Interview with Brice Lalonde
Chair of the Round Table on Sustainable Development
“You cannot really manage the environment without a strong economy.” The remark seems oddly appropriate, sitting in an office overlooking the expansive woodland of the Bois de Boulogne, a “green lung” in the wealthy if congested west of Paris.
Its author is Brice Lalonde, former French environment minister and lifelong environmentalist, who in February 2007 took up his new post as chair of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, housed at the OECD headquarters. He replaces New Zealander Simon Upton. Twice a green candidate for the French presidency, Mr Lalonde has a wise twinkle in his eye: “Greens often consider business as enemies of the environment. Well, I disagree.”The Round Table on Sustainable Development was established in 1998 to allow high-level decision-makers from government, NGOs, corporations and institutions to generate and test new ideas and build consensus for action on sustainable development challenges. Its meetings follow Chatham House rules of discretion to allow frank exchanges of views; it’s a formula that pleases, since more than 100 ministers, more than 60 senior private sector executives and numerous governmental and non-governmental international organisations have attended the Round Table. Mr Lalonde describes the Round Table as one of the first intelligent high-level meetings where participants can actually agree on facts. “It is remarkable to see ministers happily there, discussing or just listening and learning.”Why the OECD? Mr Lalonde looks surprised: “The OECD has played an important role in environmental issues. This fact is not publicised enough!”Politics and negotiation are important in the new job. “Business is ready to change, but governments have to do more to help them, by providing clear signals, long-term predictability, good regulations and frameworks. The carbon market is an example: it is ready to go. But governments are cautious, they want more assurances, on jobs, investment, and to be sure the private sector can deliver.”Governments must create standards–for industry, buildings, cars. And the market may not be enough: “I think that people are ready to take the right environmental action, they just haven’t the tools to do so. This is where the OECD can help.” Mr Lalonde refers to the solid reputation of the organisation, its statistics, best corporate practices, its work on chemicals, taxation, its legal instruments, and even the polluter-pays principle which, “if I recall, was first worked on at the OECD.” The economic tools to deal with the environment are invaluable, he says: “less dramatic than some measures, but much more measurable. Which is what it takes, as we need methodology, goals, a timetable. And for that, we need the facts.”And because the OECD is taken seriously, it can help governments establish standards on energy efficiency, and put a price on carbon. And they can push technology. “Everyone talks about energy, but we have found that public spending for all R&D on energy is far less right now than it was 20 years ago!”The OECD also believes in a well-regulated economy; it offers an array of solutions, including appropriate state intervention, Mr Lalonde continues. When the OECD emerged after the Second World War, its mission became “economic reform to open the way to peace”, unlike “protectionism which brought us to conflict.” The OECD is a good home for the Round Table, he believes, “for it is part of the mission to show that rich countries care about development, about equity, migration.”Mr Lalonde feels encouraged. “Nothing has developed as quickly as environmental awareness. When I was young we didn’t know climate change existed. The green movement brought these issues to the public’s attention, and then there followed the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with its two conventions, on climate change and biodiversity.” The environment is now part of the mainstream, he says: “You won’t find an economist who would disagree that the natural environment is part of capital.”
Since Rio there have been new developments, though: “India and China were not playing such a big role.” Without globalisation, he says, “the world would not know about Sudan, about Africa’s plight, about the life of women under fundamentalist regimes, and so on.”The Round Table on Sustainable Development meets two to three times a year, with a dozen or more ministers at each meeting. There are other smaller meetings, too. He goes on: “We invite the emerging countries. For the conference on illegal logging, we had ministers from Ghana, China and Indonesia.” But then “OECD countries will have to get their houses in order too, before they ask emerging economies to clean up their acts”.Mr Lalonde is excited by renewable technology, but is also realistic. “The world is going to stay with fossil fuels for quite some time, including coal. This means we must adapt coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and sequestration. This may not be available for another 10 years.”So, how does the new chair define sustainable development? “To me it refers to how the economy should enable us to live better lives while improving our environment and our societies, from now on and within a globalised world.” AB
OECD Observer No. 261 May 2007