Mending the broken earth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2012, 12:00am


Last week's failed UN summit in Rio de Janeiro surely proves that it is high time for the world to devise an updated economic model since the current versions, from finance-dominated free-market capitalism to China's state capitalism with market characteristics, are leading fragile planet earth to the brink of destruction.

Bankers with their gamblers' greed for mega-bucks and business leaders who don't think of the consequences tomorrow of their actions today must take a large share of the blame. But the Rio+20 meeting, supposedly about sustainable development, demonstrated that the global political system is the most broken part of the world we live in.

We must devise an earth-centred way of doing business, not a narrow corporate or national one that lets ravenous locusts loose on the world's resources. The head of a leading Washington development think tank has made a modest proposal for the World Bank to play a new role in safeguarding the 'global commons'.

The question is whether world leaders - who would have to approve the idea - are listening. Evidence from Rio is that they are not. The tarmac at the international airport was jammed with the personal aircraft of some of the 100 leaders at the summit. Air Zimbabwe, Sri Lankan Airlines and Royal Australian Air Force jets were among those waiting with engines podded for their leaders to finish enjoying their presidential suites. Hotels minted money: rooms, if you could find one, cost US$2,000 a night for modest luxury or US$300 for a basic place to sleep.

The final communique seemed complacently unaware of the immense damage done to the earth. Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace, summed it up to me: 'No commitments; no timetable; plenty of wriggle-room for governments.'

The world is at a dangerous precipice: 300 million hectares of forest have been cut down, with Brazil a leader in despoliation; the world has added 1.5 billion people on the way to nine billion by 2050. More dangerously, the quest for economic growth at all costs has led to a gobbling up of resources 50 per cent faster than the ecosystem can replenish them. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the club of rich industrial countries, recently warned: 'On current trends, by 2050 there could be four billion people living in water-stressed areas; the world will use 80 per cent more energy, most of it based on fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 and temperatures by up to 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.'

It would be an unbearable greenhouse world. Most climate scientists say anything higher than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels would be too uncomfortable.

A basic problem is that each company and each country, however efficiently it uses resources, thinks primarily of its own needs. For example, China has built huge stockpiles of vital minerals, pushing up prices.

Nancy Birdsall, founding president of the Centre for Global Development, thinks the time has come to set up a body charged with protecting the global commons - natural resources that cross national borders, such as water, land, energy and food.

'What is important and special about these issues is that it is not sufficient to have ideal policies in each country, for each country,' she says.

Birdsall, a former World Bank director and executive vice-president of the Inter-American Development Bank, suggests the World Bank could be the natural home for such a body.

In the World Bank, 'we have a global institution that is still the premier institution in bringing together money, technical capacity, fiduciary capability - there is no corruption and you can have it as your trustee'.

Birdsall's proposal to create a body to protect the global commons runs up against a series of powerful arguments, not least that there is no international demand or energy to set it up, let alone bring it to life.

Global institutions already proliferate, some with responsibilities that would overlap with a global commons body, such as the law of the sea, and various fisheries agreements. Moreover, the record of international agreements has hardly been stellar.

At the big tent bodies, the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, weariness has set in. The IMF is so preoccupied with crisis that it is far from projecting a workable solution for global financial woes. The World Bank has rather lost its way. Birdsall concedes: 'Developing countries don't really trust the World Bank.'

But there is even more suspicion among big countries whose co-operation would be needed to establish such a global body. China and other rapidly developing countries have money to fund it but would resent being told to amend their own policies for the global good. The US doesn't have the money, would resent providing funds, and already bitterly resists any efforts to tell it how to behave to save the world.

That's why it is hard to see a totally new body getting off the ground. But the World Bank exists and is supposedly the leader in global development. Birdsall suggests it could be headquartered in the thick of critical issues of global commons, such as Mumbai (and headed by a Chinese or African), or Shanghai (headed by an Indian or African). Or how about a Hong Kong headquarters?


The percentage rise of emissions of greenhouse gases since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit