider: why not group countries by their Human Development Indexes, and set goals and measurements for groups of countries?

Mexico’s proposal that Rio should advance a framework convention for corporate social responsibility was discussed in side events, where representatives of the region’s business community focused on what business can do to report on their impact on sustainable development, and how governments can set the right enabling environment.

Also on the table is the big question of energy. 2012 is the year of sustainable energy for all. This initiative puts three questions on the table: access to modern energy services for those who don’t have it, increasing energy efficiency, and increasing the portion of renewables to satisfy our energy needs. All three questions are relevant for the UNECE region. While progress is underway primarily in the EU on renewable energy, the UNECE region remains the least energy efficient in the world. One euro of GDP in Europe takes more energy to produce than any other part of the world. Last but not least: access remains an issue even in this region: 3 million people lack access to reliable electricity services in transition on OECD countries.

As we get closer to Rio, advocates of these proposals need to keep human beings at the center of the discussion. Two areas in particular need more deliberate emphasis: environmental health, and inequality. 15-20 percent of European deaths are caused by water and air pollution. Looking eastward, we see that transition countries in the region have experienced the highest rise in inequality in the world in the last 20 years. Health and inequality are part of the conceptual debate, but they are not emerging in the practical proposals.

So a challenge for the Eurasian blogosphere: let’s integrate humans, their health, jobs and equity into the proposals on the table at Rio.