The 1st Round Table on Sustainable Development -Report


Launching the Round Table on Sustainable Development

Paris, September 1998


The Discussion of the Round Table, chaired by Simon Upton, focused on four issues : i) gaps in the elaboration of a workable economic framework for sustainable development; ii) the OECD role in developing such a framework; iii) whether the priorities identified in the OECD programme of work are the right ones for advancing the sustainable development agenda; iv) modalities of operation of the RTSD.



Gaps in the elaboration of a workable economic framework for Sustainable Development


The conventional definition of sustainable development (SD) is meaningful, although it does not take the work programme in any specific direction. The broad nature of the concept implies a risk of spreading the agenda so widely as to loose focus. This risk was especially relevant when trying to assess the "social dimension" of SD, including poverty which some identified as the biggest environmental problem in developing countries. OECD work on human capital must be very important in this respect.

Likewise proceeding in a step-wise way is globally essential. This implies focusing on measures in each of the three dimensions of SD. Only in a second stage, one should move to consider trade-offs between policy objectives and to make recommendations.


The RTSD recognised that an integrated "economic framework" for SD does not exist yet, and that SD considerations are not integrated in core economic reasoning. The failures are data limitations, limits in analytic models, and conceptual difficulties with decision making under conditions of uncertainty. Work must be done to diminish such failures. Also it is important to encourage stakeholder dialogues in the current context where governments decreasing confidence in their ability to regulate effectively.



The OECD role in developing such a framework


OECD work on climate change was suggested to have two objectives. First, efforts should upgrade the internal modelling capacity. Second, the convening power of the OECD may allow it to provide a meeting place for the modelling community and for the SD agenda more generally. The OECD, working in co-operation with other fora which are used to deal with this climate change issue, could provide some objectivity to the global analysis, and aim to be perceived as an "honest broker" that can guarantee objective assessment of trade-offs and foster policy dialogue.

The RTSD highlighted the importance of using analytic tools in the context of concrete problems. OECD should indeed apply analytic tools to specific problems, and then periodically try to distil principles of general validity. For each specific issue being considered, the OECD has a role in identifying the least-cost approach, and the time-frame over which solutions could be sought. Analytic tools are not only models, but include best practices and sharing of national experiences.



Priorities for advancing the agenda


The RTSD noted that, in addition to work on climate change, the OECD Economics Department should review country experiences with the use of economic instruments for achieving environmental objectives, in co-operation with the OECD Environment Directorate.


General satisfaction with the key project items were highlighted, although in some cases, the scope of the projects may need to be broadened. Likewise, beyond the work programme already identified, a more general question for consideration by the RTSD is whether OECD needs to address a broader set of issues such as :

- air pollution, water quality, toxic waste, desertification and re-forestation, trade policies, research policies, and win-win policies ;

- the effects of trade and investment liberalisation on the environment and social standards ;

- the role of the OECD to convene discussions on the financial reporting of firms'environmental liabilities, and importance of rules governing export financing agencies to avoid a "race to the bottom";

- SD dimensions in trade discussions;

- loss of biodiversity;

- sustainable fisheries.


Within this large list, priority should of course be given to those issues with an international dimension, followed by those local issues which are common to various countries. A key concern faced when broadening the OECD agenda on SD, aside from resource constraints, is that of avoiding duplication of work going on elsewhere. Multi-agency collaboration should be developed.



Modalities of Operation of the RTSD 


In addition to advancing analytic work, progress with the SD agenda requires that results are fed into the public debate. This communication problem is perceived at two levels: first, communication between economic, social and environmental ministers; second, communication with the larger stakeholder community. A role to play for improving that communication was given to the RTSD.


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