A report on the C20 by Phil Jones from CASSE NSW.

At the “Civil Society 20” Summit in Melbourne (June 20th and 21st 2014), this conference joined with the B20 (Business), Y20 (Youth), L20 (Labour) and T20 (Think 20) endorsed Australian Government’s pushed for continued economic growth as the underlying strategy in helping manage some of the world’s ongoing social, environmental and economic problems. The recommendations of the C20 were part of the dialogue with the Australian Government leader in view of the G20 leaders meeting in November this year.

The aspirations of the C20 were certainly commendable in many ways, for example, the final communiqué states:

4. We commend the commitment of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors to develop comprehensive growth strategies, outlining ambitious, realistic and concrete measures to achieve strong, sustainable and inclusive growth. The effectiveness of growth strategies should be assessed, in part, by their contribution to reducing inequality and alleviating poverty for all groups in society, especially the most disadvantaged.

5. We believe that growth should achieve long-term sustainability, and should not be at the expense of any sector of the population including women, people with disability, youth, Indigenous Peoples, children, long-term unemployed, low-skilled workers, single parents, LGBTI people and older people. Growth should occur in ways which increase employment opportunities and the self-esteem that valued work brings.

6. We recommend that country growth strategies include decisive action to alleviate poverty through the provision of effective and efficient social services, as well as protections to enable a reasonable standard of living for those outside the formal economy. We believe that balanced and inclusive growth should result in improved income distribution and be targeted consistently across different industries.

Australian C20 Summit Communiqué, http://www.c20.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/C20-Final-Communique.pdf

However, the push made to have the C20 acknowledge that there was a limit to growth was dismissed following a straw vote taken during the final discussion on the communiqué. Earlier, in a comment on Phase 2 of the C20’s consultation process, the following recommendation was put as a proposal:

Specifically we are calling upon the C20 to:

  • Establish a standing committee of economists, employer and employee group representatives and representatives from the finance sectors (including banking and superannuation) to devise a roadmap for the transition to the Steady State Economy and the cooperation that would be needed between nations, with their varying resource attributes, in order to achieve it.
  • Ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals, now under discussion as a sequel to the Millennium Development Goals, envisage the transition the Steady State Economy.

– See more at: http://www.c20conversations.org.au/node/436639#sthash.ou1NaQYF.dpuf

The recommendation did not gain any support.

The failure of the C20 to provide the remotest challenge to the notion of unlimited growth is more serious that it looks. It parallels the thinking of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) which supports economic growth so long as it is within “planetary boundaries”. http://unsdsn.org/resources/publications/an-action-agenda-for-sustainable-development/ The SDSN is in the final stages of drawing up the UN “Sustainable Development Goals”, the SDGs, destined to follow on from the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2015. While these goals are in line with many of the strategies that are required to move to the Steady State Economy, they endorse economic growth on the basis that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource consumption and waste production.

“An example of decoupling is the shift from fossil fuel to wind and solar energy. Another is the shift from mass fertilizer application to precision dosing. This decoupling will require deep changes to technologies, production systems, and individual behaviours in every country that must be sustained over the long term.” An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development, p.3

Certainly decoupling is necessary in the transition to the Steady State Economy, however, relying on decoupling as a foundation for endorsing continued economic growth seems highly unreliable with the strong prospect that “business as usual” is likely to continue. The UK economist, Tim Jackson refers to the “myth of decoupling” by saying:

“…simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilise the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional. Those who promote decoupling as an escape route from the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence – and at the basic arithmetic of growth”. “Prosperity Without Growth?”, http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/prosperity_without_growth_report.pdf , 2009, p.8

The United Nations Environment Program through its International Resource Panel has taken the issue of decoupling very seriously, stressing on the one hand that change is necessary but on the other, an implication that economic growth is not limited.

“It does not seem possible for a global economy based on the current unsustainable patterns of resource use to continue into the future. The economic consequences of these patterns are already apparent in three areas: increases in resource prices, increased price volatility and disruption of environmental systems. The environment impacts of resource use are also leading to potentially irreversible changes to the world’s ecosystems, often with direct effects on people and the economy – for example through damage to health, water shortages, loss of fish stocks or increased storm damage.

Many decoupling technologies and techniques that deliver resource productivity increases as high as 5 to 10-fold are already available, allowing countries to pursue their development strategies while significantly reducing their resource footprint and negative impacts on the environment.

“Decoupling 2, technologies, opportunities and policy options”, http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/24102/PDFs/IRP_DECOUPLING_2_REPORT.pdf p.44

Professor Jeffrey Sachs was a presenter (via video) at the C20 and is a key figure in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals. His leadership role in promoting economic growth is very significant. The SDGs will become a distraction from focussing on the Steady State Economy for governments and Civil Societies for many years to come unless strongly challenged. “Children should be able to learn the goals at school as a clear introduction to sustainable development”, states the Action Agenda for Sustainable Development. Professor Sachs’ initiative is certainly aiming to have a wide impact.

Unfortunately, expressions such as “sustainable development”, “inclusive development” and “sustainable economic growth” appear little more than euphemisms for unlimited economic growth as G20 leaders are called on to lift world economic growth by 2% over the next five years. The inevitability of the Steady State Economy, whether planned for or emerging from the collapse of our current economic system seems to be escaping mainstream discussion.

Our global economic ship is much larger than the Titanic and much harder to turn. While some at the helm see fog ahead, few seem to be looking at the radar enabling sight beyond the immediate surroundings. Consequently, the ship is still sailing full steam ahead. Certainly, the G20 are not seeing a call to change course. Nor does the C20 seem able to provide a appropriate guiding hand.


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