The last several weeks have been extremely frustrating for many activists, international organizations and general public. Several international summits have shown that the global governance system was significantly damaged by the global financial crisis. The crisis created uncertainty about the future and made governments of the world’s leading economies careful about their commitments. After the meeting of parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on 2-4 November 2009 in Barcelona it became clear that the conference of parties to be held in Copenhagen in December was not likely to result in any legally binding arrangement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. The World Summit on Food Security held on 16-18 November also did not result in any significant binding commitments. Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN reports that due to the global economic recession, the number of hungry people in the world will exceed one billion in 2009. In 2008, it was 850 million people. Only the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009 can be seen as a success of international regulatory efforts, at least to some extent. G-8 was transformed into G-20. The general principles of the new global economic architecture were approved. One of such principles is tough regulation of financial markets.

The leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies producing 85% of world output agreed to launch a Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth. It outlines new principles of cooperation and coordination in the global economy. G-20 also agreed to strengthen international standards for bank capital and to reduce incentives for excessive risk-taking (manager bonuses regulations). Beside these measures aimed at strengthening recovery and avoiding imbalances in the global economic system, the participants of the summit also agreed (1) to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies to increase energy market transparency and to encourage energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, (2) to empower developing and transition countries by reforming major international institutions, including the World Bank and (3) to support the world’s poorest citizens. These are extremely ambitious measures that promise to alter the economic and social structure of the world and make it more stable and fair. The German delegation announced that the results of the G-20 Summit were “better than expected”.

Yet, many observers remain pessimistic. They point out that the interests of state and nonstate actors remain contradictory and conflicts will emerge when concrete measures specifying general principles, upon which all agree, are discussed. They emphasize that there is no global parliament and no global state apparatus that would impose rules, control their implementation and sanction noncompliance. The decisions in the G-20 are consensus-based: A coalition of only a few states can block negotiations.

Moreover, the states are not rethinking the foundations of the global economic system dominated by the idea of strong and stable economic growth that can be achieved through liberal market economy and free trade. Although economic growth is supposed to be sustainable, there is no consensus – neither scientific nor political – what sustainability is and how it can be achieved. There are more than a dozen of definitions of sustainability. One thing is clear about sustainability in the current normative framework: Without economic growth, there can be no sustainability. This, however, is not the only conceptualization of the relationship between economic growth and sustainability. The classic “The Limits of Growth” (1972) models consequences of population growth, industrial production, pollution and resource depletion and suggests that permanent growth at the present rate cannot be sustained in the long run. The ideas emphasizing the need to restrict economic growth have not become a dominant framework for international policy-making. Instead, a norm complex that Bernstein (2000) calls the liberal environmentalism emerged and was institutionalized at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the central event in the history of international environmental politics. At the core of this complex is the idea that environmental protection and economic growth are compatible and mutually reinforcing. In order to have environmental protection and sustainable use of resources, it is necessary to boost economic growth. The best way to achieve economic growth is to promote liberal market economy and free trade. In turn, economic growth can be sustained if environment is protected and resources are used responsibly.

I neither argue that one of idea is better than the other, nor do I wish to claim that one idea is scientifically correct and the other one is not. I do not argue that we should go back to the idea of limiting growth. I only attempt to show that the leaders of the world’s largest economies and international bureaucrats are not trying to rethink the fundamental relation between economy, environment and society. We are used to think of crises as turning points when new ideas can replace the old ones and become dominant. The interesting feature of this crisis is that we stick to the ideas that do not seem to have made the world a better place.

While the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh was a success and promises to restore the reputation of international public regulation after decades of deregulation and liberalization, the meetings o hunger and environment showed that governments remained cautious as far as specific commitments are concerned.

The lack of any desire to make specific commitments at the World Summit on Food Security and the upcoming Copenhagen conference of parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change demonstrate that the governments are more willing to discuss broad principles than specific targets and timetables. Moreover, debates on overcoming economic recession and strengthening economic growth seem to be far more attractive than negotiations on hunger and greenhouse emissions. Except for the host Silvio Berlusconi, no G-8 leaders were present in Rome at the World Summit on Food Security. At the summit, the elimination of hunger in the world was declared a strategic goal. Yet, no concrete decisions on financial mechanisms, specific commitments and timetables were made. At the meeting in Barcelona prior to Copenhagen conference, it became clear that no legally-binding agreement with specific targets and schedules would be signed. No regulations for technology transfers, financial aid and emission reduction targets were prepared. The advanced industrial countries insist that the developing countries should also commit to reducing their emissions. They do not want to make the first move, since they fear that they would damage their competitive advantage in the global economic system. The developing countries refuse any legally binding commitments arguing that the industrial countries were responsible for climate change and should bear the costs of climate change. They also fear that climate related commitment would restrict their opportunities for economic growth and development. They expect financial aid and technology transfers. The arguments are as old as the climate change issue themselves. The conference in Copenhagen is unlikely to deliver any solutions. Greenpeace climate expert Karsten Smid calls this “the deepest crisis” in the history of climate negotiations.

Is this also the deepest crisis of global governance? Clearly, the fact that the issues of economic stability, climate change and hunger are discussed can make us optimistic about the global governance in the long run. Yet, it seems that during the last decades we haven’t moved further than accepting, defining and discussing problems. Working solutions are yet to be developed. The questions is whether what is happening is two steps forward and one step back or one step forward and two steps back.

Bernstein, Steven. 2000. “Ideas, Social Structure and the Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism“. European Journal of International Relations” 6(4): 464-512