No Known Solutions: The Challenges of Sustainable Global Development

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Thursday, Sep 01, 2016 - 12:00 am

Master of Environmental Management candidate Shaina Nanavati reflects on her experience interning at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva as a Fellow of the Sanford School of Public Policy's Program on Global Governance and Policy in the summer of 2016.

It is a rainy Tuesday in June, and I shut the door of my apartment and step out to call the lift. A clang announces its arrival, and I pry open the door to watch the grate slide open to reveal the closet-sized chamber within. I climb inside, clamber down to the ground floor of the building, and step out onto a street in Gaillard, France. My routine here has already been forged. I walk to the boulangerie directly across from my building, where the woman behind the counter knows me as the “California girl.” I pay 1 Euro for a freshly baked chocolate croissant. I continue further down the street and arrive at my favorite café, an unassuming little store front where I have befriended the owner. He already knows to ring me up for a café au lait.

A few steps further down the road, I arrive at what looks like a toll booth, but is actually a border crossing. Most mornings, there are no authorities in sight, only commuters rushing out of France and into Switzerland, by car and bike and foot. I am one of those on foot, but I need not walk too far. Just beyond the booth is the tram station that will take me to work, near the city center of Geneva. The trams here follow the clocks precisely and arrive every four minutes; this never ceases to surprise me. On the tram, I continue my morning routine: finish my coffee; stash my croissant in my purse to enjoy with a second coffee once I get to the office; pick up any stray French newspaper that may be lying in an empty seat next to me and try to decipher at least one headline as my daily language practice; and pull out a book from my bag and spend the rest of my 40-minute ride reading. This week, I am reading This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein. It’s a fascinating read, about the incompatibility of continuing unlimited economic growth with halting climate change. This morning’s chapter is on the contribution of globalization to income inequality among countries and the effect of free trade on renewable energy proliferation. Specifically, Klein mentions a case that took place in Ontario, Canada, where a feed-in tariff that included a local-content requirement for solar panel production created a booming manufacturing industry for photovoltaics (PV) beginning in 2009. A lawsuit within the World Trade Organization, however, determined that the feed-in-tariff for local production gave preferential treatment to the industries within Ontario and therefore broke international free trade laws. The local content provision was removed, and Chinese-built solar panels quickly became the cheaper option for Canadians to purchase. Ontario’s PV industry very quickly died.

I arrive at my stop right as I turn the last page of this chapter, and once I pass through the doors of the International Environment House (or, in French, la Maison Internationale de L'environnement) I take another, less claustrophobia-inducing elevator up to the top floor to arrive at the headquarters of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, or ICTSD. I settle down at my desk and continue researching a topic that I had been working on the previous day. I was reading about the effects of local content requirements (LCRs) on total renewable energy supply in the world. When countries attempt to meet renewable energy goals by enforcing domestic production of the necessary technologies, they invariably cause prices to rise, pushing down both supply and demand for the renewable technology. When barriers to trade such as subsidies and preferential tax schemes are removed, the countries with a competitive advantage will take over the role of production of those technologies. This means certain countries will be able to produce things like solar panels faster, better, and more cheaply. Today, I’m reading about an ongoing case in which the United States and India are battling out the legality of such an LCR that India has enacted, at the courts of the WTO. India has set very high goals for itself, planning to reach 100 gigawatts of solar energy capacity by 2022. It seems that by only allowing industry and government to use solar PVs that are manufactured within India itself, the country may never be able to bring down the price of solar energy enough to meet its goals.

Learning about opposing sides of a fascinating argument is all in a day’s work here for me at ICTSD. My most memorable experience from this internship followed this pattern as well. My supervisor, the head of the Environment & Natural Resources department at ICTSD, sent me to a civil society hearing hosted by the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) at the Palais des Nations one afternoon. I arrived at the historic site and, upon eventually making my way through the labyrinth of the building, arrived at the meeting room for the hearing. I took my place behind a microphone, ICTSD placard in front of me, and put on the provided earpiece, as everyone else seemed to be doing. I soon realized that the earpiece provided immediate translation between five languages, so that members of the committee and the attendees could speak in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, or Italian, and one would simply need to set the earpiece to the correct station to receive a real-time translation in whichever language they desired.

I did not brave participation in the discussion, but it was a lively one that lasted for three hours. The members of civil society, or non-governmental and non-business organizations, debated the merits of specific global trade agreements with members of the trade community. The environmental, social, and economic benefits of deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) were heatedly contrasted with their potential for harm. Issues such as growth in renewable energy, illegal wildlife trade, and global financial flows were all dissected. From what I understood, increased free trade would delineate clear winners and losers around the world. But in public arenas like this, the less influential players were given a chance to voice their concerns. With unbiased think tanks such as ICTSD watching and listening, the representatives of the most vulnerable members of society too could get their stories reported.

If I had only one takeaway from this summer, it would be this: international work is like the fractal design of a tree or snowflake. One issue may seem simple on the surface, but upon further inspection leads to three more problems with no known solutions. While trying to determine these solutions, we come across another nine dilemmas that must first be resolved. There are no right or wrong answers when working within the plurality that is our global society. Development paradigms that spell out success for one region may be utter failures in other places. In terms of finding ways to bring more clean energy onto the market, which is where my interest lies, there are no clear answers as to what works and what does not. It is the job of organizations like ICTSD to contribute to policy recommendations that individual countries must assess, personalize, and implement. This summer was an incredible experience for me. With the help I received from the Energy Initiative, I was allowed the privilege to work in an incredibly multicultural setting in an office that focused on pressing global issues, as well as steep myself in a cultural amalgam of a summer that will most definitely influence the work I do in the future.