Climate change and Sustainable Development: Clarifying linkages

14 June 2012

Achieving sustainable development entails making progress on the three integrated strands of the social, the environmental and the economic. Climate change and its impacts touch on all the three strands – causing environmental damage and degradation; increasing social vulnerability, and exacerbating economic instability.

The Rio+20 Conference gives us a chance to address two key issues – reinventing our economy and strengthening our international institutions to support and ensure sustainable development. Our ability to build a truly green economy depends on preventing climate disruptions, and dealing with unavoidable impacts of climate in building social, environmental and economic resilience, robustness and integrity. Both adaptation to and mitigation of the impacts of climate change form an integral part of building green economies across the globe so that it actually does become a means to achieving sustainable development.

There are significant concerns that a narrow focus on a green economy will result in the loss of one of the main qualities of the Rio process – an integrated approach to sustainable development and its focus on the three strands of the economic, social and environmental development. There are also fears that focus on a green economy is the next step in a global march to further commercialise and commoditise natural resources and human relations to the detriment of those who are already most vulnerable. Ignoring the climate change agenda and not treating it as an integral part of the sustainable development will only reinforce this concern and further exacerbate the challenges faced.

Within the national context, the long years of treating sustainable development as a separate strain of development, removed from the mainstream economy, requires a serious reorientation and an urgent rethink. As part of this rethink nation states need to reassess the challenges and vulnerabilities their economies face – affecting them environmentally, socially and economically. The devastations of the impacts of climate change – current and future – will need to be counted in the core list of these challenges that we face while we plan and build a green economy.

The window to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic and irreversible runaway climate change is also rapidly closing. Shrinking access of communities to diminishing natural resources, over-utilization of natural resources, unsustainable consumption patterns, and the increasingly fragile and unstable global financial systems are together increasing the vulnerabilities of a large portion of the world's population, exposing them to worsening economic, social, environmental, and climatic impacts. These issues lie at the core of the sustainability agenda that Rio must address. These are reflected in the various issues and themes the Rio process seeks to negotiate.

Globally – and as the consequences of climate change become more visible – freshwater scarcity, access, and sanitation are increasingly issues of concern. Clearly, protecting and restoring water resources are crucial for environmental stability and sustainable development, including poverty eradication, health, agriculture, food security, rural development and hydropower.

Increasing energy access and security within an equitable Green Economy is not only necessary but also entirely doable. The urgency comes from the climate crisis and the current scale of energy deprivation, while the opportunity presents itself in the existing and the prospect of new technologies with the potential to facilitate the necessary energy transformation.

The green economy will not be green if it is built on nuclear and fossil fuel-dependent energy infrastructure. Subsidising the oil, gas and coal industries worldwide demonstrates that nations and the world are not currently financing deployment of sustainable, green and renewable energy. The establishment of an equitable green economy must be accompanied by the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, and other subsidies that harm the environment, distort markets and create barriers to sustainable development.

Technology development and deployment within an equitable green economy would require technology development policy with focus on climate adaptation and dissemination of green technologies that incorporate goals for sustainable development and principles aimed at identifying the range of diverse technologies required for a green gconomy, and facilitation of the maintenance and promotion of environmentally-sound indigenous technologies.

Rio was the birthplace of the UNFCCC. It has now come home to Rio again to seek further ambition and direction in order to build consistency, momentum and comprehensiveness across the multi-lateral framework.

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