Heading to Rio: Driving Sustainability Forward

In June 2012, Brazil will host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development also known as the Rio +20.  The conference  brings together governments, international institutions and major groups to assess progress towards internationally agreed sustainable development goals, rethink economic growth, and secure the collective commitment needed to drive national and international action to end poverty and environmental deterioration.  Rio +20 will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit which set the stage for sustainable development actions by the international community.

Held every ten years, this year’s summit has been described by UN-secretary general Ban Ki-Moon as a “once in a life time opportunity”  as we reach a precarious threshold in terms of the environment.  The two overarching themes chosen to guide the discussions in Rio are 1) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and 2) the institutional framework for sustainable development.

 

The Green Economy

Institutional governance is an extremely important pillar of sustainable development, not to be sidelined or mistaken for a call for more governing departments but rather more structure. Still discussions in the region have focused in large part on the green economy. The ‘green economy’ is being strongly debated in terms of definitions, which is reminiscent of a similar terminology dilemma faced twenty years ago at the first Rio summit with the words ‘sustainable development’, now employed the world over.  General definitions exist, such as that provided by UNEP, however countries will have to look in their immediate surroundings to see how it translates into a local reality.

Sustainable development remains at the core of the Rio discussions, but focusing on the green economy will better reflect the climate change threat. A number of recent studies have suggested that without urgent action climate change impacts could severely effect human life on earth. Currently the population is around 7 billion  and will rise to 9 billion by 2050 according to current growth patterns.  Scientific reports show that we are reaching limitations of resources and a new economic model must be applied if we want to sustain current lifestyles. A green economy is a vital part of this economic reform which places a new value-based growth that is geared by social and environmental considerations.

 

 A Call to Action

The deliberate attention given to the economy calls for the private sector to actively engage in the green economy.  This would require a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach. Neither sustainable development, nor the green economy will take place without the private sector which is necessary to leverage the environmental and social issues faced today. In Lebanon, the soon to be adopted national council for the environment, composed of 14 members, including 7 from the private sector and 7 from the public sector, marks a genuine opportunity to address environmental issues as it involves all main players. 

There is a sincere need for the re-evaluation and change of current business practices in the green economy. After all, part of the private sector’s mission (other than making profit) is providing services to the communities where they operate and it is in its best interest for these communities to remain intact.  Engaging in a green economy therefore should be part of an institution’s outlook.  Private sector institutions are already starting to move in this direction. Regulations are also forcing governments to adopt greener practices and policies. “However these need to increase and businesses should begin to take initiatives on their own in implementing the green economy concept,” says  Wael Hmaidan, Executive Director of IndyAct which is currently building a program to engage businesses in adopting the green economy. “We’ve seen that when there is a new regulation coming in that forces businesses to go in one way, those businesses who did the initiatives in the first place will find it easier to commit to the new regulation and legislation, giving them a comparative advantage in the market,” he adds. Knowing that the discussion on sustainability is permeating economic policies worldwide and becoming an increasingly urgent issue means that future regulations will come;  it is only a matter of when.

 In the case of Lebanon, a study by the Ministry of Environmental in collaboration with the UNDP and the  International Labor Organization (ILO) has shown that there is a potential for a large number of green jobs in this area.  The banking sector is already taking into consideration a greening of their practices.  However, there is still a long way to go.  So far most efforts (with few exceptions) have been made for image-boosting purposes.  The green economy cannot be achieved if it is merely used to mask current practices.

 

 The Arab Green Economy

In response to the shortcomings of regional economic policies, experts have advocated the greening of the arab economy.  The Arab Human Development Report in 2009, showed that poverty was afflicting about 65 million Arabs and this trend is not decreasing.  Poverty is widespread as high unemployment rates, food and water security issues continue to impose threats on various nations.  “Given these challenges, transitioning to the green economy is not only an option for the Arab region; rather it is an obligation to secure a proper path to sustainable development,” says Najib Saab, Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, which published the AFED report on Green Economy: Sustainable Transition in a Changing Arab World in November 2011.  This report advocates the green economy as an answer to the persisting challenges faced in the Arab world and a need to position economic development, environmental sustainability, and social equality as three equally indispensable dimensions to achieving human well-being.  This entails pursuing sustainable development in such forms as green investments across a multitude of sectors like agriculture, energy efficiency, renewable power, waste management, buildings and transportation, among others. 

 Throughout the region, NGOs, governments and the private sector have been meeting regarding the green economy.  In December 2011 the UAE hosted the Eye on Earth Summit, which brought together world leaders to discuss the crucial importance of environmental and societal information and networking to decision-making, by holding a special seminar on recommendations for the Rio +20.  The event was attended by various regional government delegations  among many other international delegations, showing the growing importance these issues have in the region.  The UAE has so far shown very much support for the green economy initiative, announcing “A Green Economy for Sustainable Development” on January 152012, to transform the country’s economy.  This initiative includes green legislation, programs, and projects designed to encompass six areas: energy, green investments, cities, climate change, biodiversity and green technology. “Through this, we can protect our natural and environmental resources, and strengthen our competitive position in global markets,” says Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashed Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.  If the UAE is able to successfully implement the green economy, they could become a model for other countries in the region to follow suit.

Saudi Arabia is also stepping up efforts. The country hosted the 3rd Gulf Environment Forum in Jeddah in late March with a roundtable networking session on the Road to the 2012 Rio Earth Summit. Discussions at the forum focused on ensuring the economic viability of alternative methods of energy generation in the Gulf region and the reduction of emissions from the prevailing methods. It also worked on establishing environmental awareness as a key learning objective in the region’s education system, advanced water strategies and reuse in the Middle East North Africa region.  Current energy efficiency programs have already seen 60% less energy consumed in Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi Energy Efficiency Center at King Abdullah City University, paving the path for more commitment  in the green economy.

 

 Lebanon at Rio

This year Lebanon is bringing the highest representation yet to the gathering in Rio.  Headed by the prime minister, a number of representatives from the ministries of Environment, Foreign Affairs, Social Affairs, and Trade and Economy in addition to others will be going to Rio to tackle the three pillars of sustainable development.  A national report is currently being prepared by a think tank from the Ministry of Environment together with the UNDP. According to a spokeswoman from the Ministry of the Environment who spoke to Responsible Business, “Unlike previous years, this year’s report will not be rosy, it will state the facts in a constructive way and if there are disagreements, the report will reflect those.”  This report will be presented at the summit on the status of sustainable development in Lebanon and the vision for the future which will be the basis of Lebanon’s statement at the summit.  “We have yet to see what this position will be, as it is having a political position which will in fact impact the process...At Rio there will be hardcore negotiations, negotiations that will effect every person on this planet. To impact the process you need a political leader to go there and negotiate and have a political position to push. Otherwise your role will be marginal,” says Wael Hmaidan regarding the need to push governments to stand strong for the environment.

The upcoming summit has already attracted new attention to slumbering environmental legislations.  In January, the council of ministers in Lebanon approved four key laws on the prosecution of protected areas, solid waste management and the protection of air quality.  In addition, there are four decrees that are about to be adopted by the council of ministers related to environmental impact assessment, environmental compliance for establishments and the national council for the environment.  Although there is still a long way to go, these are part and parcel of a new environmental mantra in Lebanon and is a first step towards a transition to the green economy.

 

SourceResponsible Business Magazine

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