Will the new UN Panel on Global Sustainability have an impact?

August 11, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

The diplomatic circus is full of high level commissions and panels on this and that, most of which deliberate, publish and sink without trace. But the UN’s new High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, launched this week by Ban Ki-moon, may just be an exception. It certainly has a hell of a job description: ‘finding ways to lift people out of poverty while tackling climate change and ensuring that economic development is environmentally friendly’, according to the UN newswire.

The 21-member panel will be co-chaired by Finland’s President Tarja Halonen and South African President Jacob Zuma. It’s membership is heavily weighted towards current and former political leaders, with as far as I can see, only one private sector representative – the CEO of Research in Motion, the company that makes Blackberries. The only vaguely civil society member, Mexican environmentalist Julia Carabias, was also Secretary of the Environment. It’s also pretty light on academics, though presumably they can be drafted in later (full list of members here). That suggests that its job is more about influencing governments than coming up with any radical new insights, and highlights the welcome lack of overlap with the science-based work of the IPCC.

Over the next two years, the panel will work on a game plan for resolving the tensions between tackling climate change and economic growth (a subject dear to this blog’s heart), which they will present to delegates at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Ban says he has ‘asked the Panel to think big’, so then the question becomes one familiar to anyone engaged in advocacy – how big? If it doesn’t go far enough in challenging received wisdom on the sanctity of growth, it won’t achieve anything, if it goes to the other extreme and starts preaching degrowth, it is unlikely to get a hearing. 
As if that wasn’t enough, officials also hope it will help resolve stalled international climate change negotiations and perhaps secure a replacement treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Anything else you’d like them to do – harness fusion energy? Find a cure for cancer?

What’s really welcome here is the recognition that there is a big picture challenge on the nature of growth that has been sidelined as governments grapple with the aftermath of the global economic crisis. Someone has to lead the thinking on it – let’s hope the Global Sustainability Panel can do so.

Janos Pasztor, the head of Ban’s climate change support team, who will also manage the new panel’s administration, expects it to begin work around the U.N. General Assembly in New York this September. Ban expects a report from the panel to be completed by the end of 2011, in time for him to forward it to UNFCCC negotiations in South Africa  in December 2011 and then to the delegates gathering for the Earth Summit. Fingers crossed.

August 11, 2010
Duncan Green