Addressing the failures in implementation
Making progress in justice through innovation
Failings in environmental governance
For more than 50 years, since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, governments have signed up to ambitious declarations, conventions, action plans, the Sustainable Development Goals, and other efforts at global environmental governance intended to preserve the biosphere, respect planetary boundaries and limits, and protect the natural capital and ecosystem services upon which all life including our own depends. Yet the environment continues to degrade, we have overshot most planetary boundaries, and we are now facing existential threats from climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and waste. The science is clear, the means are available, but implementation falls short because the motivation to act is lacking. At present, global environmental governance is voluntary, limited by the consensus rule, and demonstrates the failure of political will. Within the framework of national sovereignty, where national interests come before the common good of all, short-term political priorities, vested interests, corruption and retaining power come first. Then there are the institutions of the economy, including financial institutions and corporations, for which the motivation is only to increase financial wealth, and which deny any responsibility for social and environmental impacts. The best efforts of some cannot overcome the neglect of others. Accountability is a way to respond to the widespread failures in implementation and lack of political will at the national and international levels.
Short of major reforms in global governance, stronger accountability can provide an immediate way forward. The Human Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment is now recognised and needs to be implemented as a matter of environmental justice. This requires mechanism of accountability that would apply to governments, economic actors, institutions, communities and even individuals. Since we are all members of one human family in one planetary system, we need an accountability system for universal solidarity, including with all people and other life forms with which we share our Earth home. In a world of great wealth and technological progress, it is unconscionable that billions of people struggle to meet basic needs while destruction of the environment brings great profits to some. We should be caring for the well-being of everyone and everything on this planet, since we all suffer the consequences of our social and environmental mismanagement.
A system of universal accountability would have multiple dimensions covering the major aspects of human and environmental well-being. For an individual, this could include education toward global solidarity and equity, learning moderation and contentment, practicing generosity, and reducing one’s environmental footprint. For community accountability, tools might help to read the local reality and to consult about social actions to address the most immediate needs within local capacities, such as Community Conversations for Global Solidarity. Businesses should consider their responsibilities all along their supply chain as well as the impacts of their products and services, defining a social purpose for which they can be held accountable beyond just profitability, such as through Global Solidarity Accounting for Business. Governments need an accountability system that reports on their current state of universal solidarity in all their practices in the past and present, and that reports on efforts for improvement towards more solidarity. This could include the Global Solidarity Accounting beyond GDP that we have been developing as an alternative to purely monetary values in society. Some countries and organisations have already made progress in this direction, as illustrated in examples of other efforts to measure human and environmental well-being beyond GDP.
Public discourse on accountability
The UN Secretary-General and many other actors have called for measures of progress beyond GDP, and this will be an important theme for public discourse in the next couple of years of UN debate. See the Secretary-General's policy brief Valuing What Counts: Framework to Progress Beyond GDP of May 2023. On 18-19 September 2023, the UN will organize in New York the mid-term review of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, followed on 21 September by a ministerial preparatory meeting for the Summit of the Future (SOTF) in September 2024. There may also be a special meeting on climate change. The IEF is planning its annual conference around these meetings, and this will include a discussion afterwards of what the events have agreed, considering the results and the efforts needed going forward, to hold governments to account for what they concluded. For the IEF, the spiritual dimension of motivating a desire to change in the interest of environmental and social justice would be an important aspect of this.
For the status of progress on the SDGs, the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report is discouraging. Two important documents for the SOTF are the report of the High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) to which IEF members made significant inputs: A Breakthrough for People and Planet, which calls for efforts to articulate and act on alternatives to GDP, and the civil society Interim People’s Pact for the Future which was co-led by Dan Perell of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) and addresses the lack of accountability.
Related topics on the IEF website
Last updated 2 August 2023