We had the benefit of a Geneva launch event of the final report on Resilient People, Resilient Planet from the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability on Monday, 6 February 2012 in the Palais des Nations. An impressive panel included Micheline Calmy-Rey, the former President of the Swiss Confederation and a member of the High-level Panel, who was joined at this launch event by Michel Jarraud, the head of the World Meteorological Organization; Juan Somavia, the head of the International Labour Organization; and several others as we note below. We were impressed with the emphasis on realistic and “doable” objectives that came from this unique panel of global political leaders, who were mandated to work together in their individual capacities rather than as official policy-makers. As Director-General Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the head of the UN here in Geneva observed at the opening of the panel discussion, the Secretary-General has already accepted some of the recommendations, especially as they apply to measuring the global progress of sustainable development goals (SDGs). We can look to the Panel’s report as a pragmatic guide for action by the global community throughout the UN system but also through an enlightened view of engagement by civil society, the scientific community and the private sector.
Ms. Calmy-Rey highlighted the priority areas in the report as first and foremost a commitment to social justice and the fight against poverty, to be achieved by changing how we measure a sustainable economy by integrating the social and environmental costs into the calculation of the price structure and by improving the framework for good governance. The new approach to the measurement of economic performance is likely to stand as the central thrust of the report’s recommendations, but we note that the proposed governance reforms were also both innovative and achievable. This latter priority area included recommendations for a sustainable development council in partnership with the private sector and civil society, strengthening the UN Environment Programme to increase coherence and synergies among the 500 plus multilateral environmental agreements and a periodic global report and high-level segment at the UN on progress. Ms. Calmy-Rey emphasized that active follow-up is now needed and that the Rio+20 Summit is a significant opportunity for governments, international organizations, civil society, the scientific community and the private sector to participate and take action.
The other panelists at the Geneva launch event included an excellent spokesperson from the Swiss cooperative and retail giant Migros — Claude Hauser, chairman of the nationwide Migros Federation; and two major NGO leaders, Mark Halle from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and James Leape from the WWF International. Mr. Hauser commended the ambitious expectations in the report and described the two hats of Migros as a cooperative organization in the world of distribution where it is well positioned to implement changes to support sustainability and inform consumers, but also of Migros as a member of the food industry association where changes are being initiated in response to a growing awareness of integrating sustainability into retail practices. Mr. Halle reflected on the difficulty of achieving sustainable development, which was a goal in the Brundtland Report and the first Rio Summit, and yet here we are 20 years later and still talking about the goal. Nonetheless, he observed that important advances have been made toward what we think about sustainable development, and the report provides an independent high-level voice addressing the shift away from talking about the impact of sustainable development on economic growth to talking about how we organize and design economic activity with a sustainable development focus. The report is symbolic of a turning point in this respect. Furthermore, the report shows the potential of mobilizing private capital for sustainable development, although he also argued that public policy must play a better role in providing consistent incentives for this to happen. Mr. Leape observed that the Secretary-General had gambled by appointing sitting government officials to the High-Level Panel, albeit in their individual capacity, but the payoff is greater realism in the recommendations. They bring the social, economic and environmental pillars together with doable targets for the food and energy needs of the people, they show the value of getting the prices right by eliminating subsidies and integrating sustainability into the mainstream of the economy, and they open up opportunities for all of us to be “pioneers”.
While the participants raised questions about follow-up, Ms. Calmy-Rey concluded by observing that the recommendations are a call to action. The Rio+20 Summit is one channel for this, but this is also the opportune time for input into the “post-2015 Millennium Development Goals”. Another channel noted by participants at this event is the human rights channel, and Ambassador Laura Dupuy Lasserre of Uruguay, the current President of the Human Rights Council announced from the floor that the Council would be convening a mainstreaming panel on development and cooperation for 28 February and will also be looking at integrating this new thinking about sustainable development into the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism of the Human Rights Council. The report of this High-level Panel on Sustainable Development may indeed be a stimulus for action.