Post-2015 sustainability goals ‘should target consumption’

By Ed King

Proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) must focus on cutting rich nations’ environmental footprint rather than boosting flows of overseas aid, a new group representing some of the world’s poorest nations warns.

Targetting rising consumption levels of developed countries and the resulting pollution this creates is likely to be more effective than ‘bad aid’, they say.

The Independent Expert Group of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), supported by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), met in London for the first time this week, and plans to submit recommendations to the UN’s SDG working group in June.

“In the past with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the framing was getting poor people out of poverty. It was about the developed countries funding that,” the IIED’s Saleemul Huq said.

“The next era is much less in our view about that paradigm continuing – it’s not about the rich giving money to the poor. That remains an unfinished but minor part of the agenda.

“A bigger part of the agenda is the whole world reaching sustainability, in which the rich are over-consuming and over-polluting. It’s not about them sending money to the poor. It’s about them doing something at home.”

If the UK included imported goods into its carbon emission calculations between 1990-2008, they would rise 20% (Pic: Flickr)

The former prime minister of Haiti – Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis – will co-chair the group, whose other members come from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Mali, Nepal, Uganda and Senegal.

Consumption levels are soaring around the world, a consequence of a rising global population and greater levels of choice for consumers in terms of food, travel and other material goods.

This in turn is causing a surge in environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, where many of these products are manufactured.

Scientists warn that the collapse of natural ecosystems is undermining attempts to combat poverty.

In an article in the journal Nature, David Griggs from the Monash Sustainability Institute argued: “the stable functioning of Earth systems – including the atmosphere, oceans, forests, waterways, biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles – is a prerequisite for a thriving global society.”

A 2012 report by a UK Parliament Committee calculated that 40% of China’s total emissions were due to export orders, in effect outsourced by rich nations.

“One part of sustainability is not addressed – and that is consumption. They address poverty but not consumption,” said Youba Sokona, Mali’s representative on the group.

New era

Countries began the process of constructing post-2015 targets in February this year. The SDGs are likely to replace the MDGs, which expire in 2015.

Most developing nations want their richer counterparts to take the lead in combatting the environmental stresses the world faces on the grounds of historical responsibility.

But in what has already proved a contentious move for some developing country representatives at the UN, the LDC group wants to move discussions on the proposed SDGs away from finance and back onto what domestic actions donor countries can take.

It says ‘bad aid’ is actually holding back their own development: “It corrupts politicians, those who should be guardians of our societies. It corrupts legal systems. It pushes funding to fossil fuels,” said Dipak Gyawali, a group member and former Nepal Minister of Water Resources.

“Wherever we see things in our countries where there are moments of hope, where we see amazing innovations in villages such as technology or new practices and energy, micro, hydro, solar, these are happening by some mysterious means that really has little connection to the global discourse on foreign aid, development and MDGs.

“The time is gone to think of this whole thing in terms of aid. I am one of those who argues the age of aid is over.”

Huq points to Bangladesh’s new US$350 million national climate change fund as proof developing nations can survive without aid from abroad, while Gyawali says community projects in Nepal have a better track record than larger internationally funded efforts.

Target battle

While there appears to be reluctance at UN level to directly tackle global consumption, pressure from development NGOs is growing.

Stakeholder Forum’s recently launched SDG e-inventory already contains a variety of proposals on how sustainable consumption and production could be integrated into the post-2015 agenda.

“It is clear that eradicating poverty whilst remaining within our planet’s environmental limits, as the core objectives of the SDGs, are simply not possible unless developed nations address their issues of over-consumption and unsustainable production,” said Stakeholder Forum’s Jack Cornforth.

“Nonetheless these are not the only drivers of poverty and environmental degradation, therefore SDG targets on consumption and production should be set for all countries, accompanied by other targets pertaining to interrelated factors also key for sustainable development such as such as governance, health and education. ”

Despite their small economic status and relatively weak diplomatic power, the 49-nation LDC group has risen to prominence in recent months, notably at the UN climate change talks.

One of the group’s major strengths appears to be its ability to encourage the major emerging economies of China, India and Brazil to recognise their responsibilities in implementing change.

Huq added: “We want to show the LDCs as a positive force with a lot to contribute to the global agenda, and not just be recipients of aid which is the frame in which they are stuck – we want to break out of that framing of them as victims.”

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