During 2007 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) decided to set up a new international panel of experts that has come to be known as the Internatioal Panel for Sustainable Resource Management (IPSRM). This was partly in response to the 4th Assessment Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that concluded that major economic changes are required if the global economy and humanity as a whole is to avoid the consequences of global warming. A small group of UN member-states agreed to be founder members of teh IPSRM, the South African Government being one of these. Each founder member nominated an expert onto the IPSRM. The South African Government nominated Mark Swilling who is Academic Director of the Sustainability INstitute, and Programme Co-ordinator for Sustainable Development Planning and Management in the School of Public Management and Planning, Stellenbosch University.
The mandate of the IPSRM is to investigate specific and practical ways that the rate of economic growth can be decoupled from the rate of resource consumption in ways that will ensure a more sustainable economic future for all, protect key eco-system resources and promote greater global equity and social justice (see www.unep.fr/scp/rpanel). It is chaired by Prof Ernst von Weizsaecker (founder of the Wupperthal Institute, Germany) and Dr. Ismail Serageldin (former Vice President for Social and Environmentally Sustainable Development at the World Bank and currently Director of the Alexander Library, Egypt). The Panel has various Working Groups on issues like metal resources, biofuels, decoupling and resource prioritization. Mark Swilling is a member of the Decoupling Working Group.
During the week starting 17 November, the Panel members met for two events in Santa Barbara, USA. The first was hosted by the University of California’s Bren School of Environmental Management where Prof von Weizsaecker is currently Dean. This was a Conference on Energy and Resource Productivity. Panel members plus experts from various Universities, businesses and government presented papers on various aspects of the conference theme. Mark Swilling delivered two papers, one on the implications of sustainable resource management for African development and the second on the dynamics of the transition to a sustainable socioecological transition that will follow the October 2008 “financial crisis”. In the first paper Mark Swilling argued that the Gross National Income for most African countries is negative despite economic growth because the prices Africa gets for its exported resources are less than the real costs of extraction, environmental impact and other so-called “externalities”. The global shift towards sustainable resource use can be stimulated by increased prices for resources that will drive innovations and give Africa a better deal. Without increased revenues from the export of primary resources, Africa will not be able to develop the funds for re-investment in industrial development and human capital. Obviously this assumes that Africa’s governance problems can be resolved. In the second paper Mark Swilling proposed an optimistic view of the October 2008 financial crisis by argueing that is represents a turning point that could bring to an end finance-led neo-liberal globalisation that has worked to the disadvantage of developing countries. Instead, it could mark the commencement of global re-industrialisation that will return manufacturing to its rightful place as a key driver of development and wellbeing. However, this will depend on whether economic growth can be decoupled from rising levels of resource consumption. What is required is non-material economic growth with major investments in human capital as the key to greater equity and wellbeing for all. This argument is a key theme of a book that Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke are writing entitled Sustainable Futures: A Southern Perspective.
The second event from Wednesday through to Friday was a formal meeting of the Panel Members, together with officials from UNEP and representatives of participating Governments. The main purpose was to recieve draft reports from the various Working Group and to agree on a research agenda for the next 12 months. The Panel meets every 6 months, and one of the meetings in 2009 may well be in South Africa hosted by the Sustainability Institute.