Rio+20: Sustainable development – a paradox?

It’s time to unveil the first of our shortlisted entries.

Finishing in 6th place overall, MEng Civil Engineering (School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences) student Martin Findlay’s entry examines the paradox inherent in the term ‘sustainable development’ and highlights the need for a switch from financial-based economies to those which take account of the value of environmental assets.

Martin’s entry was praised by the judges for recognising this crucial point: that natural resources are often not included in global assessments of a country’s wealth and have historically been exploited by developed countries without proper recompense to the countries in which they are situated.

Congratulations on making the shortlist Martin – quite an achievement given the standard of the entries, and very well deserved!

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Sustainable Development – A Paradox?

Sustainable development is a somewhat paradoxical concept. In the past, these two terms have been separated by developing countries wanting to quickly develop to create a better economy, with no consideration for the environment and the developed world, who during the industrial revolution went down this path and have now realised that their current unbridled growth is impractical due to the rate at which the world’s resources and biodiversity is being depleted.

This is where sustainable development needs to come into play. It means increasing the strength of a country’s economy whilst taking into account the future implications of growth. For the developed world, sustainable development can be seen with the goal to maintain our current standard of living, whilst responsibly managing our current resources to become greener. The goal for the developing world should be to grow to our level, but rather than conducting this in the irresponsible manner which the developed world began in the 1800s, developing with future insight and sustainability as a key theme.

This would save on much of the adaptation which the developed world now has to think about in order to become ‘green economies’. For instance looking at the UK; adapting our energy infrastructure to more renewable energy sources will come at a huge cost and is partly what is holding back this technology. If a developing country was to implement renewable energy into its current development plan, although initially more costly, this would save a huge amount of money in the future.

One important point that I took away from the preparatory discussions, was that our current economies are far too financially based. In order to create sustainable economies, a price needs to be put on our ecological infrastructure and rather than just measure our economies in terms of GDP, incorporate natural capital as well.

For instance 65% of medicines we use today were originally found in the rainforest, but the value of a rainforests is not taken into account in the country’s economy, only the money made from the medicines, often in another country. This makes no sense to me, as surely a country’s natural assets are their most important resource – therefore why is this not taken into account when talking about the value of the country?

One important natural resource taking priority in the Earth Summit talks are ocean fisheries. The importance of these to the one billion people who rely on fish for animal protein is being severely threatened by overfishing for profit. If measures are not put into place to curb this, it is the poorest people who rely on fish to feed their families every day, which will be hit the hardest and forced into deeper poverty, when their fish reserves run low. Progress made in the talks, will only work if the correct regulations are put into place and policed by the international community as a whole.

Continuing with the theme of the economy, businesses also need to stop measuring their performance purely on profits and start to think about their externalities and what their cost to the environment and local communities are. In doing so, public benefits must be put ahead of private profits. Many of the projects which using our current measure of benefits seem profitable, would therefore become undesirable. An example of this can be seen in Thailand, where the current trends are to convert Mangroves into Shrimp farms.

However, if instead of just looking at the potential profits, you were to look at the consequences of this, the cost of deforestation and therefore the future damage to local communities by storms and cyclones, increased carbon emissions helping cause climate change, as well as the loss of fisheries to the surrounding communities, far out way the profits.

Therefore it is up to the governments to monitor and regulate sustainable business practices. Steps are already taking place in this for the energy sector – measuring and charging company’s performances based on carbon emissions or giving incentives to use low carbon technology, but there is little progress in looking at other aspects of the environment in this way.

One of the main themes of the Rio +20 Earth summit is to introduce an institutional framework for sustainable development. In order for this to work, it will have to set strict goals with penalties for not controlling them or incentives for reaching them.

Voluntary pledges by countries, although often well meaning, imply that there is often little or no drive to follow them through. Without regulation, the easiest or cheapest approach, not the most sustainable approach will generally be used.

This can be seen in the fact that countries have largely failed to meet most of the environmental and developmental challenges set at the last Earth Summit. The millennium development goals have also seen little progress, as ten years on, amongst other things, poverty rather than being eradicated is worse than ever and over half the population of developing regions are still without basic sanitation.

Although I have only concentrated on one of the themes discussed at the preparatory debates, the most important lesson I learned from the events, was how intertwined each issue was. This conveys that to be a success, the Rio +20 Earth summit must not address each goal separately, but in a holistic fashion for any sort of progress to be made.

Throwing money at just one area, although causing some success in this region, will ultimately fail. However this will be a slow process and the summit in Rio can only hope to be a starting block for future sustainable development. In this case, I think that the most important progress which can be made is by protection of the environmental assets of a country, as it is impossible to start a model of development whilst degrading the most important asset to poor people – the environmental asset.

Martin Findlay
MEng Civil Engineering

1 thought on “Rio+20: Sustainable development – a paradox?

  1. Pingback: How Sustainable is Sustainable Development? | Politics of the Global Environment

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