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    Towards Rio+20: Sustainable Development and the Role of the State.

    Date published:25 April  2012
    Article category: Speeches

    Keynote Address by Minister Trevor Manuel at MISTRA/FES Workshop on Sustainable development

    MISTRA/ Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
    Towards Rio+20: Sustainable Development and the Role of the State
    Cape Town Lodge Hotel
    Cape Town
    South Africa
    23-25 April 2012

    Keynote Address by Trevor Manuel, Minister, Head of the National Planning Commission*

    Rio+20 offers a wonderful opportunity to re-affirm what is good and continuous about the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, adopted at Stockholm on 16 June 1972, and re-affirmed in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. If we go back to the Rio Principles, and try to understand how we describe, and respond to, the environment and each other, and the decisions we make within and across countries, twenty years later we could not re-craft these principles in any other way. Rio+20 is an opportunity to re-affirm what is good; and it comes at a time when it is possible to accelerate the very important decision taken twenty years earlier in Stockholm.

    The United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico in 2002 was a good opportunity to deal with one aspect that arose first in Rio: Financing for Development. The Monterrey Consensus tried to deal with partnerships between rich and poor, with collective responsibility, and what we take forward. And the issue of partnership is especially important for Africans: our decision making as Africans is premised on partnerships, and so NEPAD was born in the same spirit as The Monterrey Consensus of 2002.

    That Monterrey Consensus is rather interesting, because it happened at a very particular point in history that signalled a new trend in respect of collective responsibility for the earth and its development imperatives. But it was also the first international conference in the wake of the events of 9/11. So it happened at a time of particular consciousness about collective responsibility.
    This spirit was taken forward at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, otherwise known as Rio+10. The Johannesburg Declaration tried to take forward a contemporary analysis of everything that had started in Stockholm in 1972. There was a very strong trajectory of thinking about development, of decision-making about ourselves as people and our engagement with our surroundings.

    The Monterrey Declaration was taken forward at the Follow-up International Conference on Financing for Development in Doha in 2008.

    And now in 2012 there’s Rio+20.

    There have been 17 Conferences of the Parties since 1992. How is it that, in 17 meetings over 20 years, we have not been able to reach decisions on things that everybody meets about? Why are even the few agreements not implemented? Such is the decision-making process in the world.
    The question we must confront as we prepare for Rio+20 is what further advances are possible? We have to start with the way the 27 principles were embedded in Rio. And a key question has to be on implementation. How do you take all the agreed principles, and modifications and finessing and nuancing of those decisions, and focus on implementation that takes them forward with mutual responsibility?

    And this is where I think the interesting discourse on ‘the pessimism of the intellect as opposed to the optimism of the will’ – to paraphrase Antonio Gramsci – has found resonance. I think the optimism of the will is that which is expressed in every new declaration that reinforces where we have been before, that brings these things together, and that articulates this clearly at each of the conferences I have recalled, and the many in between. I didn't talk about what is also fundamentally important: the Millennium Summit, where one hundred Heads of State agreed on issues that should hold the world together: The Millennium Development Goals or MDGs.

    So, the optimism of the will is present in the way in which those decisions are crafted and finessed.
    The pessimism is present when you try and persuade especially rich countries to part with the resources that they agreed to at various points. We should be able to turn to a Head of State of a very rich country and ask them to part with the resources to deliver on any of the millennium development goals. And that’s where the pessimism of the intellect begins to take root and you begin to hear the explanations of how difficult it is in the post-financial crisis period, how complex it is to deal with deficits on the fiscus, and how unbelievably unforgiving the electorate in their particular country is.

    As we prepare for Rio+20, the key question is whether we can dislodge, or replace, the pessimism of the intellect with something that brings a greater alignment between world reality and the intellect. At the moment they sit in stark juxtaposition. Can you bring about a different kind of alignment between what we see and feel and the way in which we relate to the world; and that which we actually desire as being in the best interest of all of us?

    This conference can and should help us think through the various elements of sustainability in its economic, ecological and social dimensions.

    In order to provoke discussion, I wish to argue for the inversion of the conference programme from focusing on the economic, then the ecological, and then the social aspects of sustainable development. I’m arguing against the conference structure, because we need to avoid economic determinism, because it reinforces the pessimism of the intellect.

    So, let me start with the social aspect of sustainability. The first question that arises is: what remains undone? Is it possible to abstract the very necessary discussions that we must have about sustainable development from the lived experiences of people?

    I was quite fascinated to read a recent report called “China 2030” where they were taking a prospective look at China and they were dealing with the elements of a harmonious society. It’s very important how they examine the issues of harmony in the context of China and the way in which they express their concerns. And one of the big concerns that they raise is the incentive structure in society where some people, in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping, are getting rich much too quickly; and inequality is increasing.

    China has now 89, perhaps over 90, billionaires – much more than Japan. They are also very deeply concerned about the Gini coefficient in China, which thirty years ago was close to zero. It now stands at 0.47, higher than the United States. So China’s development path, that includes issues of sustainability of their entire development path, has to take account of the issues of harmony in society because this will construct a different set of engagements. This is a challenge to all of us around the world: how do we deal with the broader challenges of sustainable development without bringing into very sharp relief the issue of the millennium development goals.

    I think we must consciously avoid this notion that discussions on environmental issues are matters confined to what somebody described the other day as ‘the discourse of trust fund kids.’ We need to internalise all of these discussions. And for me this conference presents an opportunity to bring together the discourse on social issues and the MDG's, on the one hand, and issues of the environment and Rio+20, on the other.

    On the theme of the ecological construct, again, it is very important that we approach this with the same kind of consciousness, aware of the risk of abusive practices that are in evidence everywhere; and how in spite of the best endeavors, the fact that yesterday was Earth Day went by unnoticed.
    And so we aren't able to have this link between lived experience of people and what happens to all of those good decisions and strong principles 20 years down the line. So how do we break through this? How do we ensure that we have a discussion that actually matters and that everybody understands collective responsibility for decision-making?

    In the economic discussions we must avoid the temptation of doing what people accuse those who are branded ‘economists’: of being too deterministic of everything else that matters. We should approach this matter without a quick fix in mind.

    One of the interesting challenges in bringing these issues together in the economic discourse is that the foundations of what existed before the last crisis have been shaken. The foundations of the global economy have been shaken, but I don't think there is anybody who can put their finger on what actually replaces it.

    So I think the world’s thinkers find themselves in this interregnum; there is nothing! The critique is fairly easy, we see this from many a Noble Laureate, we read about it, we engage it, we like it. It gives us a warm fuzzy feeling, but there is nothing yet to replace it. I think it’s very important that we understand that we are dealing with the issues of sustainable development in a context where the paradigm has actually shifted and there is nothing quite sitting in its place.

    Again if we look at how a number of countries are dealing with this, sometimes through force of circumstances, we will see a number of initiatives in respect of the green economy where countries have taken a view.

    In May last year Germany took a view about a different approach to energy sources in the economy and it was a big, brave decision. But I think it’s a signal about some of the capabilities in that country. Or, one can look at the trends in South Korea where they actually set the post-financial crisis focus largely on driving an agenda for a green economy – not only in South Korea, but also globally.

    Or one can look at the impact of Japan's energy efficiency strategy, which has seen a decrease of some 26% in energy intensity over a slightly longer period between 1980 and 2009. Fukushima was actually a very significant setback on that path. But it’s very important to understand just what their rational decision making about what influences people in their environment can have on economic output.

    Coming back to China, and their 2030 document: they are looking for new evidence to shape new approaches, new models of development and finding, among the provinces in China, ways to emulate the best practice from one to the other.

    And so I think even in respect of economic forces and the way in which a number of countries are opting to take decisions, we are living in a very interesting period in world history. This moment that Rio+20 presents us with is a moment to engage. One in five people in the world, that is 1.4 billion people, give or take, still live in extreme poverty. That has to be a challenge for how we engage in this entire discussion going forward. I think for rational decision-makers everywhere this is a wakeup call; it’s a call to action.

    What the moment presents us with, I want to end by saying, is an opportunity to assess whether it is possible to match the optimism of the will with an optimism of the intellect. That calls for a lot of persuasion; it calls for dealing with facts that present themselves as opportunities rather than risk. I'm hoping that this conference brings together the kinds of minds that have sufficient energy within themselves to drive that matching of will and intellect, so that emerging from it can be a direction that will help many of us take a new approach to Rio+20.

    Thank you very much.

    * This is an edited version of a keynote Address by Trevor Manuel, Minister, Head of the National Planning Commission, given at the opening dinner of the MISTRA/FES Conference “Towards Rio+20: Sustainable Development and the Role of the State” in Cape Town, 23-25 April 2012. 

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    Edited Keynote: Minister Trevor Manuel (G Smith) 0Page 4

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