FBDS at Rio+20 with Jeff Sachs

During Rio+20, The Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development (FBDS) organized a special off-site event titled “The Economics of Sustainable Development” to openly discuss the future of the world economy under the perspective of the social environmental variables in the current economic model. Mr. Sachs joined a panel of economist which included Thomas Heller, a professor from Stanford, Pavan Sukhdev,  Founder-CEO of GIST Advisory and Pedro Malan, a Brazilian economist and former Minister of Finance for Brazil.

While each panelist spoke about a wide range of subjects, Sachs started the panel off by emphasizing that we have yet to discover an acceptable pathway towards sustainable development. In other words, we currently have no clear means in combating climate change although we have many techniques for sustainability (such as creating a carbon market). Unfortunately, these techniques are not solutions and all of the best practices combined do not even add up to a solution.

In an age of anthropogenic (i.e. human-induced climate change) there has been an immense amount of international distress such as a 20% decrease of rainfall in Africa which contributes to more suffering due to drought, famine and internal conflict. Sachs noted that while many argue we can solve many of these problems with more political will, that is not the case because there are many other elements that hinge progressive sustainable development. There is no good answer yet, but there are lots of ideas.

Sachs also spoke about what Rio+20 means. He noted that similar to 20 years ago, this Rio conference has been unsuccessful. He cited that he teaches the three documents that had been produced in the 1992 conference at Columbia University and noted that the documents themselves were very good but they were not enforced on any level. Then, Sachs got into a bit more into our current situation by talking about fossil fuel (gasp!). He stated that fossil fuels are not “evil”. They got us to where we are by thrusting nations forward . They just happen to produce CO2 and the real problem is not fossil fuels but that we neglect to clean up our mess.(I actually support this idea and have quite a bit of reverence for those who work at the Sustainability Office in oil/gas companies).

Sachs emphasized two takeaways: 1) there needs to be critical pathways for cities, industries, etc. to find sustainability. 2) there needs to be a better means of mobilization.  He noted that international treaties and conferences usually fail because there is no public involvement thus there is no public life on these treaties and conferences to get them to be enforced.

The next speaker, Heller, took a more market based approach in the discussion and emphasized the importance of growing smartly, how we may use our resources productively and the possibility of a 450 ppm world (spoiler alert it is technically feasible to achieve 450ppm according to Heller). Heller stressed that the in order for global sustainability to be remotely successful people need to understand the different production patterns which are specific for each country and then make adjustments from there.

Paven spoke next and focused on natural accounting and the green economy. Paven stated that the current GDP in many countries is not an appropriate indicator of wealth. It does not reflect equity or environmental degradation and is just an average which is a bit silly to rely on (he used a humorous example with height in which you can have many very tall basketball players and midgets but that doesn’t tell you how tall everyone really is). But in seriousness, he placed a very important question to the audience which was “How do we measure sustainable development?” Paven reflected on some challenges that the world faces in this regard by noting that many natural resources are shared and that many issues overlap each other.

Pedro then concluded the panel by touching on Brazil’s shaky hyperinflation and its ability to over come it in an inspirational introduction (“This American Life” does a great story on what Brazil had to overcome and it is only 16 minutes long, check it out). He then continued his optimistic tone by emphasizing the role that civil society can make in making change in this day and age and emphasized that in his opinion progress has been made.

Me and other Columbia University students

All of these economists were able to eloquently illustrate different views on the subject at hand, yet coming away from the panel I felt as though there was more room for discussion. We were left to understand that there is still a need for proper pathways, better leadership, and  a demonstration among civil society yet it is still unclear to me what sort of motivation is needed for this to happen. That being said, I will admit that it is a bit comforting to know that there are economist and people out there who are trying to seek the answer to complex problems.

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