Friday, July 12, 2013

Global Rio+20 Follow-up Conference calls for a culture of ‘long-termism’ to secure threatened environment and future generations

By Kimbowa Richard, Regional Coordinator (East African Sustainability Watch Network c/o Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development)

Last week I attended a global conference in Geneva on Implementing Intergenerational Equity: Bringing Future Perspectives to the Status Quo, July 2013 Conference Synopsis. It was organized by the UN Environment Programme and the World Future Council that was attended by leading philosophers, academics, lawyers, human rights specialists, civil society organization representatives, senior UN officials, practitioners and youth representatives from around the world, with delegates from some Geneva based Missions

The Conference was designed to consider why intergenerational equity has not been better reflected across our institutions and practices, and how to improve this. It considered what new mechanisms or tools, based upon existing best practice could more effectively take into account future generations.

The relevance of this Conference relates to the lack of discussion and relevant long-term planning in terms of  institutions and processes in East Africa, that can secure future generations as observed in the run up to the Rio + 20 Conference. This Conference was a right moment for our ongoing work (as the East African Sustainability Watch) to have the Lake Victoria Basin Commission Bill (under discussion by the East African Legislative Assembly since 2007) to embrace ‘long-termism’ rather than project / ‘short –termism’ in its planned mandate, given the inherent regional and global challenges to sustainable development arising from this approach coupled with a need to get the Rio + 20 outcome going, in East Africa.

What is intergenerational equity?

Intergenerational equity is a concept that says that humans 'hold the natural and cultural environment of the Earth in common both with other members of the present generation and with other generations, past and future' (Weiss, 1990). It means that we inherit the Earth from previous generations and have an obligation to pass it on in reasonable condition to future generations.

The idea behind not reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs is that, although future generations might gain from economic progress, those gains might be more than offset by environmental deterioration. Most people would acknowledge a moral obligation to future generations, particularly as people who are not yet born can have no say in decisions taken today that may affect them.

There are two different ways of looking at the need to ensure that future generations can supply their needs. One is to view the environment in terms of the natural resources or natural capital that is available for wealth creation, and to say that future generations should have the same ability to create wealth as we have. Therefore, future generations will be adequately compensated for any loss of environmental amenity by having alternative sources of wealth creation. This is referred to as 'weak sustainability'.

According to the World Future Council, currently, cycles of both business and governance are primarily focused on the short-term, be it quarterly results or terms in office. This therefore raised the question of how can we look beyond these toward the longer-term. In addition the vast majority of our rules are built around the flawed narrative of unlimited natural resources and ever-increasing material production.

Furthermore, core policy formulation, economic thinking and motivations remain consistently detached from broader sustainability concerns and often remains stubbornly centred around single issue silos.

The World Future Council further notes that ‘the continued approach of single issue thinking presents a false dichotomy and counterproductive interpretations of tradeoffs, while poor means and mechanisms allow little accountability, access and monitoring of decisions made and of their implementation. Meanwhile....citizens and civil society appear disconnected and disempowered from the core of policy making, left without a voice or legitimate means to present their concerns’.

Global Response: Lipservice?

References to future generations have been made in countless international treaties, conventions and national constitutions. Yet intergenerational equity, or the ability to better take into account the concerns of future generations in our current practices and policies is a poorly understood concept and as a consequence rarely applied or implemented.

Climate change has raised some attention to the long term view, and in particular the Stern Review argued from a conventional welfare economics perspective that the costs of inaction on climate change would far outweigh the costs of mitigation. Yet particular unhelpful myths remain, for example that this concept is a luxury we can ill afford given more pressing concerns. The perceived tension between the needs of the present generation over the future denies the premise that improving the prosperity of the lives of all, to bring dignity and sufficiency today is a pertinent precondition to protecting the opportunities of future generations.

For example, during the Rio + 20 process, while the World Future Council promoted this where the proposal for a High-level Representative for Sustainable Development and Future Generations remained in the negotiation text until the final hours. Instead, the Rio + 20 outcome document (paragraph 86) ‘invites’ the UN Secretary General to write a report on intergenerational solidarity and future generations which will be published later on this year. A process to contribute to this is already underway, seeking views from different actors, while a live facebook chat is planned July 15, 2013

Safeguarding future generations: Any options?

According to the World Future Council, for sustained human and environmental wellbeing, Ombudspersons for Future Generations have shown to introduce a long term perspective into political institutions and policy making, linking citizens with governments, working as a catalyst for sustainable development implementation and acting as principal, active advocate for common interests of present and future generations.

The role essentially seeks to balance the short term nature of political and budgetary cycles and the silo thinking of narrow, linear departmental remits by bringing long-term solutions and an interconnected perspective into decision making processes. They can provide high level, independent, policy expertise and advocacy on the themes of intergenerational justice, using integrated analyses to highlight for example how many of the apparent short-term economic costs should be factored as vital investments for future risk prevention. Public participation remains a core principle of sustainable development and yet needs to be strengthened. Young people are underrepresented and future generations almost entirely omitted in domestic and international decision-making processes.

Poverty reduction key to invest in future generations

Coming ahead of the UN Secretary General’s Report to be presented in August to the General Assembly in August 2013, the imperative for action was emphasized throughout the Conference. Two obligations were emerged: the first is to leave the natural and human environment in at least as good condition as it was received and the second, to end poverty.

‘We are reaching critical moments, the 20th century was a century of lost opportunity, the 21st century is our last opportunity. The human and ecological worlds are suffering from our misguided actions: the damage to the natural world shows how far we have lost our connection to and relation with the environment around us’, according to the Conference synopsis released July 10, 2013

The Synopsis further notes that tackling poverty remains central to consideration for future generations. ‘We cannot expect impoverished people to be able to care for future generations - it is simply impossible to invest in the future when the present is a fight for survival. It remains an obligation to maintain the robustness of the human environment as a key to addressing issues in the anthropocene. Improving the lives of current generations is therefore pertinent for generations to come, not just environmentally but socially and economically’.

The Conference noted that humanity is plundering the birth right of future generations, yet we do not have a mechanism or methodology to prevent this and emphasized the need to recognize the effects of what we do on future generations and assess our political acts through an intergenerational lens. We need to create values of responsibility and foster such values and empathy in current generations and develop ourselves into a ‘morally mature culture’. This embodies the principle of trusteeship; the principle of duty towards our children and future generations.

In terms of response, the conference observed that people are more likely to respond to a hopeful, optimistic message rather than a situation of fear, doom, gloom and sacrifice. This is a cyclical approach rather than a process of physically handing something over – thus removing entirely the unhelpful ‘them versus us’ concept. Perhaps more should be done to emphasize that sustainable development benefits current and future generations and the environment. However none of these three actors are mutually exclusive.

Uncertainty – that the future generations’ values and needs will be massively different to ours is always put forward as an excuse for inaction. The Conference noted that this should not be the case, as we can safely assume that future generations will have the same basic needs as us, while we have no basis to suppose that they will be able to fall back on a dramatically impoverished nature and on lack of vital resources.

A case for a specific institution/function and representation for future generations

The Conference emphasized a need for a specific institution/function and representation for future generations. However, since it is simply not possible for future generations to represent themselves, institutions/organizations that in an epistemic manner can put themselves in the position of future generations and work on an adequate representation of those rights and interests. Furthermore, this function can play a fundamental role in genuinely integrating the elements of sustainable development – it is not happening without intervention and it can no longer be a bolt on or a tick box exercise. Especially given the right to a healthy environment is the key fundament under the three dimensions of sustainable development.

An official, tasked with representing and advocating for future generations was regarded as essential to promote this agenda. There were significant debates on the nature and mandate of a representative for future generations, internationally, nationally, regionally, locally (all levels were regarded as important).

In this regard, it was widely recognised that the institution/organisation/representative would require a well-defined, broad and effective mandate set out under a specific treaty or law. They would be independent, transparent, democratically legitimate, with access to information, open to external assessment and proficient. Overtime the office would become a service for integrated policy making and expertise in wellbeing.

Spokesperson for the future at all levels?

According to the Conference synopsis, the above role is very different to a spokesperson for youth. Those who fight for this institution realise the formalistic debates on the rights of future generations, or their interests or needs. Naturally this is a debate that follows the establishment of the institution. The breadth of the role was emphasised by many, to reach beyond the environment, to ensure social justice and economic framing.

At the national level, the advantage of statutory recognition, to ensure permanence to this institution, to survive political changes was raised. Could the representative convene truth and reconciliation commissions charged with changing the behaviour of current generations and make peace with future generations? A right of appearance before the court of law is appropriate at the national level, but must also be able to get a decree in their favour.

If introduced at the UN, this function offers compelling direction and impetus to national, local, regional governments to introduce counterparts, and encourages vertical alignment, helping to drive implementation from international to local levels. Establishing a network of recognised representatives would help to build visibility and profile and co-ordination on efforts to build a long term view.

Several remarks touched upon the semantics, or terminology of the role providing subtle differences: a guardian could act as a proxy (and perhaps best encapsulates the concept of trusteeship), an ombudsperson would be an advocate of the rights of future generations (and has rich institutional history of over 200 years).

Rolling out the task?

A number of tools and tasks for this role were identified, including, undertaking an audit or mapping of the commons, cultural heritage and natural environment, with a legacy analysis of how we hand it over to future generations and compiling the notion of the common heritage from the mosaic of the different states’ national heritage.

The use of indicators were recognized as excellent tools to measure or set thresholds on the work and substance. A certification standard could also be developed, to help provide legal recognition and ensure the quality and accountability of the mandate and mission, also helping to add greater visibility to their role. Culture and education should also be emphasized through this role: long-termism needs to become a cultural norm and this concept should be taught from a young age.

Read more about the outcomes from the Global conference on Implementing Intergenerational Equity: Bringing Future Perspectives to the Status Quo, July 2013 Conference Synopsis from here