Opinion

Embracing the multiple pathways towards accelerating sustainability

Published on 18 July 2016

Image of Ramy Hanna
Ramy Hanna

Research Officer

A wealth of knowledge was generated from world-class debates at the IDS conference around multiple pathways towards environmental sustainability, equality, and social justice. On accelerating sustainability – one of IDS’ key strategic themes – the conference hosted four dynamic panels discussing the intersection of state, markets and society through an accelerating sustainability lens.

Frances Stewart opened the conference by stating that ‘Environmental sustainability is one of the most overriding issues relevant to inequality in today’s global economy’. A prime example presented in this respect was the gross inequality in emissions per head illustrated through a comparison between high income and low-income countries.

Sunita Narain eloquently described the challenge of unsustainable growth and its relationship to increased inequality, and marginalisation, leading to an insecure future. According to Narain, environmental management and sustainable inclusive growth are indivisible whereby ‘solutions have to work for the poor if they are going to work for the rich”. By stressing the need to empower the poor and the voiceless, it is evident that the only time when environmental sustainability efforts have worked is when the poor said ‘not in my backyard’. Mazzucato on her turn stressed the importance of avoiding the inherent ‘predator-prey’ relationship between the state and the private sector.

Recognising that the politics of green transformation and issues of inequality are at a cross-roads, the ‘accelerating sustainability’ theme of the conference addressed key questions about the state-markets-society nexus such as; ‘What are the roles of market led, state led and citizen led processes? How is sustainability being constructed in different contexts? Who is included and who is excluded?’ To address these timely questions, the IDS conference panels focused on four key topics:

  1. The intersecting roles of states, markets and society is sustainability transformations,
  2. The role of new alliances and changing value in the capitalisation and financialisation of nature,
  3. The response of low-income countries to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
  4. The relationship between green energy transformations and social inclusion.

Given the centrality of politics across the multiple sustainability pathways, perhaps the most common element underlying these key topics was the ‘indivisible and integral relationship between environmental integrity, equality and social justice’. The debates did not however focus on discussing the normative values relevant to these, but rather questioned ‘how do we get there?’ By doing so, the focus moved away from the classical debates around simplistic technocratic interventions, and managerial politics, by engaging instead in exploring the trade-offs between technology-led, market-led, state-led and citizen-led transformations framed by the politics of a particular place. Accordingly, alliances between diverse actors were recognised as an essential element in the transformation process whereby there is no one size fits all.

The intersecting roles of states, markets and society is sustainability transformations

On the issue of the politics of transformation moderated by Ian Scoones, and using different cases from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, speakers sought to provide examples of alternative sustainability pathways exploring pro-poor solutions.

Converging case studies presented diverse issues including access to water and sanitation in India, access to clean energy from solar PV in Kenya, and rethinking domestic solutions for the seeds IPR system in Argentina. Discussions under this panel highlighted the critical roles of the state, market, and society with an emphasis that within each of the three spheres there are forces that are pro and against bringing about positive change. Relationships between inequality and sustainability were explored thus questioning the nature of alliances, the convening power to bring change, and the conflicting roles of the state, nevertheless recognising its criticality in transformation processes.

The role of new alliances and changing value in the capitalisation of nature

On the issue of capitalisation of nature, speakers presented a critical account of the different types of alliances justifying the commodification and financialisation processes. A prime example in that respect is the ‘strange alliance’ between NGOs, brokers, conservation entrepreneurs, and the state, under the umbrella of green economy and REDD+ offsets in international carbon markets. An alliance best described in the context of California as a government facilitated territory for polluting companies yielding rights to pollute in a weak regulatory environment, thus ‘forcing polluters to buy more credit to make more pollution’.

Vupenyu Dzingirai from the University of Zimbabwe raised on his turn the issue of ‘carbon alliances’ in grabbing Africa’s land resources. For him, ‘land in Africa is not being grabbed by global ideologies and frameworks, but rather by smart locally formed alliances’. In this context these alliances involved carbon companies, the state, and the spiritual leaders!

The response of low-income countries to the SDGs

Using examples from Nepal, Mexico, Brazil, Tanzania, and Kenya, debates around the SDGs in low-income countries clearly highlighted the need to localise the newly established global development agenda. Issues of nationalisation versus localisation, the political dimension of SDGs, institutional arrangements, local capacity, and the critical debates of inequality, security and sustainability were all at the forefront of these discussions. In this respect, the success of the SDGs rely to a large extent on their public visibility, local ownership, and integration into local development processes by government agencies on multiple scales.

The relationship between green energy transformations and social inclusion.

The dynamics of state, market and society were also situated at the heart of the sessions on green transformation and access to energy, not only in Africa, but also in Europe and elsewhere. Situated around issues of social inclusion and social justice, the role of policy design and politics was recognised to be at the heart of analysing green transformation and social inclusion in Europe by comparing between policies and institutions in Denmark, Germany, UK. In the context of Africa, deep inequalities in energy supply were recognized, implying that transformations will not be green unless they involve elements of social justice. In this respect, simplistic assumptions that green energy will happen and will bring good with it were dismissed, warning from ‘green enclaves’ promoted through bigger is better mega infrastructure schemes.

Overall, these four themes are increasingly relevant to today’s global environmental challenges. Understanding them is crucial towards accelerating sustainability as they demonstrate that different forces exist between the market, state, and society, which are both pro and against bringing about positive change. These different forces and dynamics provoke us to think about the nature of the state-market-society alliances and the needed convening power to bring this type of change, hopefully during IDS next 50 years.

Ramy Lotfy Hanna is a PhD candidate at IDS.

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