Walking along the road to Paris

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15 June 2015

Much is at stake in 2015 – IIED's director Camilla Toulmin looks at how far we have come, the obstacles that remain, and what we need to do if we are to bring about change.

2015 is a critical year for sustainable development: IIED is tracking the route to Paris and COP21 in December (Image: IIED)

2015 is a critical year with so much at stake globally – the essentials of life on this shared planet: climate, and sustainable development.

The Paris climate summit and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) both provide an opportunity for the international community to show leadership – but we must not underestimate the level of change required.

The climate challenge

On climate, we have moved from generating the science, to demonstrating the economic feasibility of a low carbon pathway that gets us off fossil fuels. But now we're stuck with the politics of transformational change in which vested interests are so huge, they are doing their best to block progress. 

A recent Princeton report said that the US can no longer call itself a proper democracy because the huge power and success of special interest lobbies have skewed public action away from the needs of the majority. 

But the fossil fuel business is now feeling the collapse in oil prices, the threat of carbon pricing, and the roll-out of alternative energy systems. The Divest-Invest campaign has also been critical in creating big waves that at last are starting to impact on investors and capital markets. Every day, a new institution announces it's re-thinking its investment portfolio – Norway's sovereign wealth fund divesting from coal was a notable success.

This year, we're also hearing much louder messages on climate from people at the top – not just the usual NGO suspects but from the presidents of China and the United States, as well as heads of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN), Unilever, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And the Pope is due to pronounce shortly on our duty to look after the planet.

Unilever chief Paul Polman has said the thing needed most in reaching agreement in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in December is courage.

It's not easy taking the lead, you're risking reputation, position, salary and bonus. But you know it's the right thing to do. And in a world of uncertainty, one thing is certain – the costs of inaction on climate are far greater than costs of action.

Economics revisited

Climate is so often about economics – and our failure to value the right things or understand incentives. I was recently at a meeting of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), set up by the visionary risk taker and philanthropist, George Soros.

INET has been trying to rethink the fundamentals of economics so that it better matches the real world, bringing economics much closer to evolutionary biology, with people being seen to act as much on instinct and herd behaviour, as they do on rational expectations.

Maybe we can understand much more about ourselves if we study the courtship of bower-birds, bonobos and baboons, and recognise the origins of our strong, long-lasting ingrained behaviours.

The 19th century anthropologist Theodore Veblen studied how humans seek to demonstrate status through conspicuous consumption. E O Wilson, the father of socio-biology, saw how successful are individuals and societies that best manage the interplay of collaborative and competitive behaviour. And Daniel Kahneman's work forces us to accept that our brains operate in less rational ways than we might wish to believe.

So we need to understand humankind better – both the individual and the collective. What we need, as Johan Rockstrom has argued, is a revolution in our relationship to the planet and to each other.

2015 is a critical year for sustainable development: IIED is tracking the route to Paris and COP21 in December (Image: IIED)

Revolutionary thinking

The SDGs, due to be agreed in September at the UN General Assembly, could be seen as part of that revolution, pulling together our ambitions for transformational change in a package of 17 integrated goals, which are universal in scope, and cover the fundamentals of life within the confines of our planet's boundaries.

Tackling inequality is one of these goals (goal 10) and it strikes me as essential to the way we try to manage our world. Try applying the John Rawls test (the veil of ignorance). What would the rules look like if you didn't know in advance where you would be in the hierarchy of rich or poor, powerful or weak? What would global agreements look like if they were written by the poorest nations of the world?

Society loses by not investing in poorer disadvantaged groups. For example, improving African women's access to land, inputs, and credit would raise farm productivity by 15-20 per cent, as well as being the right thing to do. Ensuring poorer groups have better access to education and health has a much broader benefit to society, and again is the right thing to do.

The failure of trickle down

For the last 30 years, many in government and in business have argued that deregulation, free competitive markets, and privatisation will generate increased economic growth which trickles down to everyone.

We see that's not true. But we also know that a state-led approach doesn't work that well either. We must get the right mix of public and private incentives and actions. 

It seems that people have forgotten government's rightful purpose of taking the long view, and delivering on a range of social and environmental goals, which the market will never provide.

We need a fairer tax system that ensures contributions to the public purse are based on ability to pay. We must cut the absurd, damaging subsidies handed out to the fossil fuel sector – which the IMF calculates costs the planet more than US $5trillion a year.

And we must get governments to work together on tax. It's only by governments acting together that they can bring big corporate interests to heel.

Make a noise

They say that you can't fatten a pig on the way to market... If you want to achieve something big, you need to start planning and investing early.

That means that, for 2015, it's too late to do much more new thinking – but we need to keep the pressure up, make a noise, join coalitions, strengthen the courage of those willing to lead, and divest to invest.

The goal must be to work together on redressing the huge imbalances in power we see around us, using the tools we have – ideas, action, communication – to shift thinking and behaviour.  

Building a fairer more sustainable world takes time, resources, risk-taking, clever ideas and clear-sighted values. We need to take courage, do as much as we all can, and do it together. 

Dr Camilla Toulmin (camilla.toulmin@iied.org) is director of IIED for another two weeks. This is the latest in a series of blogs she is writing following the announcement of her departure.

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