A new era of global sustainability

“Actions by one country are irrelevant unless other countries are doing something similar,” explained Barry Smit, Canadian research chair in global environmental change.

While a global effort is necessary in combating the effects of climate change and maintaining resource sustainability, the success of the current model of conventions, panels and agreements is questionable.

On Aug. 9, the United Nations (UN) announced its formation of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP).

The panel, co-chaired by South African President Jacob Zuma and Finnish President Tarja Halonen, is made up of 21 experts and stakeholders from both the public and private sectors.

The goal for the GSP is to develop a new blueprint from sustainable growth and low-carbon prosperity. It will have input in inter-governmental processes, primarily the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2012.

“It is important to have a clear agenda for 2012, to keep thinking about these issues in new and creative ways, so it’s useful in that sense,” said Alex Latta, professor of global studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Latta furthered that an agenda on climate change would have been more effective in the G20 meeting that happened this past June in Toronto. “I think it’s really a mistake to say that maybe the climate change agenda will get wrapped up as a result of this.”

It is important to have a clear agenda
for 2012, to keep thinking about these
issues in new and creative ways, so
it’s useful in that sense.” —Alex
Latta, professor of global studies

While the timing of the panel may not be ideal in bringing about radical changes, it can have some effect closer to home.

“From the Waterloo perspective, the fact the Jim Balsillie is on it I find tremendously interesting,” said Latta. Balsillie, chair of the Centre of International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM), is the only Canadian and private sector representative on the panel.

Citing Balsillie’s funding of advanced policy studies programs through the Balsillie School of International Affairs Latta commented, “I didn’t know he himself would be getting involved in the level of creating policy.”

Although the purpose of incorporating both the public and private sector to develop policy reflects a successful model stemming from the 2002 sustainability summit in Johannesburg, Latta and Smit were both critical on the outcome of a policy-focused panel.

Latta speculated, “We could imagine it might serve to say: let’s create a new institutional agenda, let’s create a global agency, something on the same level as the world trade organizations.” The GSP’s lack of authority beyond presenting recommendations makes a governing organization seem unlikely.

Having seen many development groups such as this in the past, Smit stated, “It’s really a way of governments to say that something is being done about it until the issue dies down.”

Smit explained the core of the issue lies in our method of global governance. “The UN is really just a vehicle for chatting about things,” he said, adding that while creating rules and policy is necessary, there is no effective means in practice of policing it.

“If we’re going to have sustainability in resource uses in the development of the world, there has to be some rules of the game to apply to everyone,” concluded Smit.

“You can’t have one person pillaging the forest and others agreeing not to.”