BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for May 2009

Politics-as-usual strains sustainable future

Richard Black | 10:47 UK time, Tuesday, 19 May 2009


Across the last fortnight at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) annual meeting, there have been all kinds of threads that I wanted to pick up for this blog but will have to leave un-picked up; time, for reasons that I will come to in a minutes, just vanished before my eyes.

So; reflections on a few big themes only.

PloughingFirstly, does the CSD have the power to do what it's supposed to?

It's a progeny of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and is aimed at ensuring progress on the agenda that unifies the prime Rio concerns of the developed and developing worlds - the intersection between protecting the Earth's ecosystems and fostering economic progress in poorer societies.

That these twin aims have to be reconciled as a pre-condition for humanity's long-term good - never mind the Earth's other passenger species - seems remarkably obvious when you think about it.

It features long and loud in some of the world's global environmental treaties, notably the Kyoto Protocol - but where is it made explicit and acted upon in the economic and business framework?

Does the WTO encourage sustainable development? Do the World Bank and IMF stimulate only when environmental protection is guaranteed?

When Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy rescue financial institutions, do they insist on those institutions adopting sustainability criteria as preconditions for lending money?

There are bright spots; but overwhelmingly, the answer has to be a resounding "no". But if the concept of sustainable development and the need for it are not understood at this level, then what is the point of trying to forge non-binding agreements on sustainability through the CSD, a much less powerful institution?

This brings me to the second big theme; who knows about the CSD and its works?

Last time I went to a meeting at UN headquarters - the World Summit in 2005 - there were something like 4,000 journalists in attendance, and just getting through security on day one took almost two hours.

By contrast, hardly a news reporter came to the CSD's halls, and hardly a news report emerged.

In one sense, this is incredible. The CSD's agenda is humanity's future; so in the minds of news editors the world over, this is not a story?

Editors would argue it's not hard news because the text agreed at the end of the two-week meeting is not binding on governments, in contrast for example to the UN climate convention - and they're right.

But the absence of journalists (and many principal civil society groups) was unfortunate in that it allowed some pretty blatant political posturing to pass with little comment and little chance of governments being held accountable for their positions.

The_G20_London_SummitAnd this is the third big theme I would bring out: especially from the G77 bloc, positions were adopted that from any perspective other than that of narrow politics beggared belief.

So we had repeated deletion of the word "sustainable" from the draft text - especially when placed before the word "agriculture".

So G77 countries do not want their agricultural systems to be sustainable? They would rather have support for use-it-up, burn-it-out, fertilise-it-to-death farming of inappropriate crops that would seriously compromise the next generation's capacity to feed itself?

There were concerns wrapped up in this that the EU and other western blocs might use "sustainable agriculture" as a way of foisting development-hindering environmental regulations on developing countries.

But you could also surely argue that G77 nations ought to be concerned about Western nations foisting unsustainable, grow-as-much-as-you-can-and-sell-us-the-proceeds-as-cheaply-as-possible practices on societies that do not have the capacity to resist such advances.

We even saw bids to re-open discussions about what "sustainability" means - again, incredible from any standpoint except that of politics-as-usual.

The irony of coming together for discussions on sustainable development and then trying to remove the term "sustainable" seemed lost on many delegations - another indication, I would argue, of how little the importance of the concept has permeated into governments.

What conclusions should we draw? I'm not sure I have any profound thoughts, except the pretty obvious one that 22 years after the Brundtland Commission analysed the reasons why society ought to develop in such a way as "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs", we are a very long way from that ideal (see the UN's Geo-4 report for details), and many of the important players appear blissfully ignorant of the reasoning.

In the studio

By comparison, any feel-good news I could bring you from the CSD would be small beer.

However, it is nice to report on something that might help in its own small way to spread knowledge of the issues a bit further afield, and perhaps encourage more profound debate at public and political levels.

For the two weeks of the CSD meeting I shed the role of a web-based journalist and instead went back to radio days, running a project - Live at the CSD - that brought four journalists from developing and former Soviet-bloc countries for a fortnight's immersion in sustainable development issues.

The_Live_at_the_CSD_teamEach day, Armando Canchanya (Peru,) Catherine Karong'o (Kenya), Madhyama Subramanian (India) and Mirim Tenev (Bulgaria) made three radio programmes about issues featured at the CSD - land rights, soil fertility, GMOs, biochar, pastoralism and climate change, ownership of water supplies, payment for ecosystem services... the list goes on and on.

With the support of New York-based students Brett Israel, Sharon Shattuck and Matt Boms, the incredible organisational energy of Emily Benson from Stakeholder Forum (one of the projects's parents - the other being the BBC World Service Trust) and the unfailingly calm and kind expertise of UN Radio's corps of sound engineers, we managed to produce 30 programmes that went to the heart of the issues and - I hope - leave Armando, Catherine, Madhyama and Mirim well placed to put the issues at the heart of their reporting in years to come.

So what did they make of it? Here are some of their highlights:

Armando: "I just needed only 15 minutes chatting to Lucy Mulenkei, an indigenous activist from Kenya and one of our Pioneers of the Planet, to find out how important is to encourage people to raise their voices on issues that affect them directly. 'Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights,' says a pretty old song."

Catherine: "An interview with Neth Dano of Third World Network and Wilfred Legg, Head of Policies and Environment Directorate at the OECD, on the discussion programme Earth Talk will remain my most memorable. The issue was food sovereignty v food security - they took on each other with divergent views, and the arguments extended another 10 minutes after the interview was over."

Madhyama: "I did not attend any of the sessions where the negotiating text was being discussed, but I sure am comfortable to stalk people on the streets in foreign countries and ask them if they know the meaning of 'sustainable development'. I am much enlightened about (the CSD's) major groups, biochar, green jobs and even granola!"

Mirim: "The interview that I will always remember and possibly will replay quite often when I am back at home is with Nicodemus Illauq, an indigenous person from the Arctic. His story (reported on Today at the CSD) about climate change really shocked me - the new species that are appearing, the igloo that can 'survive' just two months in the winter, etc. It was the real story by a person who still is close to 'the Nature' and knows unbelievable things, based on knowledge created thousands years by his ancestors."

And for me? Well, apart from remembering how much fun you can have with intelligent and creative people in a radio studio, I feel better informed than before on some of the issues that can slip past an environment journalist in the night - trade in agricultural products, land rights, the politics of aid, and so on.

"The global environment" does not exist in a vacuum - it is increasingly filled with people, and people have real concerns.

Environmental protection means understanding and addressing those concerns as much as it does mapping the rate of species loss or analysing the chemistry of ozone destruction.

The intertwining of environmental protection and economic development makes for a complex brew; but without acknowledging the links and getting rid of the narrow politics that prevent constructive progress, our common future may end up being considerably less sustainable than we might wish.

Losing sustainability in the urban canyons

Richard Black | 09:10 UK time, Tuesday, 12 May 2009


New York: from the UN Commission on Sustainable Development

Could New York be the world's least sustainable city?

Manhattan skylineThe question came to me as I walked down the narrow corridors that pass for open space here, the city canyons that guide the cars and the people (in that order of priority) between the soaring walls of stone and glass.

I'm here for the two weeks of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meeting - not reporting, but running a project aimed at enhancing media coverage of sustainable development issues in developing countries and the former Soviet bloc.

With journalists from Bulgaria, India, Kenya and Peru, we're running a mini radio station from the basement of the UN, reporting on the themes of the CSD negotiations, on issues raised by the numerous interest groups represented at the meeting, and - as making good radio means getting out of the studio - on some of the sustainability projects scattered among the suburbs of New York.

What exactly is meant by "sustainable development" is a question I'll come to in a moment - or rather, a question that one of the journalists I'm working with, Madhyama Subramanian, will come to.

But for many at the meeting, it's largely about the L-word: local production of food, local generation of energy, local employment, and so on.

I've had a long think about this as I trudge to and from the ageing UN headquarters through Manhattan's man-made canyons.

And it's an important question. Soon, more than half of the world's population will live in cities; and although few of them are as densely packed as New York, clearly the view that sustainable communities involve villages growing their own food and making biogas from residues left by their own cows is becoming less relevant.

Hope springs here, however. New York NGOs have taken international delegates on bus tours of urban farms, and showcased projects seeking to create green collar jobs in the city's most deprived areas.

Are these projects anything more than sticking plaster? Before answering, I thought I'd better do a few sums.

Taxi and bike

With a land area of about 60 square kilometres, Manhattan contains about 1.8 million people.

If you covered the area with wind turbines, packing them as closely together as you can without creating "wind shadows" for each other, then by my calculations you could install enough capacity to generate, at absolute maximum, about 1.5GW.

Manhattan's maximum electricity demand now is about 2GW. So maybe if you also covered every roof with solar panels, installed CHP schemes in every tower block and trimmed demand by installing smart meters in every home, you could just about envisage the district generating enough low-carbon electricity to meet its needs - though what the place would look like is another matter.

That's just electricity, of course; self-sufficiency in overall energy is a very different matter - unless the stream of big yellow taxis enters a permanent parking lot and everyone switches to big yellow bicycles, I suppose.

Food is a more difficult calculation because dietary habits and consumption can somersault with the circumstances of our lives. But according to one estimate, the average American - a person I've yet to meet, by the way - requires about half a hectare to produce the food he or she will consume in a year.

Cover Manhattan's roofs with the finest agricultural soils - best of luck with the Chrysler Building, by the way - and by that measure you'd produce enough food to feed 12,000-odd people. Window boxes, fungi raised in dank cupboards and chickens given free range of the streets might add a few extra calories but it's going to be totally inadequate whichever way you cut the cake.

And the waste... as they say in these parts, "don't even go there".

All these are very rough calculations. But I hope the point is obvious: a city cannot survive without the life-support system of the land around, and the more densely packed it is, the less local must its service providers be.

So some other measure has to be arrived at for the sustainability of city life: the merely local metric won't do, and the idea that every crowded city can generate its own energy with no help from outside - let alone grow its own food - must surely be a product of an over-optimistic imagination.

I have no idea what that other metric might be. But as more of the world's cities echo the high-rise citadels of New York and Hong Kong, it would probably be a good idea to work it out pretty quickly.

Madhyama SubramanianStreet life

The term "sustainable development" has been around for decades, but do people outside the confines of UN headquarters know what it means?

"A few days back, I was out on the streets of New York asking people if they knew the meaning of the term "sustainable development, as part of our radio project at the CSD," writes Madhyama Subramanian. She goes on:

"I was a wee bit nervous, but was also quite looking forward to it, since this is my first trip to the US and I was just a day old in New York, still understanding the Avenue and Street system.
"And I had heard quite a bit about how people in America really value their private space.
"It was an amusing mix of responses and people, on a rainy Monday morning!
"Many people were really serious, busy, on their way somewhere, and just the sight of my microphone made them veer past me.
"I began first by asking some elderly people, because I thought they would be more open and patient in talking to nosy journalists, and my guess was right... they were not in much of a hurry.
"I began by being really correct and asking people for permission to speak to them, and the number of 'No's I got made me miss India a bit; there, almost anyone on the street would be happy to talk to you, especially if you had a mic - in fact, they would answer you and then ask which channel the interview would go out on.
"Anyway, a number of people did answer my question, and the responses of the number of people who did not know what sustainable development meant was very amusing, ranging from a simple 'No' to 'I have never heard the word sustain' to 'I am new to America, so, I don't know about these things'."
"But what really struck me was the conversation that I had with an African-American cleaner called Roy Holder.
"He was loading huge black garbage bags onto the garbage truck. When I asked him if he knew what sustainable development means, he said that he didn't, and asked for the meaning.
"I told him that it was about caring for the resources of our planet, and using them such that they last over a long period of time.
"To my surprise, he immediately started talking about what he felt.
"He said: 'Starting from the Industrial Revolution, when the bigwigs known as part of the new world order started their programme to become the first billionaires, they stole this land from the native Indians.
"'They polluted this land, and in their greed they destroyed it - so much so that now the Earth itself is a living organism and it has started reacting with natural disasters.
"'I do this (cleaning) for money, but it also helps cleaning up the Earth. You replenish the Earth, come back and clean it up, one person at a time and try to get others, not forcibly, but willingly, to help do the same thing.
"'In other words, we got to return back to common sense.'
"What was striking about Roy was his confidence and his very matter-of-fact understanding of sustainable development, without any knowledge of the term.
"I think that as long as we all have the basic understanding of our relation to planet Earth and the understanding that we have to use our resources carefully, we can hope for the planet that is well looked after.
"Then does it really matter whether we call it 'sustainable development', 'curtailed consumption' or any other term that makes its way into the hallways of buildings that discuss development?
"And if we have to educate people about caring for the planet, I guess it has to be in a way that people can relate to in an everyday kind of way.
"A couple of days later I was in Central Park, asking people why they liked this huge, fantastic, magical place.
"And the words that came often in my conversations there were very simple ones - nature, happy, blue, green, energy, peace!"

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