Climate change, sustainable development and security are coming together, and Asia must drive the post-2015 global agenda and global goals

Redistribution has been kept out of the agenda of the United Nations, and a new global agenda,  goals and rules to share responsibility and prosperity can lead to a new world 

Mukul Sanwal[1]

There is an ongoing debate within the United Nations whether a sustainable development and a security lens will be needed for dealing with climate change, the most important challenge of our times. The new High level Political Forum on Sustainable Development recently established in the United Nations (A/67/L.72 dated 27 June 2013) to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development will review progress of all major conferences and result in a “negotiated ministerial declaration”, blurring the distinction with arrangements like the climate treaty. A recent article in ‘Nature’ (21 March) argues for sustainable development goals that consider both people and planet. Will the goals now being negotiated in the United Nations General Assembly for the post- 2015 global agenda also deal with climate change along with development?

Responding to emerging challenges, scientific consensus  and geopolitical shifts, the G8, in their communiqué of 18 June, have recognised climate change and sustainable development as “mutually reinforcing”, while also describing climate change as a security threat. Asia has yet to formulate a comprehensive response to the new global agenda developing in the three parallel negotiations - in the Climate Convention, General Assembly and the Security Council - that will take place between now and 2015. A strategic view is important because the perspectives of the different countries have political rather than scientific or legal dimensions.

Current strategic thinking focuses on the size of the military and the strength of the economy as determinants of the influence countries exert in world affairs, ignoring the role of global rules in maintaining that influence. The design of new global goals provides an opportunity for countries with a bold vision to build a coalition and ensure that the new order serves their interests.  The world is at such a defining moment, much like at the end of World War II when the United States established the multilateral system, putting economic concerns under the Bretton Woods Institutions with ‘one dollar one vote’ and keeping political concerns in the Security Council where the victors had a veto, while humanitarian concerns went to the United Nations with its ‘one country one vote’. The leverage that went with that arrangement is now unravelling - China’s aid to Africa exceeds the amount provided by the World Bank. It has also become clear that in a multi-polar world the new global challenges can no longer be dealt with in a fragmented system.

The emerging agenda

The climate treaty, negotiated in Rio 1992, is an experiment in bringing together environment and development to reconcile a continually growing global economy within a finite global ecosystem. However, international environmental law has not been able to resolve how to accommodate the rising living standards of all those who have so far been excluded from the benefits of globalization through burden sharing.  Post Rio 2012, development and environment are coming together around global sustainable development goals to shape patterns, trends and drivers of global change. The new rules for the post-2020 climate regime are also focusing on aggregate emissions pathways rather than percentage reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases. The distinction between climate change, development and sustainable development is blurring.

The political problem is that the billion richest accounts for over 70 percent of world consumption with the poorest billion accounting for only 1 percent of natural resource use, and how the ecological limits are approached depends on lifestyles and associated consumption. These in turn depend on what is used, and how and what is regarded as essential for human wellbeing, and the G8 is reluctant to even put these trends on the global agenda. 

The G8 see the collective response in terms of new rules for intervention to meet environmental risks rather than for societal and technological transformations. A redefinition of national security is being pushed by raising the question whether traditional roles of national states and international agreements will prove adequate for dealing with the adverse effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier”. The deliberations in the Security Council mirror those in the other forum and have ignored the complex interactions between human activities, ecological limits and international cooperation.

New global goals

The policy issue for China and India is whether to continue with the comfortable but fraying principle of  environmental law, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ agreed in 1992, even as the deliberation shifts to other forums, or acknowledge the significance of the different concerns coming together around human wellbeing and take  a more forward looking approach, for example, based on new research like the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risk Report, 2013, stating that severe income disparity is a greater disruptive risk by likelihood and impact than climate change.

By shifting the global agenda from environmental risk as the overriding concern to seeking human wellbeing within ecological limits, these countries can shape the new global goals to focus on the gaps in the Millennium Development Goals, because eradicating poverty has been central to the agenda of the United Nations since it was established in 1948.

This new global vision will have five key elements.

First, the reduction in poverty in recent decades has been overwhelmingly dependent on the rapid growth in China, which alone accounts for three-fourths of the global reduction and did not adopt a MDG focused policy. A review of past trends suggests that two-thirds of poverty reduction depends on growth and one-third on equality; poverty will be eradicated only when all have assured access to affordable services, like energy, food, housing, transport, education, health and employment. A consensus is needed to define global goals around standards of living that ensure exercise of universal rights and economic opportunities, otherwise we will fool ourselves into thinking, once again, and that poverty is history.

Second, the key global concern should be modifying longer term trends in production and consumption patterns to determine how standards of living can be raised within ecological limits. As developing countries shift to urbanization and manufacturing to provide employment and services limiting the use of natural resources while still achieving high standards of living will require a review of existing global rules (for example, intellectual property rights) and new rules (for example, energy efficiency and sharing biotechnology).

Third, the guiding principle for the new partnership should be “sharing responsibility for the Planet and prosperity of the People”. The MDGs, for example, did not include adequate and affordable energy, which has an environmental impact. They also framed development cooperation narrowly as essentially an aid-driven relationship and ignored other policy instruments like trade, investment and technology transfer. New goals will need new rules and a new partnership.

Fourth, all the analyses suggest that the most rapid growth of the middle class will occur in Asia, particularly in populous China and India, and these countries will have to think about global ecological limits in new ways. The volume of urban construction there for housing, office space, and transport services could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history. The future health of the global economy, society and environment will, therefore, be increasingly linked to how these countries do —more so than the traditional West – and they must take the lead in shaping the new goals.

New climate framework

The design of a fair climate agreement is already drawing on the wider scientific and policy debate around new global goals, because keeping global emissions within agreed limits has very different implications for fast growing economies and where growth has stabilized. For example, three-fourths of the electricity produced in developing countries is used in manufacturing and any limitations on emissions will impact on economic growth, while two-third of the electricity generated in developed countries is used in buildings, and restrictions will affect lifestyles. Emissions, standards of living and global ecological limits are inter-linked, and cannot be considered in isolation.

Up to now less than one billion people have accounted for three-quarters of global consumption; during the next four decades, new and expanded middle classes in the developing world could create as many as four billion additional consumers. The volume of this urban construction for housing, office space, and transport services could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history. Currently, per capita generation of electricity in India is one-fifteenth and in China one fifth that of the United States and the use of cheap and widely available coal will continue because of the imperatives of growth, which also provides opportunities for re-shaping the pattern of demand, or lifestyles.

First, in the face of continuing reluctance of the rich countries to modify longer term trends in consumption and production patterns, which they had committed to under the Convention, and geopolitical shifts in the power of developing countries, a rigid environmental perspective giving sole consideration to risk management is giving place to a more flexible sustainable development perspective of economic growth within ecological limits. Temporarily over-shooting of the global temperature limits using carbon budget or paths over time rather than an end-point is gaining prominence amongst scientists, and is likely to be reflected in any new agreement.

Second, fairness is no longer sought to be defined as differentiated commitments for burden sharing but rather in terms of methodologies for reviewing national actions. There is, however, no agreement on whether this would be based on common accounting rules and a consultative process to enhance commitments or patterns and trends of natural resource use, for example, between 1970 and 2060, should shape the multilateral reporting and assessment of national actions; environment first came on the global agenda in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference and global growth is expected to continue till at least 2060. The fear is that international approval should not be accorded to a lack of ambition on the part of developed countries to the detriment of the others as energy use reaches the planet’s ecological limits before comparable levels in standards of living are achieved.

China and India are still building their infrastructure and, according to BP’s forecasts in its latest Energy Outlook 2030, energy use per capita is predicted to increase at a similar rate to that in industrialized countries in the period 1970-2011, and despite energy intensity of GDP in 2030 being less than half of the level in 1970, incomes and population are expected to drive a 40% increase in global primary energy use. This implies that the international review of national actions should consider national circumstances, or stages of development. 

Third, the specificity of the global goals and the monitoring arrangements will depend on the extent to which redistribution, which has so far been kept out of the United Nations, becomes a part of the global agenda. Given the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the environmental, social and economic processes upon which pathways to sustainable development depend, the guiding principle for the new partnership will update the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ to focus on “sharing responsibility and prosperity”. International cooperation will then be seen in terms of sharing technological development and exchanging experiences on societal transformations that will lead to emissions reduction, and not the other way round.

Environmental security

Academic debate on the issue of environmental security is divided, with some concluding – on the basis either of case studies or quantitative analyses of historical and present-day climate-conflict relations – that anthropogenic warming is likely to exacerbate conflict dynamics, with others finding only circumstantial evidence of linkages between the two, and still others refuting the climate conflict thesis altogether.

A redefinition of national security has been gaining political momentum worldwide away from state-cantered and military-focused definitions raising the question whether traditional roles of national states and international agreements will prove adequate for human security. There is as yet no universally agreed definition of environmental security as it involves complex interactions between human activities, ecological limits and international cooperation making it difficult to determine causal relationships other than environmental degradation as a “threat multiplier”, with human security defined in terms of a range of elements such as freedom from threats, disruption of daily lives and resource scarcity. 

In the context of growing disagreement on sharing responsibility for climate change the emerging powers are blamed for these threats in the thinking  of analysts in the old powers, by extending what originated as a  the strategic concern of impact on military operations to international relations. Analysts in Asia, despite considering climate change as a sustainable development concern, have not developed a coherent response by extending this perspective to see these threats in terms of equitably sharing global ecological resources so that development, in all its dimensions, is not constrained.

The essential question in considering climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ is the nature of the threat  - environmental or developmental - and whether the risks are addressed better by promoting cooperation or by preventing conflict? The related questions are whether mediating disputes between States can best be done in the Security Council because it has delegated responsibilities for “maintenance of peace and security ”giving the permanent five members immense power to react urgently and set the agenda or whether this composition reflecting the victors of World War II will not build a global consensus?  And, whether other regimes, including the UN General Assembly, can set appropriate norms and standards for enforcement short of sanctions and use of force? A global consensus has yet to emerge on these issues.

In the face of scientific uncertainty developing countries have yet to formulate a coherent response. For example, with respect to water scarcity in South Asia the contribution of Himalayan snow melt varies greatly for the rivers flowing on the Northern and Southern aspects. For example, the Yellow, Mekong and Salween rivers get less than 10 per cent of their flows from the glaciers, while the Indus and the Ganges get up to 70 per cent prior to and during the monsoon. Clearly, for South Asia the monsoon, including the resulting snow fall in the upper reaches, is the determining factor in water flows. A recent assessment of the scientific research by the US National Research Council (Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources and Water Scarcity’, National Research Council, 2012, United States) shows that “glaciers in the eastern and central regions of the Himalayas appear to be retreating at rates comparable to glaciers in other parts of the world, while in the western Himalayas glaciers are more stable and may even be increasing in size”, and concludes that the consequences for the region's water supply are unclear. Their assessment is that shifts in the location, intensity, and variability of rain and snow due to climate change will impact regional water supplies, concluding that “social changes such as changing patterns of water use and water management decisions, are likely to have at least as much of an impact on water demand as environmental factors do on water supply”. These perspectives are not being shared by developing country scientists in intergovernmental processes, such as the IPCC.

The academic and policy discourse within the United Nations on climate change, sustainable development, conflict and security has so far been highly climate-centric and fails to contextualise climate impacts in relation to other broader processes of economic and social change. It is also framed too narrowly around the intersection with poverty and state fragility in Sub-Saharan Africa and the long-term problems in certain small island states, leaving out other areas such as the Arctic and without understanding the complexity of interlinked processes like glacial melt and the monsoon.  The strategic community has also ignored current scientific consensus on how to meet the challenge of global change, which focuses on societal dynamics as both the root of environmental problems and the potential solution to them.

The legitimate concern of the non-permanent members of the Security Council is that sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference, and environmental security should not adopt the principle of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ where collective action for crimes against humanity is extended to protect populations from loss of habitat, starvation and mass migration. The emerging trend in the negotiations around the post-2015 global agenda is now stressing the principle of ‘sustainable development’ with respect to the global impacts of natural resource use. Environmental, technological and societal transformations are interlinked and cannot be considered in isolation, and it would be within the mandate of the Security Council to support peace and security by looking at the longer term future of the planet for sharing responsibility as well as prosperity for human wellbeing.

In the case of climate change the choice for the collective response is between rules for societal and technological transformation and intervention in the face of environmental risks and access to resources. The international community should define ‘responsibility to protect’ in terms of equal rights of all populations to sustainable development with new platforms for cooperative responses to deal with longer term global change, of which climate change is only a part.

Way forward: global governance

At the global level the issue that must be debated is how a continually growing economic system will fit within a finite ecological system, and identify longer term trends in production and consumption patterns that need to be modified to raise standards of living. Given the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the environmental and economic processes upon which pathways to future wellbeing depend, the guiding principle for the new partnership should be “sharing responsibility and prosperity”. The focus will then be on global sustainable development goals and a political agreement in the UN General Assembly rather than legal commitments in an environmental treaty or enforcement through the Security Council.

Developing countries, particularly in Asia, will have to think about global ecological limits in new ways. In an interdependent and multi polar world global goals are more likely to be based on negotiated political agreements in the High Level Policy Forum that has replaced the Commission on Sustainable Development, rather than legally binding commitments in the Climate treaty. As China re-shapes its urban future, with its planned urbanization involving 250 million farmers, its willingness to lead by example in reforming the United Nations, rather than the United States defending the current arrangements, will determine the outcome and the new global rules. It may well be a complete break with the past, equitable and democratic.

[1] Ex Director UNFCCC