The Future started yesterday

 

The term “sustainable development”  forms part of the contemporary poltical lexicon.

It is unfortunately generally a greenwash engaged upon by politicians whose gaze cannot consider more than a three to four year timeframe.  To make any sense the politics of sustainable development must be and in fact is measured in terms of generations and is commonly referred to as a “long term view”.

The Brundtland report which  is credited with setting the sustainable development ball rolling in contemporary politics was presented to the United Nations General Secretary in 1987. Entitled “Our Common Future” it was the result of the deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland former Norwegian Prime Minister.

The Brundtland report is very clear in its first pages.  In the introductory chapter  we are told that “We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote ; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

This one sentence encapsulates the significance and objectives of the politics of sustainable development:  the future has to be factored in today’s decisons. We cannot plan the present without considering its impacts on the future. Future generations have a right to take their own decisions.They need to be in a position to take their decisions without being obstructed by limitations imposed by their ancestors.

During the preparatory meetings for the Rio 1992 Earth Summit, delegations  discussed the impacts of development on various vulnerable groups. Sustainable development requires new forms of participation in decision making as a result of which those sectors of society which are normally on the fringes are reintegrated into the process.  Women, children, youth, indigenous groups, NGOs and local authorities were identified by Agenda 21 at Rio in 1992 as vulnerable groups. Other sectors such as trade unions and business/industry require a strengthened role such that there voice is heard and forms an integral part of the decision taking process.

In the process leading to the Rio 1992 Earth Summit Malta presented the UN with submissions focusing with another vulnerable group, future generations. This was done in a document dated 21 February 1992 submitted to Working GroupIII of the Preparatory Committee of the UN Rio Conference which met in New York  in early March 1992.

In paragraph 17 of its document Malta proposed to go beyond rhetoric through the inclusion in the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment of the following:

“ We declare that each generation has, in particular, the responsibility to ensure that in any national or international forum, where it is likely that a decision is taken affecting the interests of future generations, access be given to an authorised person appointed as “Guardian” of future generations to appear and make submissions on their behalf, so that account be taken of the responsibilities stated in this Declaration and the obligations created thereby.”

Malta’s proposal was developed by the International Environment Institute of the University of Malta within the framework of its “Future Generations Programme”.  In 1992 Malta’s proposal was not taken up in the Rio Declaration on the Environment however it has resurfaced in the current Rio+20 process.

In what is known as the zero draft, that is the draft final document of the Rio+20 sustainable development conference due to be held next June,  the international community is proposing to consider the setting up of an “Ombudsperson or High Commissioner for Future Generations to promote Sustainable Development” (paragraph 57 of the document The Future We Want).  This proposal, if implemented, would eventually lead to consider impacts on Future Generations of international initiatives.

In parallel with the developments on a international level which may eventualy lead to the United Nations focusing on the rights of future generations to promote Sustainable Development the Government in Malta has published draft legislation which introduces a Guardian of Future Generations. This was proposed by the Greens in Malta during consultations carried out by the Minsitry for the Environment and was taken up by government when the final draft of the legislation was drawn up.

The Bill, entitled “Sustainable Development Act”  recognizes for the first time that Future Generations (in Malta) have rights which can be impaired by today’s decisions. It provides for the creation of a Commission to be known as the Guardian for Future Generations which is to be made up of a President appointed by the Prime Minister and three other members hailing from environmental NGOs, business fora and social and community NGOs.

The Guardian for Future Generations will be assigned duties related to sustainable development ranging from sustainable development advocacy across national policymaking to encouraging NGOs and the private sector to participate in sustainable development initiatives. Given the functions and role of the Guardian I think that it would be more appropriate and effective if instead of a Commission it is just one person  appointed by the Head of State rather than by the Prime Minister.

It is unfortunate that the Bill confirms the abolition of the National Commission for Sustainable Development and in its stead proposes the creation of a Network made up of 8 persons, these being a mix of public officers and representatives of civil society. The National Commission was much larger and had the advantage of being composed of a wider cross section of civil society together with representatives of all the Ministries. Whilst it is clear that government’s objective in creating the Network is to create a lean, efficient  and effective structure, I submit that this is not incompatible with retaining the National Commission which through its extensive reach was and can still be an effective sounding board where the politics of sustainable development is moulded.  The involvement of a wide range of stakeholders is imperative in creating or reinforcing structures for sustainable development.

These developments signify that present generations are slowly coming to their senses and recognising the fact that the impacts of today’s decisions will be felt far into the future. Giving a role to future generations today would ensure that their right to take their own decisions tomorrow is not restricted by the decisions we take today. Then we can proceed to mitigate the impacts of decisions taken in the past.  As the future began yesterday!

published in The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement, January 29, 2012

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Just lip service and cold feet

                                             published Saturday August 13, 2011

The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit held in June 1992. The Rio Earth Summit itself was held on the 20th anniversary of the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which is credited with introducing the environment in the contemporary political lexicon.

In fact, it was as a result of the Stockholm conference that various countries started appointing an environment minister. In 1976, in Malta, Dom Mintoff appointed Vincent Moran as Minister for Health and the Environment. The emphasis at that stage was environmental health. His primary environmental responsibilities being street cleaning, refuse collection and the management of landfills in addition to minor responsibilities on air quality. The serious stuff came later when Daniel Micallef was appointed Minister for Education and the Environment in 1986.

In 1992, the international community met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the conflicts between development and the environment. This was brought to the fore by the 1987 UN report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report, entitled Our Common Future, referred to as the Brundtland report, is generally remembered for its definition of sustainable development. Development was defined as sustainable if, in ensuring that the needs of present generations are met, it did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit produced the Rio Declaration on the Environment, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Framework Convention on Biodiversity, the Statement of Forest Principles and Agenda 21. Each one of these assumed a life of its own, addressing various issues.

I think it is essential to focus on the relevance of Agenda 21, which was, way back in 1992, drafted to serve as a global action plan for the 21st century.

Agenda 21 emphasises that sustainable development is not spearheaded by economics. It does not seek to balance profits with other considerations. Based on respect for people and the planet in the carrying out of our activities, it links the environment with social and economic policy.

It is indeed regrettable that some countries, Malta included, loudly proclaim adherence to the objectives of Rio 1992 yet fail miserably in translating them into the requirements of everyday life.

It is necessary to reiterate that Malta, through its present government, has paid lip service to issues of sustainable development. The Environment Protection Act of 2001, now in the process of being superseded, had established a National Commission for Sustainable Development headed by the Prime Minister. This was tasked with the preparation of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which was finalised and approved by the commission in December 2006. It was presented to Cabinet, which approved it in the weeks prior to the March 2008 election.

Soon after the 2008 election, during Parliament’s first session on May 10, 2008, Malta’s President proclaimed on behalf of the government that its policies will be underpinned by adherence to the principles of sustainable development. We were then told that when formulating decisions today serious consideration would be given to their impact on the generations of tomorrow.

I doubt whether there was ever any intention to implement such a declaration. I am informed that the National Commission for Sustainable Development, which, in terms of the Environment Protection Act, is still entrusted with the implementation of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, has not met since December 2006. Consequently, the procedures laid down in section 5 of the strategy as a result of which the different ministries had 18 months to prepare and commence the implementation of an action plan based on the strategy in their areas of competence were transformed into a dead letter.

The government has now gone one step further. It is formulating a National Environment Policy. This initiative has been undertaken by the same ministry responsible for issues of sustainable development – the Office of the Prime Minister.

From what is known on the contents of this policy it substantially duplicates the areas addressed by the National Sustainability Strategy. Consequently, it is discharging down the drains four years of discussions with civil society that had given the strategy its shape and content. It is clear that on the issue of sustainable development this government is very rich in rhetoric but when it comes to implementation it gets cold feet. It’s all talk, meetings, documents and consultations. And when a document is finally produced it is back to the drawing board to start the process for another one! This is lip service at its worst.

While the international community meeting in Rio in 2012 will take stock of its modest achievements in implementing the conclusions of Rio 1992 and its follow-up meetings, including those of Johannesburg in 2002, in Malta we are still awaiting a lethargic government to take the first steps.

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Other posts on sustainable development during the past 12 months

2011, July 23                Living on Ecological Credit.

2011, June 5                 Government’s Environment Policy is Beyond Repair.

2011, March 5              Small is Beautiful in Water Policy.

2011, January 22        Beyond the  Rhetorical declarations.

2010, October 23        Time to realign actions with words.

2010, October 17        Reflections on an Environment Policy.

2010, October 3          AD on Government’s Environment policy.

2010, September 17  Lejn Politika tal-Ambjent.

2010, September 4     Environment Policy and the Budget.

2010, August 14          Thoughts for an Environmet Policy.

2010, August 2            Bis-serjeta ? Il-Politika Nazzjonali dwar l-Ambjent.