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Report

Sustainability in a Multipolar World

18 May 2011

In its 30-Year Update of the well-known publication ‘The Limits to growth’ the Club of Rome stressed that the once debated notion of a physically limited world growth is becoming apparent in many well-documented studies.

Three decades ago, the Brundtland Commission on Development and Environment initiated an international momentum to secure the needs of both present and future generations through a joint policy agenda for sustainable development. Institutions such as the United Nations played a key role in developing multilateral agreements. However, the international landscape has gradually changed. More and more it appears to be characterized by national interests rather than multilateralism. In such a multipolar world the role of international bodies, such as the UN, is weakened and cooperative polices for common good issues become more difficult to pursue. As a result, the international sustainability debate is characterized by diffused rather than shared interests and it becomes more difficult to pursue cooperative polices for common good issues.

This paper raises the question what room exists for co-operative sustainability strategies in a multipolar world. Do we face a divided world in which nations do not have a shared view on our common future? Or are we instead witnessing the advent of new and unexpected opportunities for co-operative action at the international level? In order to answer these questions, the report comprises:
• an international comparison of sustainability policies of six countries - the Netherlands, China, India, Russia, South Africa and Mexico - revealing on what points there is international divergence or convergence in these countries’ visions and strategies regarding economic, environmental and social sustainability.
• a meta-analysis of foresight studies mapping the future bandwidth of international sustainability policies in order to see whether an international shared sustainability framework is likely to develop.

International comparison
The international comparison of sustainability policies is based on an in-depth review of policy and academic papers on sustainability of six countries. This review was cross-checked and complemented by text mining. Using a complex algorithm, this technology scores words on the basis of frequency and their association with other words. In addition, it is able to identify if certain concepts are increasingly used through time. The countries selected for this report are China, India, the Netherlands (as a benchmark study for the European Union (EU) more generally), Mexico, Russia and South Africa. These countries were selected because they tend to be vocal for their respective regions on the international stage and are confronted with different economic, environmental, social and political issues.

The policy comparison reveals on what points there is international divergence or convergence in these countries’ understanding of sustainability, and their respective visions and strategies. Convergence between all six countries is in the understanding of sustainable development as being economic development that respects the environment and human beings. Achieving economic growth in a sustainable manner seems to be the most important shared interest. However, since the economic differences between the six countries are substantial, national economic sustainability policies demonstrate different emphases and priorities. What stands out is that South Africa’s definition is the narrowest and focuses primarily on the economic dimension, whereas the EU has a comprehensive approach to sustainability, including all three dimensions (economic, environmental and social). The EU makes explicit that the responsibility for sustainable development befalls not just governments but all actors in society, including individual citizens. Mexico’s description also covers all three dimensions but focuses mainly on individual citizens. It sees sustainability as the right of citizens to benefit from a set of common goods, ranging from economic growth to a green environment.

By contrast, Russia’s definition clearly delimits sustainable development as a responsibility of the state and focuses foremost on economic and environmental issues. Russia alludes to ideas from the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Vernadsky. He argued that the earth evolved from inanimate matter (“geosphere”) to biological life (“biosphere”) to our current state of “noosphere” whereby human cognition is the determining variable in organizing the world. This is one explanation for why Russia focuses relatively strong on innovation and technology in attaining economic and environmental sustainability.

In India and China cultural and/or philosophical traditions also shape the national concepts of sustainability. The Indian government states that its sustainability policies are rooted in Hindu philosophy and the principle of circular regeneration. This principle prescribes that human beings limit their consumption of global goods to the point that they can be naturally regenerated. The Indian government argues that climate change resulted from human actions damaging the process of natural regeneration. China also refers to its own philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Taoism, etc. – when arguing that human actions towards other human beings and towards nature have to be mindful of natural balances and common livelihoods.

Aside from divergence or convergence in the understanding of sustainability, certain countries also identify prerequisites. For developing countries like China, India and South Africa, poverty reduction is a sine qua none condition for addressing other issues related to sustainable development. They believe it is premature to speak about environmental issues as long as the basic living needs of its citizens remain unfulfilled. Education is most frequently identified as a key to empowering social groups (women, castes, ethnic and linguistic groups) and ensuring the level of social cohesion required for achieving safety, stability and prosperity at the national level. Similarly, Russia claims that national security is a prerequisite for sustainability. And all countries reviewed consider energy security an important prerequisite for sustainability. The development and implementation of sustainable energy in particular, is widely viewed as indispensable for energy security and environmental sustainability. Short term, national interests even might fuel competition on scarce resources such as oil, natural gas, water and minerals. For developed economies the unrestricted access to these resources is vital for securing their level of economic prosperity. However, emerging economies like China and India also need to ensure that the supply of these resources keeps balance with the speed rise in domestic demand, reflecting the combined impact of demographic and economic growth. In the case of China we already witnessed cuts in export quotas for Rare Earths Elements (REE) by 72% - vital materials for i.e. electronic equipment - for the second half of 2010. Like oil and natural gas, other scarce resources such as minerals and water could become an instrument for political and economic purposes.

Foresight
The meta-analysis of foresight studies looks into the question whether an internationally shared concept of sustainability is likely to emerge in the future. The most robust conclusions tend to be optimistic. They suggest that an international shared framework for sustainable development strategies is likely to result both from dynamics between states and from the bottom up.

First, the foresights are optimistic about the probability that interests of states will converge around shared social, economic and environmental concerns. International alignment seems to be most likely in the case of climate change, the impacts of which are expected to become more and more apparent. But the foresight literature also mentions other key issues, such as water scarcity, energy security and demographic shifts, which may draw countries and continents closer together in converging viewpoints and joint strategies.

Second, the foresights expect that countries will increasingly realize that the different dimensions of sustainability are interlinked and that unilateral solutions fall short. This is expected to strengthen the prospects of a comprehensive, multilateral policy approach.

While the international framework for sustainable development strategies is expected to result from agreements between states, the foresight literature expects that actions are more likely to be initiated at the grassroots and local level. The belief that sustainability initiatives will be promoted from the bottom up derives from the prominent role of individual citizens across the parameters and drivers. This is most evident with regards to the public awareness driver that predicts that individuals will greatly affect consumption patters and spur activism. The foresights also attribute an important role to the media in creating an international sustainability culture and moving the sustainability agenda forward.
Following logically from the conclusion that shared sustainability frameworks will emerge both from interstate dynamics and from the bottom up, public-private partnerships are also expected to contribute to this process. The foresights agree that these partnerships are already part of current policies, but also that they could become much more central in the future. Finally, the foresights are optimistic about the expected potential of technology and human ingenuity to contribute to innovative global solutions.

Policy implications
The report set out to answer the question: what room exists for cooperative sustainability strategies in a multipolar world? Our findings suggest that in the emerging multipolar world, the motivation of states to develop sustainability policies is no longer based on shared values. International negotiations directed at putting into place new international sustainability frameworks, are no longer driven by a common normative approach. Instead, they have become an arena in which countries seek to advance their national priorities. Only when national interests converge and concepts of sustainability are shared, the sustainability agenda can move forward.
A more comprehensive approach of sustainability
Working towards a comprehensive approach of the economic, the environmental and the social dimension of sustainability is a shared objective among all countries surveyed, although in practice policies largely remain compartmentalized. Key in this comprehensive approach is the inclusion of the different viewpoints and priorities of nations and regions worldwide. The better part of the last decades the sustainability debate was dominated by issues such as energy efficiency and CO2-abatement, reflecting the challenges Western societies address. Issues as poverty eradication, income inequality and the role of international trade in exacerbating existing divisions in wealth distribution were largely ignored. The foresights expect that in the future pro-poor strategies, education and public awareness will be included in the sustainability debate.

It is expected that groups of states will gradually converge in their view on sustainability priorities, which creates room for cooperative sustainability strategies, at least at the level of these groups of states. For example, the African states share perceptions, interests and strategies due to similarities with regard to their level of economic development. Also similarities in the political system, history or geography may enhanced the convergence into regional clusters. These regional clusters are expected to increasingly shape the development of sustainability strategies in a multipolar world.

The Netherlands and the European Union could take an important first step to effectively move towards an international shared framework of sustainability. For instance, an important step towards a shared climate policy would be widening the present focus on mitigation (through quantitative targets for CO2 emission reduction) to the abatement of short term climate effects (droughts, flooding, climate related health issues), including issues like poverty eradication. Such a more comprehensive approach of sustainability, would open up the door to multilateral action with countries like India, Mexico, South Africa and China in pro-poor strategies, climate effect abatement programs and mitigation through emission reduction.

EU Coordination and global coalitions for securing scarce resources
The problem of resource scarcity (energy, minerals, water) is becoming recognized more and more as one of the bottlenecks in sustainable development. For instance metallic minerals, such as Rare Earths Elements, Platinum, Nobium, Lithium and Tantalum, have a vital role in the transition from the present fossil-based energy system to an energy system based on sustainable energy from sun, wind, geothermia and biomass. Therefore, the demand of these metals is expected to grow exponentially the coming decades. Countries lacking natural reserves of these metals, such as the member states of European Union, will become increasingly dependent of countries with considerable reserves, like China.
If Europe would embark in a coordinated action in the management of strategic materials, the European region would remain vulnerable without strategic partners that have abundant natural reserves of these materials. So in addition to intra-European action on resource efficiency, we believe the European Union should also strive for long term trade agreements with for instance Australia, meant to secure a steady flow of Rare Earths Elements and other scarce metals from Australia to Europe. A strong coalition between both partners could be built on mutual dependence in trade and on cooperation in sustainable technologies. Such a coalition may even grow gradually, by taking in strategic partners of both parties, such as Singapore and South-Africa, thereby connecting to other world regions. In a multipolar world, such a strategy of building global partnerships based on shared interests, may present a promising alternative for conflict and competition between individual nations.
Involve businesses worldwide

Governments should actively pursue partnerships with the private sector and NGO’s, as foresight studies expect a growing role for the private sector in the implementation of sustainability policies. The private sector and social organizations will become more important as catalysts at the international level. Multilateral cooperation at the interstate level will be complemented by partnerships at the national level between the state, the private sector and civil society.

An illustrative and inspiring example is provided by the so-called Round Tables initiated by companies, such as the Round Table on palm tree oil initiated by Unilever. Round Tables bring together representatives of all links in the international chain of trade, including local businesses, worker unions, environmental organizations and local authorities. Together they conceive new and sustainable solutions that safeguard ecosystems and ensure a reasonable income for local workers and their families. The experience with Round Tables thus far illustrates how coordinated action between the state, the private sector and civil society increases sustainability awareness among consumers and producers from the bottom up. If these bottom-up initiatives would result in a growing worldwide network of public-private partnerships, this would complement the European Union’s present efforts to establish a shared framework through international negotiations. Such a network might also play an essential role in the transfer of sustainable technologies to developing countries. Notably in the field of energy efficiency and clean energy, technology transfer may present an interesting investment area for European companies. Nations like India and South Africa, but also China and Mexico, would surely welcome technologies that provide clean and affordable answers to their strongly rising demand of energy.

Experts on this report

Director of the Strategic Futures Program

Erik Frinking

Erik Frinking is the Director of the Strategic Futures Program at HCSS. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from Leiden University.

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Team leader Sustainability

Rob Weterings

Rob Weterings is team leader sustainability within Strategy and Change.

Strategic Analyst

Marjolein de Ridder

Marjolein de Ridder is a strategic analyst at HCSS. She holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Leuven and a Master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Leiden University and the Clingendael Institute.

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