‘Change the Rules of the Game': Summary Primer on Delhi Sustainable Development Summit

Many know Seychelles as an exotic holiday destination. What many don’t know is that Seychelles is also one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Just last week itself, the country was flooded.

Or look at Maldives. Another holiday locale for the Bollywood industry. Maldives is also where the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting was held a few years ago just to drive home the climate change point. But what many don’t know is that it is also the world’s lowest country with an average height of only 1.5 meters above sea level.

Or, consider Kiribati. When the President of Kiribati arrived at the Summit, I opened Google Maps and zoomed in on Kiribati. It is not even visible on the world map primarily because the country consists of 33 small atolls spread over an area of 4 million square kilometres with barely 100,000 people living on less than 0.1% of the total area.

These countries, literally speaking, don’t have much time on the planet because they are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And it seems like India has taken upon itself in playing a major role in driving the agenda of these small island states by bringing them on the table year on year at the recently concluded 13th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit organized by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Growth equals Emissions

Even though the Indian PM Dr Manmohan Singh in his inaugural speech was focused on the economic growth measures stressing that the priorities of developing nations can’t be side-lined, he also did agree on the need for a common but differentiated responsibility towards emissions reduction. Which interestingly, was also summed up in the concluding speech by MS Ahluwalia, Chairman,Planning Commission and one of the most abled Economists of India, by first defending his profession and the critical attacks on the inability of Economics to measure environmental externalities and then later on by putting sustainability in the centre of the 12th Plan. Assuming that technology will solve 90% of sustainability challenges as Mr Ahluwalia said,  is somewhat, overstretched. Technological innovations are important, but it is only the means to an end - the big question is what end are we aiming for?

So the sense that one gets is that India while being committed to the sustainability agenda, also wants growth…even if it means more emissions. No body said that explicitly, it’s the underlying theme. Perhaps understanding better why most don’t like sustainable development will validate the current thought process.

It comes back to decoupling economic growth with emissions and environmental damage. Developing countries want to develop and the developed countries constantly keep placing a “disproportionate amount of burden” on the developing countries – a thought resonated loud and clear at the summit by Donald Ramotas, the President of Guyana.

The question that many world leaders at the summit asked was why did Copenhagen 2009 fail? Why was Rio+20 a failure? Here’s the essence of the thinking -

We can keep holding talks and conferences like these and keep drafting cleverly worded and lengthy documents and vague treaties, the fact is that very little gets done by way of actionable steps.

I had earlier blogged about “Why we continue to see un-satisfactoriness of Rio Declaration running up to Rio+20?”. The reason is the Rio principles are either philosophical, contradictory, immeasurable, incomplete or simply assume the wrong things.

Is it the lack of political will? Or is it that governments haven’t truly understood the basic meaning of sustainability misinterpreting it to be the buzz word of the times and perhaps a popular vote-getter. Perhaps that’s why Barack Obama had at last mentioned climate change in his second-term inaugural speech!

So, it is no surprise that John Elkington, the person who first coined the term Triple Bottom Line, thinks that most CEO’s don’t understand what sustainability is and the corporate perspectives on sustainability - leave alone the government’s understanding of the word. Perhaps, that’s why Indian government has mandated a compulsory 2% spend on CSR activities from the Indian businesses – which is absolutely a short-sighted measure (though people in government think otherwise)

From the heart

One of the most passionate speeches amid the standard government/corporate speak came from Lord John Prescott, who vehemently supported the need for business houses to lead by example in the absence of political will. He also made it clear that businesses must leave the race for indiscriminate selling in quick intervals by bringing sustainable consumption models.

Carl Pope from Sierrra Club delivered another fantastic speech by bringing the importance of natural eco-systems to build resilient landscapes. He said that we just cannot engineer our way out in building a resilient city from chaotic weather patterns – “You can build a climate resilient city if you know what the weather will be in future, but you just can’t build a city for chaotic weather…but if we restore the oysters in the ocean (which don’t require huge capital investments), incidents like Hurricane Sandy will remain only in history.”

Another thought that got resonated was that sustainable development actually doesn’t need huge money – it is made to look expensive – why? Because it will bring investments in infrastructure and incentivize banks for huge interest loans, thus driving the GDP up – the holy agenda of any economist. On the contrary, sustainable development in the context of cities require very little investments. Doing little things like lighting up a street, like creating a separate cycle path or walking path and bringing people into the centre of sustainable thinking adds up to large-scale benefits vis a vis putting road developmental or huge infra projects in the centre stage.

Kiribati’s President Anote Tong was spot on when he said, “Governments need to do a brutally honest assessment of their own limited success on the path towards sustainability.” The key word is “success” not the process.

Dr Prodipto Ghosh, a distinguished fellow at TERI, linked high energy use with developmental process and also highlighted the need for responsible consumer choices, saying: “I feel that choices adopted by the BRICS, as large societies, will help determine whether an alternative future exists for the world.” However, I think the current trajectory seriously doubts intentions of the BRICS in adopting the “right choices”… in time.

Division Paradox

This brings me to what I call the “Division Paradox” – the North/South divide, the BRICS/OECD divide, First/Third World divide, Developed/Developing divide. Economic growth is the only parameter that defines these divisions. Here’s the point – Unless we change our measuring metric, we will keep getting what we have always gotten. So, let’s think in terms of climate change divisions…how about Adapters and Mitigaters?

Countries that have the time (in a sense that they haven’t yet experienced much of climate impacts) can become Mitigaters and countries that don’t have the time (say a few decades and extremely vulnerable) and are currently facing the climate impacts, become the Adapters – and they get together every few years and learn from each other. And for countries who have the time and are also experiencing climate change effects, both adapt and mitigate. This way countries can have a clear cut agenda on what they have to do, other wise, it is always a game of private costs and efforts with public gains extending beyond the boundaries – no country wants that!

Also, expect no radical innovation changes from the companies – as many people believe to be the only life saver. Existing big companies can only move incrementally. This point was driven home by BMW’s senior executive when he laid down the company’s sustainability strategy – Evolution and Revolution. In other words, keep doing what we are best at by bringing incremental changes and simultaneously look at revolutionary technologies – the electric vehicles. I thought the electric vehicle technology was developed decades ago! If this is coming from BMW, what about other car makers? Sure, they can put various pollution prevention methods in place, power the factories via renewable energy etc. – this will only affect the 10% of the carbon emissions. What about the 90% of the emissions in the life cycle of a car that come from the consumer use (petrol, gas, diesel).

We talk about the nexus between water, food and energy security. What there’s to talk about – all three are interdependent on each other. Period. I think we must shift the talks to the nexus between the fossil fuel driven industry and the vested interests (where ever they may be). Actually it is no surprise that there is a definite lack of political will because there hands are tied.

The Summit also marked the release of a knowledge paper on “Electric Vehicles: Challenges and Opportunities in India” prepared by YES Bank and TERI-BCSD. In addition, a major report titled “Sustainability Practices and Reporting Trends in India for the Power Sector”–documented by Thought Arbitrage Research Institute (TARI) and TERI–was also launched in the presence of the dignitaries. The key papers provide a roadmap for fast-tracking business action in the crucial economic sectors, such as power and transport.

Action Steps and Expectations from the DSDS 2013

I had earlier blogged about the key takeaways from all the three different days of the Summit. Now in conclusion let’s try and summarize the main action steps and the expectations from the corporate sector and the government:

From Corporate Sector: There is an increasing need for the corporate sector to step-up to the sustainability challenge. For example, companies need to formalize and integrate sustainability framework into the Risk Management systems and into the business strategy. Businesses will get more done if there are more cross-sector partnerships with a view of greening the supply chains. Businesses also need to market the entire value chain as sustainable instead of just the end-product as green, recyclable or efficient. Since less than 10% of companies in India are working on sustainability initiatives in a structured manner, the perspective that there is not enough associated ROI needs to be changed by sharing best practices from companies that have gained from sustainability measures. Businesses must look at the resource-efficient strategies in every aspect of their operations and must also be responsible for the advertising.

From Governments:  Governments must lay down long-term standards and goals for the corporate sector to follow. The emission targets must not be clubbed together – they must be clearly segregated and budgeted into each of the different sectors and different industries. Governments must also look at some form of ”Open Government Partnership” model to facilitate better analysis of the energy sector along with a global governance system to act in response to climate change. Governments must keep the people at the centre of the debate and the rising inequality while devising the right enablers – right policies, right framework, driving investments and providing incentives. Government must also make it clear to the people that the leadership for green growth may or may not come from the centre, the real action has to be driven by the state level governments. Governments must also understand that just the business case of sustainability will not save the word – it has to go beyond that. Since most of India’s and China’s building stock of 2030 is yet to be constructed, there’s this massive opportunity for more resource efficient techniques.

But here’s the thing – India has way too many domestic social developmental issues (violence against women, religious fundamentalism, poor infrastructure, poverty etc.) to tackle than to look at sustainability…which is add-on for most part of it. But then Inclusive Sustainable Development by definition covers all those issues that India is plagued with. Unlike the OECD countries, the BRICS will see the inclusive agenda being driven down hard than the business oriented resource-efficiency models or what we call as typical sustainability practices.

Hypocrisy is the first step to change

Bollywood and Advertising are perhaps the two major influencers that impact the consumption patterns of the youth and rising upper middle class. Only if we can get them to become accountable, as Pavan Sukhdev talks about in his book Corporation 2020, we, in India can really drill the message through!

On one hand we have children in schools being taught about sustainable values and environmental concerns but on the other we also see with increasing incomes, the wants of superfluous stuff, getting turned into needs.

Perhaps people don’t make the connection between increasing consumption and environmental damage. Some who do understand are the “aspirational” class who like to be seen green with jute or paper bags buying organic stuff with all the i-things and driving away in gas guzzlers! No offence, but that’s a process that India will have to go through before the real mind set change occurs. Look at it this way: Bollywood/Advertising influences consumers – who in turn can influence business.

Peter Bakker, WBCSD President, knows what he is talking about – “Now, we know what we are supposed to do, we know why we are supposed to do, but we need to know how we are supposed to do it - and for that, we have to change the rules of the game!”

Someone, rightly said that Hypocrisy is the first step towards change. Conferences such as these, will at least enable businesses and people to first reach the level of a Hypocrite. Once the business is past hypocrisy and gets serious on the environment front, then measurement sets in, which brings out the negative externalities – and that spurs the conscience of the business enabling them to do the right thing.

This article has been written by Pankaj Arora, a sustainability blogger focused on working towards corporate sustainability and responsible practices in a more values based environment. This article was originally published at Linking Sustainability.

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Author: Pankaj Arora