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DEVELOPMENT: Crisis Could Open Doors for Change, Says UNCTAD

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 8 2010 (IPS) - As the financial crisis continued to threaten world economies last year, the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously declared: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) subscribes to the Emanuel philosophy that crises always “offer a window of opportunity to embark on a path of more resilient and sustainable economic growth.”

The Geneva-based U.N. agency implicitly argues that even in the most economically disastrous circumstances, one has to see the brighter side of things – however gloomy the outlook.

In its ‘Trade and Environment Review 2009-2010’ released Monday, UNCTAD says the global economic and financial crisis and the inter-related climate, food, and water crises have imposed themselves as “defining parametres for policy-making today.”

“Understanding the causes and consequences of these crises, and drawing lessons from them should spur dramatic economic and policy changes,” it says.

These changes have to come primarily in three areas: energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture and renewable energies for rural development.

UNCTAD Secretary-General Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi says that major crises such as the world is now experiencing can offer opportunities for rapid breakthroughs in new technologies, production and consumption patterns, and management practices.

He admits that promoting growth in these sectors will not automatically solve the current poverty and climate imperatives, but “it will, however, provide multiple social, economic and environmental dividends and constitute much-needed first steps towards low-carbon social and economic development.”

“The key challenge is to avoid responding to the crises with measures to perpetuate economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable production and consumption patterns,” he says.

In a foreword to the UNCTAD report, New Zealand’s Minister of Trade Tim Groser warns that the trade-climate change linkage is a “ticking time-bomb”.

“But I also believe there is another path open to us, and real opportunities to pursue win-win solutions across these agendas,” Groser says.

The impact of the global economic crisis on the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, particularly in developing countries, adds further urgency and importance to the path taken.

Nowhere, he argues, is this more evident than in the agricultural sector. All countries, developed and developing alike, have a common interest in food security, removing impediments to trade and reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases.

Food production, he says, needs at least to double in the next 40 years, and at the same time global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced substantially.

“Land is a finite resource. Thus, we will need to achieve the best possible global production patterns for agriculture that will meet food, development and climate needs,” says Groser.

In its report, UNCTAD stresses that gains in energy efficiency are the fastest and most economical way to increase access to energy, mitigate climate change, reduce national expenditures on imports of fossil fuel and control air pollution.

This will not only save costs but also enhance national competitiveness.

“While up-front costs may be significant, improvements in energy efficiency often pay for themselves through saved energy costs,” the report notes.

Secondly, sustainable agriculture is of “strategic importance” for growth and poverty reduction in many developing countries.

The adoption of coherent national and international policies to encourage the use of more sustainable production methods, including organic agriculture, could help save costs, develop new markets, improve revenues and enhance food security.

Moreover, these will also provide considerable scope for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Thirdly, renewable sources of energy, available in abundance in a number of developing countries, can be economically exploited with readily available technologies.

The provision of electricity and mechanical energy offers enormous potential for improving rural welfare and accelerating poverty reduction, while at the same time unlocking the productive potential of isolated rural communities.

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