The latest turmoil in global stock markets following Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade its rating of the United States government has led many to fear another serious economic downturn. We asked our Sustainability Roundtable to discuss what hopes might exist for global cooperation on sustainability issues like food security, energy policy, and climate change amid a renewed economic crisis. Is it possible for any of these issues to play an important part of international policy discussions?
Shen Yamei is an assistant research fellow specializing in American foreign policy and China-US relations at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).
In the Chinese ideogram, "crisis" is the combination of risk and opportunity. While growing uncertainties and fears of a prolonged recession have made the global development agenda more difficult to pursue, the economic downturn, in parallel with the persisting food crisis and ongoing climate change, does offer a real opportunity for achieving sustainable development — albeit against strong odds.
At face value, the three dimensions of sustainable development (i.e. its economic, social and environmental dimensions), unfold along different trajectories. Deep down they correlate substantially with each other. Countries could use the tight breathing space in the course of the economic slowdown to strengthen strategic planning work and fully incorporate sustainability considerations into overall development scenarios.
To walk out of the multi-layered economic, social and environmental labyrinth, it is far from enough merely to manage financial flows with ethics and responsibility. The U.S. credit rating downgrade amid a mounting debt situation is the latest testimony to the transient life of massive counter-cyclical fiscal stimuli in shoring up the economy. Implementing fundamental and structural policy reforms with concerns for economic growth patterns, social welfare and environmental sustainability is a pressing need.
In March 2009, the United Nations Environmental Program issued a report on the Global Green New Deal. The report recommended a bigger share of investment in greening the world economy, so as to bring about economic recovery in the short term while laying the foundation for sustainable development in the long run. In that vein, the search for new growth points in the post-crisis world economy must incorporate energy and environmental concerns.
To illustrate: the architecture for the financial system needs to be re-written as countries prepare to create the next generation framework of global emissions governance. And conversely, conservation and renewable energy policy could be more appealing when it does not take an excessive toll on economy in general and in particular for countries and regions where basic food supply still matters.
In addition, to address sustainability issues like food security, energy shortage and climate change, the potential in developing sustainable agriculture, low-carbon manufacturing industry, and labor-intensive tertiary industry is huge.
However, even though many countries have put forward green strategies in order to escape the legacy of the international financial crisis, the green economy is still in an initial phase of development. Countries will not be immune from practical and cost-benefit calculations such as how much it will cost to upgrade traditional industries to a green level, how deep the green mode can soak into modern production and lifestyles, and how much of a competitive edge the green economy will bring for them. In all, the situation is grim, but not hopeless.