The Sustainable Development Goals: Game-changer or good-looking rehash?

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From Agenda 21 to the Millennium Development Goals and beyond

By Peter Burnett

Australia, along with most nations in the world, has signed up to the Sustainability Development Goals (or SDGs for short), the UN’s latest effort to broker a pathway forward to a more sustainable future. How are we going in our efforts to meet the SDGs? And, indeed, is there any value in the SDG approach? I’m a tad cynical but the SDGs have definitely put a new face on sustainability.

The value of SDGs came into sharp focus for me last week at a conference in Melbourne titled ‘Why Should the Public Sector Care About Sustainable Development?’ (I think the answer to the conference-title question is simple: our future depends on it.) One of the conference presenters was John Thwaites, former Victorian Deputy Premier and Environment Minister, now a Professorial Fellow and Chair of the National Sustainable Development Council (NSDC), an NGO. John’s topic was the Sustainable Development Goals. Last year the NSDC released a progress report on SDG implementation in Australia, hot on the heels of Australia’s first official progress report.

John spoke with some passion about the value of the SDGs and gave examples of how they were influencing actual decisions by government and non-government bodies alike. Having been more focused on government policy-making, I had not considered his argument that the SDGs were gaining some real traction due to their social influence. So I thought it was time for another look: are the SDGs breathing new life into sustainable development?

Origins of the SDGs

Before answering that question, some history. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The UN describes them as a ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet’.

You’ve probably seen the catchy 17-tiled SDG infographic, as it gets quite a lot of exposure (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Countries made their original commitment to sustainable development at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The summit adopted the Rio Declaration, which sets out some 27 sustainability principles, along with a 350-page action plan called Agenda 21 (an agenda for the 21st Century).

The problem was that, to get everyone on board, rich countries had to make commitments to poor countries based on a principle of ‘intra-generational equity’. In essence this came down to promising poor countries that they wouldn’t lose the opportunity to develop, and to consume their fair share of the environmental resource pie in doing so, just because the rich countries had already eaten most of it.

Of course, this implied that the rich countries would henceforth constrain their own consumption. With the deal done and the pressure seemingly off, the rich countries went home and, unsurprisingly, did not consume less to free up resources for poor countries. So when everyone met again, at ‘Rio+5’ in New York in 1997, the poor countries objected strongly and the meeting almost collapsed.

The MDGs

Giving up on sustainable development wasn’t really an option. So they had another go, this time endorsing eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to mark the new century. The MDGs focused on poverty, with only one goal embodying a commitment to environmental sustainability*. The target date was 2015.

The MDGs breathed some life back into the sustainability. Real progress was made, though I think this was made possible by allowing the rising tide of economic growth to lift all boats, particularly in China, at the expense of ongoing environmental decline.

In any event, the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 decided that the MDGs warranted follow-on goals, and so the SDGs came to pass. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs reflect a more even balance between social and environmental goals, with five of seventeen goals having an environmental focus. The SDG’s also have some real substance, with 17 goals supported by 169 targets and 232 indicators.

Australia and the SDGs

The proof of the pudding however is in the eating. Australia’s first implementation report to the UN is simply a compilation of actions taken by governments and others that align with the SDGs. Further, while some good things are reported (eg, the National Disability Insurance Scheme), others are glossed over. The report for example refers to government support for Ramsar wetlands, omitting mention of the small amounts involved. Still other things are trivialised: the section on ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ reports that community gardens are increasingly popular, supported by ‘grass-roots’ organisations!

Irrespective of how good the reported measures are, the government makes no claim that the SDGs have driven any change in domestic policy and files its report under ‘aid’ on the DFAT website. Clearly the SDGs are not a game-changer from the government’s point of view.

The NSDC report is more analytical, using a ratings scheme under which Australia scores an overall 6.5/10. While this corresponds to a university ‘credit’ grade, averaging conceals a wide spread of ratings. We are best in looking after ourselves, scoring 8.9 in health and education, and worst at sharing, rating 4.4 on climate action (ie, sharing the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution with future generations) and 4.3 on reduced inequalities.

Are the SDGs making a difference?

I’m sure John is right and that the SDGs are gaining some traction, including in ways not readily measured. But is that influence putting a dent in the underlying problem, that we are consuming environmental resources more quickly than nature can replace them?

The NSDC answers this question itself, opening its report with the comment that despite strong economic growth, ‘our children and grandchildren face the prospect of being worse off than we are as a result of increasing inequality, environmental degradation and climate change.’

A key problem is that while the SDGs are new in some respects, they are old in others. The goals, targets and performance measures are new, but the underlying principles are not. The UN Resolution adopting the SDGs in 2015 simply calls up the earlier principles and resolutions, such as those from Rio in 1992. This means that governments (and the rest of us) have no new reason for taking the hard decisions that sustainability requires, to keep the pursuit of economic development within nature’s capacity to replace what we consume.

Trumped by the short term

This is the reason for my cynicism. Because there is nothing new foundationally in the SDGs, short term political imperatives to grow the economy will continue to trump normative or moral obligations to share available resources with future generations and poor countries, no matter how often those obligations are repeated.

I’m sure John Thwaites is right and that the SDGs are making a difference. It’s just that they don’t contain anything that would make a fundamental difference. As a result, I expect that, short of a crisis, we will continue to play the game and report actions that are consistent with the SDGs, without actually changing our ways.

*The MDGs were later endorsed at ‘Rio+10’, the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg, 2002. These ‘Rio+’ conferences are now a thing, with Rio+30 due in 2022.

An ‘environmental accounting’ primer

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What is it? (and why should we use it?)

By Peter Burnett

‘Environmental accounting’ (or ‘environmental-economic accounting’ to use its full name) is, on first blush, a dry-as-dust topic. Yet the ideas behind it and the insights it unlocks are fundamental to good environmental governance and a meaningful shift towards sustainability. That’s in part why Australia’s governments adopted a national strategy, or at least a common national approach, to environmental accounting in 2018.

Recently I attended a workshop in Brisbane on environmental accounting* hosted by state and federal governments. The workshop was lively and well-attended, with many more participants asking to be part of the discussions than had been originally invited. Clearly the value of environmental accounting is beginning to be acknowledged across multiple sectors.

But the development of environmental accounting didn’t happen overnight. Its gestation took over half a century with some of its central concepts going back centuries. What’s more, a lot more needs to happen before its full potential is realised.

Origins

Environmental accounting can be traced back to the 1970s when several countries, including Norway and France, developed what was then described as ‘natural resource accounting’, or in the case of France, ‘patrimonial accounting’, as part of their response to the emergent major environmental concerns of that era. There were also fears associated with resource scarcity arising from the oil crisis of 1973. These accounts were kept in physical terms.

At about the same time, economists William Nordhaus and James Tobin (later to be Nobel laureates) wrote a seminal paper highlighting the shortcomings of GDP as an economic indicator. They argued for a ‘Measure of Economic Welfare’ (MEW) that subtracted consumption of capital, including ‘environmental capital’, from domestic product. This is because treating consumed capital as income creates an inflated sense of well-being in the short term but is unsustainable over the longer term. Implementing a MEW would require the inclusion in national accounts of figures for the consumption of environmental or ‘natural’ capital, expressed in monetary terms.

During the 1980s the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Bank ran workshops aimed at linking environmental accounting to the System of National Accounts (SNA), an international standard maintained by the UN. This work may have influenced another well-known UN project, the Brundtland Report of 1987, famous for proposing a global goal of ‘sustainable development’.

Brundtland placed great emphasis on policy integration as essential to achieving sustainable development. Although Brundtland did not go on to recommend environmental accounting per se, it did couch some of its arguments in economic and accounting terms, referring for example to ‘overdrawn environmental resource accounts’ and the need to maintain the stock of ‘ecological capital’. Given the implicit connections made in Brundtland, it’s probably no coincidence that Agenda 21, the action plan adopted by the subsequent Rio Earth Summit of 1992, linked accounting and sustainability directly by including a commitment to develop integrated environmental and economic accounting as ‘a first step towards the integration of sustainability into economic management’.

With Agenda 21 providing a mandate, the UN soon published a handbook on integrated environmental and economic accounting in 1993. However, it took a further 20 years to develop the handbook into a full international accounting standard and even then the scope of the standard was confined to traditional natural resources, with ecosystem accounting relegated to a supporting ‘experimental’ framework. The UN is scheduled to consider adopting a revised version of this experimental framework as a full international accounting standard in 2021. I hope this indeed occurs, but it reflects how long these processes take. The gestation period for this work is nearly 30 years!

Delay aside, a key innovation of the resulting System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA) is the concept of ‘combined presentation’, the ability to produce accounts expressed in either physical or monetary terms, or both. This allows accounts to support two streams of work: 1. the integration of environmental consumption into national accounting and
2. the use of physical accounts to inform environmental management.

Why bother?

As national accounting informs economic decision-making, the rationale for environmental accounting in monetary terms is clear. But why bother with physical accounting, other than as an intermediate step to monetary accounts? The answer lies in two developments, one in the late 1960s and the other going back to medieval times.

Concerns about the extent of environmental decline had been growing steadily through the 1960s. In 1969** two resource economists, Robert Ayers and Allen Kneese made a profound observation concerning environmental ‘externalities’ (externalities are the costs or benefits affecting persons not party to an economic transaction). Their observation was that if environmental externalities could no longer be regarded as exceptions, but were more the norm, then good economic decision-making required a ‘materials balance’; that is, a full recording and accounting for environmental impacts, in physical terms. Implicitly, Ayers and Kneese had just made the case for environmental accounts.

The other development foundational to the case for environmental accounting is the concept of the ‘double entry’, which goes back at least to the medieval ‘Venetian method’ of book-keeping. Double entry recognises that almost all transactions involve both a gain and a loss. In purchasing equipment for example, a business gains the equipment but loses the money used to pay for it, so it records both the gain and the loss in separate ledgers, one for equipment and one for cash. Moreover, accounting links the two aspects of the transaction, showing that this purchase in the equipment ledger was paid for with this payment, and correspondingly that this payment was attributable to that equipment purchase.

Stocks and flows

Environmental accounting builds on the parallels between our interactions with each other in business and our interactions with the environment. Just as business accounting tracks the stocks of business assets and liabilities, and the flows of business receipts and expenditure, recording the net change in capital at year’s end, so environmental accounting tracks the stocks of environmental assets (and liabilities, eg pollutants) and the flows of ecosystem services (and expenditure on ecosystem maintenance), recording the net change in natural capital each year.

Moreover, environmental accounts record the transaction from both society’s end and the environment’s end, making it ‘quadruple entry’. As a result, environmental accounts can show for example that this flow of ecosystem services to society came from that environmental asset, depleting it by this much, but that the depletion was offset by that degree of natural replenishment and this much environmental maintenance. This capacity to link transactions so specifically to their causes and impacts is what makes accounting a powerful tool for environmental analysis and decision-making.

What next?

Environmental accounting is starting to build significant momentum in Australia. As this work is still in its infancy, despite its long gestation, the ongoing work under way nationally and internationally to develop accounting standards and protocols remains important. More important however is the need to pay extra attention to, pardon the pun, the other side of the ledger, the application of accounts for better decision-making. I will cover this in a future article.

* The Brisbane workshop on environmental accounting brought together a number of researchers to present their work on the development or application of accounts. For example, Victoria presented their work on using accounts to identify the ecosystem services provided by forests.

**1969 is big in the news at the moment with the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. It seems strange to me that so much attention is paid to this triumph of technology; while so little attention has been given to 1969 as the dawn of modern environmental policy. Beyond the analytical insights of Robert Ayers and Allen Kneese, 1969 also marked the passage of the world’s first comprehensive environmental law the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), thanks significantly to the efforts of Professor Lynton Caldwell.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

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Reflecting on the moment the world changed

By David Salt

Seventy four years ago, at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, the US military detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Code named Trinity, the test was run out on a lonely New Mexican desert on an air force bombing range. Small by the standards of later tests, Trinity still managed to light up the surrounding mountains brighter than day, fuse the sand underneath it into radioactive green glass and generate a shock wave felt over 160 km away.

Yet the significance of Trinity extends way beyond that New Mexican desert, and even beyond the end of the Second World War which, with the aid of atomic weapons, was now only weeks away.

By some reckonings, 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, marks the beginning of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Seventy four years on, the trajectory of the Anthropocene should be at the fore front of all our thinking.

Written in stone

The Anthropocene is not yet an ‘official’ geological time period. Such decisions require a formal review and proclamation by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a fairly conservative scientific panel not keen on mixing their science with fashion and politics (and the ‘Anthropocene’ is jam packed with political ramifications).

According to the ICS, planet Earth is still officially in what’s known as the Holocene Epoch, which began after the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago.

But many scientists have been unhappy with the title ‘Holocene’ believing human activity is now dominating the Earth system, and this should be reflected in the stratigraphic nomenclature – the Earth’s geological rock strata reflecting the deep history of our planet. The name ‘Anthropocene’ was proposed by the atmospheric chemist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Crutzen back in the year 2000.

For a new geological epoch to be declared the rock strata above a proposed boundary needs to distinctly different from those below, suggesting some major change in the processes that created them. But this difference also needs to be evident all around the world, indicating that the change is global and not merely regional in character.

Can human activity be seen in the geological record? You betcha! Particles of plastics, concrete and aluminium, all of undeniable human origin are now widespread around the planet and found in today’s emerging strata. But possibly the most undeniable material of human origin being found in the strata are radionuclides from atomic bombs, beginning with Trinity in 1945. Nothing like these substances had existed on Earth prior to 1945, but now they coat the planet.

While the radionuclides serve as an easily detectable marker, they only exist in trace quantities. Other artificial materials are so abundant we’re drowning in them. The total amount of concrete that humanity has produced, most of it in the post-1950 period, amounts to about a kilogram for every square metre across the entire surface of the Earth. The amount of plastic wrap produced since 1950 is enough to cover the entire planet in plastic. And enough aluminium foil has been manufactured to wrap the continent of Australia.

All of these stratigraphic markers begin to appear in significant amounts around the middle of the 20th century. This coincides with a time that is now commonly referred to as the Great Acceleration, a period of unparalleled economic growth and development. And it wasn’t just plastic production that skyrocketed; so too did water use, energy use, fertilizer consumption, international tourism, dam construction and paper production. Underpinning it all was a swelling human population and an insatiable drive to grow the economy.

When did the Anthropocene begin?

When Crutzen first began writing about the Anthropocene with colleagues he proposed that it began with the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution from the second half of the 18th Century. This was because this period coincided with increasing levels of carbon dioxide associated with greater levels of coal consumption.

Other scholars have suggested the Anthropocence began much earlier, back with the Agricultural Revolution some 5-8000 years ago. The spread of agriculture also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions through changes in land management.

Others have suggested even earlier dates with human making their mark through the extinction of mega fauna in areas where they appeared.

Each proposal for the beginning of the Anthropocene has its strengths and weaknesses depending on your frame of reference.

From an Earth systems perspective, however, it is only from 1950s that the cumulative impact of human activity began to distort the Earth system itself. Humanity was changing the very behaviour of our planet. None of the earlier ‘start’ dates can claim this.

And, when you combine this with the crystal clear signal of radionuclides and their sudden appearance, I believe Trinity is the best candidate for the opening of this latest planet-shifting epoch – the Anthropocene. The fact that Trinity also symbolises our ‘mastery’ over matter by unleashing the dangerous power of the atom only reinforces the significance of the 16th of July 1945.

So, 74 years into the Anthropocene, where is it taking us? I don’t think we’ll need another 74 years to find out.

Image: The Anthropocene began with a bang. The Trinity explosion is pictured here 16 milliseconds after the detonation. The highest point of the explosion’s dome in this image is about 200 metres high. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)

From ‘cowboy economy’ to ‘spaceman economy’

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Kenneth Boulding and the view from Spaceship Earth

By Peter Burnett

Sustainability is a complex multidisciplinary field, so it’s not surprising that many of its concepts evolved over decades of scholarship and policy development. However, in my research, I have been surprised on several occasions by scholars putting forward valuable framings of sustainability concepts well before the emergence of the notion of sustainable development itself. Kenneth Boulding’s 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth is the example par excellence of this phenomenon. Not only did Boulding hit the nail on the head in regards to the nature of the problem, he also framed the way forward in a compelling and lucid way. It’s something we can still learn from today.

Early Boulding

Boulding was a British-American; a professor of economics by title, a social philosopher by inclination and a Quaker by conviction.

He began publishing in the 1930s and had been pushing boundaries long before Spaceship Earth. Influenced by his study of accounting, he had argued in his 1950 book A Reconstruction of Economics that the balance sheet should be a central analytical concept in economics, specifically that asset preferences (stocks) rather than profit maximisation (flows) should be a central to explaining the behaviour of economic entities. It is thus not surprising to find Boulding talking elsewhere about World War II as having ‘drained the economic bathtub in a great waste of consumption’, with the task of post-war reconstruction being to refill the bath.

Boulding argued for a ‘conceptual revolution’ concerning consumption. He believed the emphasis should be on the enjoyment of assets rather than their consumption (or, as Boulding put it, their destruction). Through this lens, production and income should be seen as quantities to be minimised rather than maximised, in the interests of maximum enjoyment. This would have been complete heresy in an era when the idea of unbounded growth was rapidly becoming dominant.

Undaunted, Boulding would make much the same argument a decade and a half later in Spaceship Earth, but this time in connection with the environment.

Spaceship Earth

In 1966 Boulding was invited to write an essay for a forum held by the think tank Resources for the Future (RFF, itself an interesting organisation that played a pivotal role in sustainability thinking). Prompted by growing recognition that most of the pressures on the natural environment were the result of high levels of consumption and economic growth, RFF adopted a forum theme of ‘Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy’. (If RFF had added the word ‘maintaining’ to this theme they would, in essence, have defined environmental sustainability 20 years early: another example of prescient thinking.)

Boulding was a big picture thinker and in 1966 the ‘space race’ and the ‘moonshot’ were the order of the day (as was the sexist language in the quotes that follow). His narrative was that humans were making a long transition in their image of interaction with the environment. This transition involved moving from the ‘cowboy economy’, in which there were vast expanses of resources and an ever-beckoning frontier, to the ‘spaceman economy’, which was a closed system, a single earthly ‘spaceship’ in which man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system that is capable of continuous reproduction but limited by energy inputs from the sun (whether directly as solar radiation or indirectly through fossil fuels).

The measure of success in the cowboy economy was production and consumption (throughput), because reservoirs of resources were effectively infinite. In contrast, the measure of success in the spaceman economy was not throughput but the nature and extent of total capital stock, including human bodies and minds (which we would now call human and intellectual capital). The task in the spaceman economy was thus to maintain the stock, in part by increasing resource-use efficiency. In a masterly understatement, Boulding noted that the idea that both production and consumption were undesirable would be very strange to economists. It would have been to politicians too, who by then had become wedded to the mantra of economic growth and GDP as the only measure of success, as reflected in the OECD’s 1961 target of increasing growth by 50% in a decade!

Sustaining capital in time and space

Boulding describes the sphere of economic activity as the ‘econosphere’ and society as the ‘sociosphere’, with environmental resources passing from the environment into the econosphere and waste passing in the reverse direction. This pretty much captures the later foundational model of ecological economics (figure 1) in which the economy is a subset of, and thus dependent on society, which in turn sits within and depends upon the environment.

Figure 1: The foundational model that lies at the heart of ecological economics.

Boulding recognised that a prescription of maintaining capital for the long haul raises the question of why we should do such a thing, encapsulated in the sardonic aphorism ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’ Rather than pose a normative answer to this question, as nations later did in endorsing the principle of intergenerational equity through the Rio Declaration (1992), Boulding argues an anthropological rationale: that the welfare of the individual depends on identifying with a community, not only in space but over time. In other words, we identify with future generations as part of our own well-being.

Natural capital on Spaceship Earth

The Spaceship Earth essay carries, expressly or by implication, a full theory of, and prescription for, environmental sustainability. It recognises that our attitude to the environment is based on our image of the environment, which thus explains our attitudes. It presages the insights of ecological economics and the policy prescriptions of modern environmental sustainability: maintain natural capital, increase resource efficiency and ensure that the scale of consumption remains within the regenerative capacity of the environment.

Even where Boulding does not solve a problem of sustainability policy, he plants the seed of its solution. For example, he recognises that even if we accept the welfare of future generations as part of our own welfare, it remains economic practice to discount future values. He explains that discounting is based on our myopia concerning the future, which is ‘an illusion which the moral man should not tolerate’.

Although he does not propose a solution, he nevertheless plants the seeds of one in his prescription to maintain capital. In economics, the case for any project is evaluated by cost-benefit analysis, in which future costs are discounted. If the maintaining of capital is a prescribed as fundamental policy, then the case for any individual project, which might otherwise have been justified solely by reference to cost-benefit analysis, must now be made within and subject to a constraint of maintaining capital. In other words, you can discount all you like but your project will be constrained by rules concerning or prices of natural capital.

Beyond Silent Spring

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963) is generally acknowledged as the foundational work of the modern environmental era. However, Silent Spring identified a particular aspect of the problem of environmental decline and did not develop a solution. Spaceship Earth came a little later, but it was the first to describe the problem in holistic and conceptual terms and the first to outline a policy solution.

The best modern approaches to environmental sustainability can trace a direct lineage to Boulding’s essay and sit entirely within its construct. It is a tour de force.

Image: The Blue Marble, the view from Apollo 17 of Spaceship Earth some 45,000 kilometres distant. (NASA, 1942)

A (very) short history of sustainability

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A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)

Regretfully, it’s too late for ‘no-regrets’

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What’s the pathway for real sustainability following the Australian Election?

By Peter Burnett

Like many people, I was surprised by the win for conservative parties in the recent Australian election. I know there were lots of factors in play, but I thought that the extreme weather of last summer in particular had propelled climate change to the top of the political agenda, especially in the minds of young people, who were enrolled to vote in record numbers. I was reinforced in my views by much of the political commentary. Progressive parties seemed to have reached a similar conclusion, campaigning hard as they did on ambitious environmental policy platforms.

How wrong I was

Financial issues, especially proposed tax changes, appear to have weighed more on the minds of voters. The views of one young voter, who appeared on the television show ‘Q&A’ after the election, seemed to me to encapsulate the electoral mood. This voter commented that she was concerned by climate change (and also, she implied, by the expected opprobrium of her climate-voting cohort) but ultimately voted conservatively because of her concerns about the more immediate impacts of progressive party tax policies on her family.

While the election result could be attributed to various one-off factors, from an environmental perspective the underlying problem is that environment continues to be framed as an issue of progressive vs conservative, left vs right. Unless both sides pursue strong environmental policies then we cannot hope to sustain the policies necessary to avert the ‘dangerous climate change’ of the UN Climate Convention, let alone other disasters such as the loss of a million species predicted in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The divide over environmental policy was not part of the political landscape when environmental concerns first became prominent in the public consciousness in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rather, it emerged much later as vested interests, realising the implications of the policies necessary to counter environmental decline, pushed back hard, including by framing issues in terms of the ‘environment vs jobs’ dichotomy that reflects the dominant and still-powerful post-war paradigm, that of economic growth as progress.

A clash of paradigms

Can we return to bipartisanship? This would require a shift from a growth paradigm to one of sustainability. In pure policy terms the case for such a shift is clear: the growth paradigm became outdated around 50 years ago, when humans realised that the environment was a limited, rather than unlimited, resource. The sustainability paradigm that emerged in response rests on the recognition that we can only consume nature at the rate at which it renews itself. If we exceed that rate, we are headed for disaster.

In political terms however the case is far from clear. The growth paradigm is based on ‘growing the economic pie’ and gives a ‘win-win’ outcome: grow the pie and you grow every slice, including the slice constituted by government spending on the environment. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’, as they say.

The sustainability paradigm on the other hand gives a ‘win-lose’ outcome. If we consume to our hearts’ content, we court disaster at the expense of future generations (if not our future selves). If on the other hand we live within our environmental means, we do the right thing by future generations, but at the expense of constraining our own consumption, especially by those who do, or aspire to, consume a lot.

And who wants to give government a mandate to constrain consumption, unless convinced there is no other way to look after their children and grandchildren? Although this has been a logical conclusion to draw for over 50 years, this framing has yet to be adopted generally, in part because so many people have a vested interest in either clinging to the growth paradigm or watering down the sustainability paradigm.

This watered-down version of sustainability is that we can live within our means simply by using environmental resources efficiently, with the bonus outcome that efficient consumption will save us money. Another win-win, achieved for example by switching off lights in empty rooms. We might have got away with such an approach in 1969, but in 2019 it’s far too late for such a ‘no-regrets’ approaches.

It’s time (?)

I argued in an earlier blog that it will probably take a significant environmental crisis to generate the social consensus necessary to support a paradigm shift. I still hold that view, although there is at least one example of a country finding an easier path. In the period 2005-2009, the United Kingdom shifted from a bland incremental climate policy to an ambitious goal, enshrined in law, to an 80% cut in emissions, from a 1990 base, by 2050. There was no crisis, but a confluence of factors conducive to change.

The UK Government had commissioned the influential Stern Review, which argued the economic costs of not acting (Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out that climate change is the “greatest and widest‐ranging market failure ever seen”). Al Gore produced his influential documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (aimed at alerting the public to an increasing ‘planetary emergency’ due to global warming). And future Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to modernise the Conservative Party (then in Opposition) and actually beat the Government to the punch in opting for ambition. And the Global Financial Crisis gave the UK Government an opportunity to present ‘green economy’ measures as a major part of the solution to the crisis.

Whatever the precipitating event, we will only respond effectively to environmental issues when we abandon the growth paradigm in favour of one built around sustainability. If that happened, environmental policy would become much more like foreign policy: generally bipartisan because we are all in favour of Australia being a secure country able to pursue prosperity under an effective international rules-base order. If only Australia had a David Cameron or two (circa 2006 of course, not the Brexit David Cameron).

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Not in my backyard

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To save the planet we need ‘transformative change’!!! (But not in my backyard.)

By David Salt

Did you hear the sobering news last week? “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” says the UN-supported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind; IPBES announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating.

Consequently, IPBES says, we need ‘transformative change’; and by that they mean a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Well, having sobered up, my first response to this science-based statement and ‘call to arms’ is to reach for the bottle.

I don’t for a second doubt the evidence or the gravity of the declaration; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. Pretty much exactly the same thing was said in the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released in 2015, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 released in 2010, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, and at the proclamation of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 (and at its renewal in 2002).

The numbers in this 2019 declaration are direr but the underlying message is the same: situation awful and it’s getting worse and the awfulness is accelerating. To address it we need BIG change, transformative change, and we need it immediately.

A line in the sand

I think my pessimism about these declarations really took off in 2010 with the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook. 2010 was supposed to be a line in the sand for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what signatories hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

However, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

‘We need transformative change’ was also the call at the time, but rather than exploring what that meant, a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) was drawn up on what needed to be achieved by 2020.

Business as usual

Well, rather than witnessing a transformative change from this wakeup call in 2010, the world trundled along, business as usual.

The fight over greenhouse emissions seems to have stolen most of the available oxygen in the environmental debate, and rates of biodiversity decline have skyrocketed.

The IPBES report last week suggests we have a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting the Aichi Targets (by next year); but even that shock announcement will quickly be forgotten in the relentless 24/7 media overload that is life in the 21st Century.

I’m not saying that the IPBES announcement last week was ‘wrong’, just that its framing reveals an inherent ‘disconnect’ with reality. The numbers presented (and the underlying trends they reflect) are horrifying, but the call for transformation just seems naïve (particularly so when that same plea is oft repeated).

In this instance, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, observed: “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Taking on the status quo

Too tepid by half Bob. Those ‘interests vested in the status quo’ have been running the show since the beginning of the Great Acceleration back in the 1950s. That status quo is founded on unbounded economic growth and held together by neoliberal ideology. What’s more, the elites in all the developed world are the main beneficiaries of this status quo and are unlikely to seriously engage with the transformation that might change it.

And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s all well and good to say that environmental degradation is unacceptable (unsustainable) but transforming the status quo simply won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘broader public good’ is usually trumped by the ‘sweet self-interest of the successful man’*.

Which is why I included earlier a couple of references to the US not participating in the international agreements on biodiversity conservation. The US Government is very divided when it comes to international conventions that might constrain their business interests. As a general rule they don’t sign them.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires us to change the status quo.

The Australian backyard

Back in Australia the government response to the IPBES announcement was so poor it was comical. We are in election mode at the moment so the shelf life of any important news story is lamentably short. Our political leaders know that so when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the extinction report he claimed his government had already taken action on that, hoping no-one would follow up his statement. But, as it turned out, the PM was referring to a recent bill on the testing of cosmetics on animals, an animal welfare issue that has absolutely nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. All the while our Environment Minister said nothing.

Possibly more germane to this editorial on the difficulty of transforming the status quo, our Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the IPBES report “scared him”. We assume he was ‘scared’ because he knows the scientific consensus tells us that declining biodiversity has breached a planetary boundary with dire consequences for the Earth System and all who depend on it.

But possibly he’s really scared because if we do respond appropriately to the IPBES report then he could suffer a direct electoral backlash. That’s because one of the main drivers of extinction is land clearing and guess which electorate in Australia has the worst record for clearing of threatened species habitat? It’s the electorate of Maranoa where two million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed since 2000 – and it’s represented by David Littleproud, our Minister for Agriculture.

*Borrowed from the song “Girl, Make your own mind up” by Seven World’s Collide.
The verse it comes from reads:
“They’ll try to make you believe in the invisible hand
The sweet self-interest of the successful man
To believe in the chance however remote
The rising tide lifts all the boats”

Image: Stumps on the valley caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture in Madagascar (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com)