Contract and converge: The path to sustainable growth
This week's G20 summit in London must ensure that any solution to the global financial crisis also commits to sustainable economic growth.
There are several striking parallels between the current global financial crisis and the social and environmental crises threatened by climate change.
In the first place, the greed that has driven much of the rapid expansion in financial markets over the past two decades has been equalled by an apparent determination to consume ever-growing amounts of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
In both cases, regulations have proved woefully inadequate. Financial regulators across the world have had as little success in preventing market collapses as environmental regulators have had in reducing overall carbon emissions.
And in each case, countries in the rich, industrialised world are largely responsible. Yet it is those in the poor countries of the developing world that are most likely to suffer — be it through job losses or degraded living conditions.
The right kind of reform?
Leaders of the G20 group of developed and emerging economies, meeting in London this week, have offered some promise of tackling the financial aspects of this dual crisis.
Their endorsement of a plan to reform the global financial regulatory system is an essential and welcome step towards limiting the economic damage caused by uncontrolled human greed. But trying to solve the financial crisis by encouraging consumer demand for goods and services also has its downside: it will do little to curb the environmental crisis that this demand has been responsible for.
Nor will it address the gap between rich and poor countries that continues to haunt the globalisation process. That will require additional measures to give developing countries an equitable share of the resources being deployed to boost the global economy.
It will also mean making sure that the money to fund this boost does not come out of aid programmes, which are more essential than ever as the developing world bears the brunt of an economic downturn for which it has not been responsible.
Over the coming months, the true test for the G20 leaders will be whether they can create a new global economic system that not only provides financial stability — the main goal of the London summit — but also puts the world on a path to genuine sustainable economic growth.
Referring to the 1930s New Deal that pulled the United States out of recession, a group of environment, development, business and labour groups said in an open letter to the G20 leaders last week that "today's need is for a "global" and "green" New Deal".
The challenge is even more formidable than it was then. For at its heart lies a message that many in the developed world will find difficult to swallow — namely that rich countries must consume less precisely at a time when the developing world must be allowed to consume more.
This dilemma is also central to the climate change negotiations on a post-Kyoto agreement that will take place in Copenhagen later this year. Massive reductions in carbon emissions can only be achieved by significantly changing lifestyles in the developed world; but the developing world can only be expected to contribute if it is also allowed to pursue the economic development required to dig itself out of poverty.
The right to develop
Some climate activists have summarised the desired solution as "contraction and convergence". They advocate simultaneously reducing global demand for carbon-intensive technologies while giving the developing world the right to benefit from economic growth.
For rich countries, this means ensuring — as President Obama has already promised to do in the United States — that a high proportion of any economic reform package goes to supporting and expanding sustainable industries.
For poor countries, it means this and more. No attempt at global economic reform based on social equity and political stability can afford to ignore these countries' many social needs — listed in, but not confined to, the Millennium Development Goals.
Hopefully the G20 leaders' agreement this week reflects an international commitment to creating a solid financial platform for a new era of economic growth that taps into human innovation while curbing human excess.
But this new era must not repeat or prolong the mistakes of its predecessor. Solving the financial crisis is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for meeting the daunting political challenges of achieving sustainable and equitable growth that still lie ahead.