EBRD chief: governments must ‘push much harder’ on sustainability

By on 08/06/2020
Suma Chakrabarti

Inaction is not an option on environmental sustainability, EBRD president Sir Suma Chakrabarti told the Global Government Leaders’ Forum. Mia Hunt hears top officials from four countries debate how governments can catalyse action across government and society to protect our environment

“A failure to act on environmental sustainability should not be on the menu of choices available to governments – so governments are required, in my view, to build coalitions for change; to tackle vested interest groups; to act jointly across ministries; and to coordinate on a national and international level.”  

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was speaking at the inaugural Global Government Leaders’ Forum, held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on 30 January. The half-day event – hosted by the Government of Singapore and organised by Global Government Forum – brought together 80 civil service leaders from 13 countries to hear panel discussions on the forms of civil service leadership required in today’s world.

Chakrabarti kicked off the second session of the day, on environmental sustainability, with a presentation on the domestic measures governments can take to stop environmental degradation. But he also emphasised that fighting climate change requires strong leadership and a coordinated, global approach. “The challenge for governments, for civil services, and for international organisations is to push much harder to take leadership in this area,” he said.

Governments and civil services, he argued, should strongly nudge firms into action; change the pricing of energy and emissions; introduce globally harmonised standards and regulations on environmental protection and reporting; support equity markets to encourage green innovators; create greener liveable cities; and better coordinate the work of departments.

Cross-departmental agreement

One way to do the latter, he said, is to get cross-departmental agreement on green priorities. The Canadian government does so through the mandate letters issued by the prime minister, explained Catherine Blewett, deputy clerk of Canada’s Privy Council and associate secretary to the Cabinet – who was on the panel with Chakrabarti and senior leaders from Portugal and Myanmar. “All of the ministers have mandate letters that are quite specific. And what’s so interesting in this area is they’re also very horizontal, so it’s not just the Ministry of Environment that has sustainability goals and objectives: it cuts across transportation, fisheries, innovation departments, which forces collaboration,” she said.

Catherine Blewett: “You have this pull and tug between the environment and the economy, and as a government, we’ve got a lot of leverage to lead innovation to advance both.”

Blewett also spoke of Canada’s work on tackling plastics and marine litter during its G7 presidency. “We felt that as made calls for action internationally, we would only be credible if we also started to make changes domestically – and we have started to make some progress,” she said.    

As well as getting alignment from the provincial and territorial administrations, the government focused on collaboration and consultation, working with environmental organisations and, crucially, citizens. “They’re passionate, particularly in this area. They have expectations, and that’s a foundation for moving forward,” she said. “If citizens don’t see themselves in a government plan, it’s not going to get much traction.”  

Engaging future generations

Another focus was on driving innovation, and the Canadian government called on young people to come up with solutions to single use plastics and marine litter.

“You have this pull and tug between the environment and the economy, and as a government, we’ve got a lot of leverage to lead innovation to advance both,” Blewett said. “Through our G7 activities, we engaged young people and talked to them about what business opportunities they saw downstream. These were young Canadians, and they were thinking about the businesses that they could build pulling out plastic waste from the oceans – it was just incredible. Incentivising that kind of behaviour is probably a way to help further the notion of a sustainable economy. I have lots of hope for the future.”

H.E. Win Thein explains that in Myanmar, environmental education is integral to the country’s sustainable development programme

This ties in with Myanmar’s approach to sustainable development – which H.E. Win Thein, chairman of the country’s Union Civil Service Board, described as “development that meets the requirements of the present without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs”.

One “integral” facet of Myanmar’s sustainable development programme, said Win Thein, is environmental education. Over the last six years the government has given more than 2,000 talks to groups including college and university students, raising awareness of the issues.   

More broadly, Myanmar’s approach is to define the country’s sustainable development goals and their prioritisation; establish national plans to meet those goals; and map out the plans’ implementation. “These three processes are interrelated to each other, so if there is weakness in any of them it will undermine the whole sustainable development programme,” he said.

Maintaining momentum through changes of government

Drawing up and implementing a national environmental or sustainable development plan is essential, the panellists agreed. But when a new government is elected, the long-term work required to create substantive change can often be unnecessarily disrupted.

A legislative proposal being drawn up in Portugal would enable the civil service to protect certain policies through transitions of government, says Catarina Maria Romão Gonçalves

Portugal is working on a solution that could help to maintain momentum. A legislative proposal is currently being drawn up that would enable the civil service to protect certain policies through transitions of government, enabling the new administration to consider the evidence and consult with stakeholders before introducing major changes. “We in the civil service have a lot of tools to protect things, and we don’t need to consult the ministers to buy things and to promote green achievements,” Catarina Maria Romão Gonçalves, deputy general secretary of the country’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers, told the audience. “There are a lot of things that we can do as an administration, and to be a green net of the state.”

No-one at the Leaders’ Forum was under any illusion that tackling climate change is anything other than a great and pressing challenge, but Chakrabarti ended with a positive message. “I was on a panel with [former US vice president] Al Gore at Davos, and he said something really interesting – he said the climate crisis is far worse than we thought; but the good news is that we have more solutions, and they’re cheaper and more technically possible than we thought they would be. There is possibility and there is hope, but creating a virtuous circle takes time.”

This is the second of two reports on the Global Government Leaders’ Forum 2020. The event occurred before COVID-19 spread beyond the Far East, but publication was delayed as we focused on coverage of the pandemic. You can read about the event’s first session, on digital transformation, here.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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