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Legislating for sustainability

Over my time at the Climate Parliament, I’ve been lucky enough to meet MPs and legislators from all corners of the globe, from countries large and small, rich and poor. Talking to them – and to the climate scientists, policy analysts, and development experts who come to our events, workshops and hearings – I’ve had the opportunity to explore a wide range of viewpoints on climate change, energy, and development. And a couple of things keep coming back up in these conversations, again and again.

The first is how climate change is already hurting the world’s poorest. Most of the legislators we work with are from the less-industrialised world, where the impacts of climate change are already affecting the lives of their constituents – be it relentless desertification of once-fertile land in the Maghreb, East African heat-waves, or devastating floods in South Asia.

The second is the urgent need to bring material, social, and economic improvements to the lives of these constituents, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day, and without access to the electricity and clean energy that could improve their lives immeasurably. This is not just a moral imperative; if an MP cannot point to concrete programmes to bring jobs, income and development to his constituents, she is unlikely to be re-elected.

Reconciling these two competing priorities is a cornerstone of our work. How do we bring the fruits of economic prosperity to those who need it most, without exacerbating the climate change that undermines development and entrenches poverty and insecurity in emerging economies?

The answer is, of course, sustainable development. But what does that actually mean? Even the phrase itself is a bit of a moveable feast. It’s invoked by Greenpeace and Peabody alike, usually in support of diametrically opposing claims.

The simplest definition of sustainable development is simply economic growth that strikes a balance between economic development and environmental protection. To me, that seems a pretty unhelpful characterisation. For a start – who determines what the correct balance is? And what exactly is meant by “development”, anyway?

In this blog, I’m going to briefly sketch out the definition of sustainable development that we use at the Climate Parliament, and talk about how this helps us support our network of MPs in carrying out their legislative and parliamentary work.

But what's so wrong with business as usual?

Before we get to that though, let’s just take a minute to consider the scale of the climate challenge that’s facing us – and how development, as currently practiced around the world, is anything but sustainable.

Since the industrial revolution nearly 200 years ago, economic growth has been driven, primarily, by the huge energy potential of fossil fuels. Coal, gas and oil have given us electricity, globe-shrinking transport, massive increases in food production, digital technology, medical breakthroughs, you name it. (For more on this, see Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark’s excellent The Burning Question).

Fossil fuel energy, for those lucky enough to have been born in industrialised countries, has driven human development to a peak unprecedented in history. But this dominant paradigm of economic and social development is unsustainable. It cannot, and will not, last.

Fossil fuels themselves are a finite resource. I’m not going to wade into debates over “peak oil” (although, if you’re interested, this is a good place to start). But while we may not be able to predict exactly when our fossil reserves will expire, one thing is certain: one day, in the not too distant future, they will.

Even before that happens, the burning of oil, coal and gas is already changing the world's climate in dangerous and unpredictable ways. And, unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. The latest reports of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do not make for comforting reading. Unless we drastically curtail our use of fossil energy, they argue, we’ll see climactic shifts that will threaten the stability, security, and prosperity of all countries around the globe.

Food and water scarcity will drive the price of these most basic staples of human existence beyond the reach of many of the world's poorest. Heat waves, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and disease epidemics threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands, and will displace millions more from their homes. Armed conflict over diminishing resources in a climate-ravaged world is probable; some would say inevitable.

Some dismiss the scientists of the IPCC as alarmist. In a sense, that’s true: they’re sounding an urgent alarm, warning us that our current model of carbon-intensive economic development is completely, irrevocably, unsustainable.

But we can’t simply leave the world’s poorest behind. 1.2 billion people around the world live without access to modern energy services that could provide them with reliable lighting, fuel, and energy for development. And some 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

Women must trek for miles to gather traditional fuels such as wood and dung to run dirty and dangerous cooking stoves that belch poisonous smoke into their homes. Children have no light in the dark evenings for reading or study. Mobile phones cannot be charged; entrepreneurs cannot power their businesses; potentially life-saving medicines cannot be properly refrigerated. Economic development could provide the income, jobs, and access to energy and services that would revolutionise these peoples' lives. But we know that relying on carbon-intensive coal and gas to bring growth to the world's poorest is simply not an option.

Shifting the global paradigm of economic development to a new footing, rooted in the principles of long-term sustainability, equity, and environmental protection, will be a herculean task. But shift it we must. The choice is stark: either we find a way to enshrine sustainability at the very heart of the international system, or we condemn present and future generations to a world scarred by droughts, heat waves, famines, and epidemics.

Not very sustainable

So what is sustainable development?

So what does a truly sustainable form of development actually look like? At the Climate Parliament, we work off a definition that combines both equity and integration:

  • Equity, in that it must distribute the benefits and costs of development fairly both between and within generations;

  • Integration, in that it must seek to reconcile – rather than simply balance – the competing objectives of economic growth, social justice, and environmental protection.

Let's explore both of these key concepts in turn, starting with equity.

An oft-cited definition of sustainable development, centering on equity, is that given by the Brundtland Report, in 1982: “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is a powerful and fairly uncontentious idea: that, to be truly sustainable, development must recognise and weigh the competing claims of societies both present and future. In other words, we need to recognise that present-day activities, especially economic activities, can very easily disadvantage future generations. This is intergenerational equity – ensuring that our fossil-fired affluence today doesn’t inflict poverty upon our children and grandchildren.

But sustainable development must also ensure equity within generations: intragenerational equity. In other words, it has to promote a just distribution of the benefits of economic development, and the costs of environmental protection, between the rich and the poor. Sustainable development must therefore recognise the need to protect the environment, while also recognising that developing countries have a legitimate right to development.

This last one is a contentious issue. For years, it hamstrung attempts to forge international agreement on a global climate treaty, as negotiators traded barbs over whether paying for environmental action was the responsibility of the developed “Global North”, or the emerging “Global South”. (For more on how the Paris Agreement came up with a clever way of side-stepping this issue, read this).

Of course, it’s unarguably true that richer nations are, economically, better able to bear the significant costs of tackling climate change. It’s also true that richer nations have benefited most from the kind of carbon-intense industrialisation that has led to our current predicament.

But that doesn’t mean that dealing with the climate crisis is the responsibility of richer nations alone. Firstly, emerging economies as a group already emit more carbon than OECD countries, and while carbon emissions seem to have peaked in industrialised nations, they show no sign of slowing in emerging economies (aside from some encouraging news on China’s coal use, that is).

Secondly, the impacts of climate change will disproportionately fall upon the citizens of the Global South. Heat waves and crop failures will cause privation and hunger across Sub-Saharan Africa. Droughts will parch the soils of China and India. Rising sea levels will threaten the coastal cities of South East Asia, and could imperil the very survival of Bangladesh as a state.

Now is a time for cooperation and communal action. Blame-mongering is a dangerous distraction from the urgent task at hand. All nations – both rich and poor – must work together. The principle of intragenerational equity is an essential prerequisite to ensure that both the benefits and the costs of this work will be distributed fairly amongst the international community. It is, therefore, a vital part of any definition of sustainable development.

You can tell it's sustainable because it's green

And then there's integration

Let's now examine what I mean by integration as a central tenet of sustainability. For development to be sustainable, it must seek to integrate three very different and apparently incompatible values: economic growth; environmental protection; and social justice (such as human rights, freedom of speech, the empowerment of women and girls, and so on).

Seeking to reconcile these three concepts is not easy. Some argue that reconciliation is, in fact, impossible, and we should simply design legislation based on the prioritisation of one or the other.

For example, we might decide that the value of economic growth trumps the other two, and should be given priority in cases of conflict. This is basically how the world currently operates, and is one of the reasons why we’re staring down the barrel of such an impoverished future.

So why don’t we go to the opposite extreme, and make sure that environmental protection trumps economic development always and everywhere? But this is equally unhelpful. If we simply throw economic development overboard in the name of ecological preservation, then it’s very difficult to see how we’re going to lift the world's poor majority into prosperity. And even the most die-hard environmentalist might blanch at the prospect of sacrificing hard-won principles of social justice, such as freedom of speech or gender equality on the altar of climate. Condemning billions of people to energy poverty as the price of environmental protection contradicts the centrality of intragenerational equity to sustainable development. It’s also, I’d argue, deeply immoral.

And what was that about a stool?

It's clear, therefore, that simply elevating one of the three values of environment, economic growth, and social justice over the others will not suffice. Instead, we need to integrate all three, based on the fundamental recognition that they are mutually interdependent, self-reinforcing principles that cannot be sustained without the support of the others. They’re three legs of the same stool.

After all, what use is economic development in the present if it leads to a severely curtailed economic future, where food is scare, energy is prohibitively expensive, and the threat of border conflicts destabilises global markets? Even the flinty-eyed free-market plutocrat is driven by the same basic human urge to provide for their family and improve the lot of her descendants. If the reckless pursuit of short-term economic growth endangers the ability of our children to enjoy the fruits of our labours, then surely most would agree that those labours are largely in vain.

Denying the benefits of economic growth to the world's poor in the name of environmentalism would be equally counterproductive. Not only would prioritising the environment over growth slam shut the door to prosperity for the world's neediest, it would also mean that billions of people around the world have no choice but to engage in environmentally destructive behaviours simply to stay alive. Slash and burn agriculture, the burning of biomass and charcoal for cooking and heat, and the prioritisation of cheap coal over renewable energy are all problems that are impossible to overcome without sustained – and sustainable – economic growth.

Finally, a failure to provide an ecologically healthy future and ensure economic development would also imperil fragile advances in social justice around the world. Political instability brought on by runaway climate change could threaten hard-won social freedoms. Societies in decline tend towards the authoritarian, the xenophobic, and the patriarchal. And in a world where even food and water are in short supply, would human needs like freedom of conscience come to be seen as extravagant luxuries?

Just like a stool needs (at least) three legs in order to be a stool and not some form of strange abstract wooden sculpture, sustainable development needs to recognise social justice, economic growth, and the environment as co-dependent parts of the same whole. Any definition of sustainable development that prioritises one over the other wouldn't be truly sustainable.

Not much use to anyone, these

Our work at the Climate Parliament puts this definition of sustainable development into practice. Working with our network of MPs across the less-industrialised world, we push for new laws and policies that will drive development, protect the climate, and advance social justice. Read more about our work here.

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