Sustainable Development 101

Ed Byers, winner of our Rio+20 competition, will be travelling in a couple of weeks (sponsored by Northumbrian Water) to attend the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, along with runners-up James Robinson and Claire Chisholm.

As part of his preparations for the Earth Summit, Ed recently attended a House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee event in London, along with our fourth-placed student, Etta Smylie, which sought to ‘bring [the work of the Select Committee ] to the attention of a broader group of people who care about the environment and who want to see an ambitious outcome from the United Nations’ Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil later this year’.

In this thought-provoking post, Ed reflects on what was discussed and the event as well as the possible implications of this for the Earth Summit and for the UK’s future contribution to sustainable development.


As part of preparations for the upcoming Rio+20 conference, we attended a special seminar evening on Rio+20 being held by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in London.

Hosted at St Martin-in-the-Fields, just off Trafalgar square, the seminar convened a panel of invited speakers, a considerable number of the MPs on the EAC and about 150 very distinguished, or so we were told, members of the public.

This event also coincided with the launch of the EAC’s report on the Green Economy [i] (more on that to come), and an exhibition of photographs by Mark Edwards, Hard Rain[ii], a project to align human and natural systems.

Thus the evening started off with very moving slideshow of these photos, with background music to Bob Dylan just to get us into the mood of saving grand global challenges – apparently this was the song played to him by the Tuareg when he was rescued after being lost in the desert!

London might have been surprised to find out that a similar event was happening on the same day in Lund, Sweden, being led by Jan Eliasson, the UN Deputy Secretary-General designate who had an inspirational pre-recorded a video message for the London meeting[iii]. Avoiding the usual calls for the green economy, Jan expressed wishes via a few more emotive and personal responses. Firstly, through the notions of shared responsibility and making peace with nature. Secondly, a wish to ‘reduce the hopelessness – that nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something’. Lastly, a call for passion and compassion: ‘without passion, nothing happens’ and ‘without compassion, the wrong things happen’.

These introductions then opened up the meeting with small talks by a further 6 invited speakers (Martin Haigh, Chris Ripley, Leah Parsons, Claire Foster-Gilbert, Leo Johnson and John Bercow [iv]) who each gave their view on what they wanted from the future. Some were funny, some were sad, but each one moved the audience in a different way; an audience of members of the public who had each come to this event with an interest in engaging with the discourse around sustainable development.

This was also a brilliant opportunity to communicate all manner of views to the EAC, some members of which will be going to the Rio+20 conference in the UK delegation led by deputy Prime-Minister Nick Clegg and supported by Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs.

If only they had been there, then, to hear the committee’s criticism of the Government’s Enabling the Transition to a Green Economy [v] submission to the conference, whose main opening conclusion of the report [vi] is that without a strong domestic policy framework for the green economy, how can the UK be a credible voice at the Summit?

A cynic would quickly see this as an excuse just in case the Summit doesn’t go well… But read on through the summary [vii] and you can see for yourself that the current Government does indeed appear to be missing the concept of a green economy, by a country mile!

A market-led approach, if that’s the way it must be, is probably not going to work very well if it lacks a credible set of indicators and targets against which to measure progress; emissions are the only ones considered for now and the framework only builds around existing policies instead of presenting a new strategic approach.

I could go on, as the report is full of more interesting, yet quite depressing, criticisms of the Government which brings us to the last point.

There really is no need for me to explain what was discussed between the MPs and the invited speakers, or what the audience had the opportunity to contribute in the last 4 minutes because everyone else had talked far too much. In some form or another, you have probably heard it before.

Sustainable development 101. What is clear is that there is a huge knowledge base about all of the issues, that it just needs to be put into action. I also realise that now would be an apt time to revisit my original, somewhat cavalier argument in my first blog post, that it would not be a big problem if the biggest world leaders do not attend the summit. Why? Reading the report by the EAC led me to contemplate two alternate explanations (that aren’t in the report!):

  • Either, the Government went ahead and wrote these recommendations, oblivious to the well-established knowledge base that could have contributed a wealth of more constructive and affirmative policy tools to make the transition to a green economy. They will take the recommendations and insist that ‘Business should’ apply them.
  • Or, they only have a half-hearted commitment to this cause and wrote a weak proposal that lacks anything so ambitious that it might force business to do something that it doesn’t want to do, and risk endangering thy beloved economy – the one that’s currently in the red.

Nonetheless, it’s a start that really puts the ball in the court of business. Whether they know where to return the ball to remains uncertain.


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