EEB's Global Policies and Sustainability Unit writes on the switch to a sustainable society. nick.meynen(at)eeb.org | April 2016  | browser view                       
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From #PanamaPapers to #SDGs
Fiscal fraud vs sustainable development
Banktrack
Coal kills
Bittersweet Chocolate
Civil Society Week in Colombia
Running for justice, not from justice
Degrowth conference in Budapest
UNEA 2 registration open
PROMISING PRACTICE: Sidley

 

OP-ED: From #PanamaPapers to #SDGs 
by Gie Goris, editor-in-chief of MO* (www.MO.be) MO* is one of the journalist teams working on the investigation and publication of the PanamaPapers

Instead of paying taxes, those who can are too often paying lawyers to avoid taxes. That is the bottom-line from the PanamaPapers. If that is allowed by law, the law needs an urgent update. If it’s against the law, governments need to be more effective in law enforcement. There’s a small window of opportunity to act, but the clock of populism is ticking loud and irrevocably. The global sustainability agenda could become a paper tiger if no action is taken.

Icelanders took to the streets when they learned their Prime Minister owned shares in an offshore, but never declared them. Governments in France, Spain, Australia, Belgium and even Panama announced investigations “to get to the bone” of allegations in the biggest leak and biggest journalistic cross-border-cooperation in history. The OECD called upon finance ministers of the G20 to take concrete action as soon as possible. Global policies have never been that urgent.

The PanamaPapers come after SwissLeaks, LuxLeaks and Offshore Leaks. Each time there is a wholly justified groundswell of public indignation. While citizens expect from governments that they uphold the laws they vote, fiscal authorities are not given the resources needed to fulfil their obligations. That is strange, since we know that more and better trained tax collectors result in more income for the state. In the US, the calculation is that every extra dollar invested in control capacity returns six dollars of additional state income.

Austerity dictates that EU-governments cut back on capacity, even if that means a net loss due to less recovered taxes. There’s a parallel with the EC’s determination to cut back on environmental protection even if the extra profits made from that can never compensate for the extra costs for society as a whole. When someone on welfare doesn’t report something, it’s called “social fraud”, but when the biggest corporations don’t report their assets, it’s called “fiscal optimisation”. All of this erodes the trust in the functioning of our democracy. Austerity for the people and special treatment for corporations is not the way “forward”.

Social inequality is a burden for the environment; it excludes the poor from living a sustainable lifestyle, and makes the wealthy groups drivers of overconsumption and waste production.

The political consequence should be that parliaments around the globe vote stricter laws, to prevent the use with impunity of systems that produce inequalities. It should lead to legally binding agreements between governments -in all fora that permit such cooperation, be it OECD, EU, G20 or UN. And if, as many would fear to be the case, it proves that politicians are not able to cut the branch they sit on, we need other politicians. It is our civil obligation to stop accepting that society is hurt by those who are supposed to serve and defend it in our name.

Draining tax havens to ensure that everyone contributes to education, health care, sustainable mobility, information and clean air for all is a matter of justice. If world leaders are serious about the global sustainable development goals (SDGs), it is a necessity. Closing tax havens and avoiding tax loopholes is directly related to the SDGs, and this was discussed at the Finance for Sustainable Development Agenda in Addis Ababa and within the UNEP Inquiry Report on transforming the financial system. The World Economic Situation and Prospects 2015 Report estimates the amount of non-taxed capital in tax havens between 21 and 32 trillion dollar. If that would be taxed at bottom rates, it would generate 189 billion dollar of additional resources. That’s a lot more than the global goal to mobilise 100 billion a year to help developing countries adapt to climate change, to make just one comparison.

This is the time to do what has been promised: create a real level playing field for all players, install clear and transparent rules that apply to all and ensure a government apparatus that has the ambition, the mandate and the resources to enforce these. If contemporary governments fail to do that, then all their future indignation about the rise of populism or the lack of resources and proper investments for the global sustainability agenda should be seen as what it really is: poor theatre.

Fiscal fraud vs sustainable development

Richard Brooks, who reported on the PanamaPapers for The Guardian, concluded that tax havens don’t need to be reformed, but outlawed. EU regulators reacted by demanding greater tax transparency from multinationals, although not everyone is convinced.

In hindsight, the February article by our director Leida Rijnhout in the European Financial Review shows that the need to reform the finance system was known long before these papers came out. Rijnhout was quoted saying “The financial system also needs to be re-regulated after decades of deregulation.” She stressed that “stopping the global tax avoidance and illegal financial flows” is essential for the SDGs to be implemented.

The Panama Papers help to put pressure and push the issue higher on the agenda. What also helps is that organisations like Oxfam have launched a popular petition to end the era of tax havens in order to end extreme poverty.

Banktrack

Staying on the finance theme: here’s one NGO to track. BankTrack is an international tracking, campaigning and NGO support organisation focused on private sector commercial banks and the activities they finance. They recently pulled off an ad-hoc campaign to convince investors to pull out indefinitely of the Agua Zarca project in Honduras, where two community leaders were brutally murdered in separate incidents. While some investors announce a temporary halt, they’re still collecting signatures to put more pressure on the investors. Over the years, campaigns conducted by BankTrack and their members have stopped banks from funding projects that are devastating to the environment or harmful for human rights. Their list of victories is rather impressive.

Coal kills

At least four people were killed after police opened fire on villagers as a protest against two China-backed power plants turned violent in south-eastern Bangladesh on Monday 4 April. The villagers protest against the construction of two coal-fired power plants that will evict thousands of farmers from the fertile area. Witnesses said at least five people were shot dead and more than 100 were injured by police. Climate Action Network, a global community of over 950 NGOs in more than 110 countries fighting for action to tackle climate change, immediately condemned the police crackdown. Two Chinese firms — SEPCOIII Electric Power and HTG — are financing $1.75 billion of the plants’ estimated $2.4 billion cost. These most recent coal deaths come on top of an ongoing death count organised by the EEB.

Bittersweet Chocolate

While supermarket chains across Europe make sweet profits from the sale of store brand chocolate, the majority of the small farmers who harvest and process the cocoa live in bitter poverty. Conventional cocoa production is also destructive to the environment because of high use of dangerous pesticides. The “Supply cha!nge. Make supermarkets fair!” project did EU-wide research tracing the cocoa from the supermarket to the producer which found that most store brand chocolate is in one way or another linked to child labour, slavery and very toxic pesticides. The project is calling upon European Supermarkets to use 100% independent third-party certified cocoa for store brands, payment of a living income to cocoa farmers, transparency and a ban on the use of the worst pesticides in the cocoa supply chain.

Civil Society Week in Colombia

CIVICUS and the federation of Colombian NGOs organise a global gathering of civil inspired thinkers, innovation leaders and influential organisations which seek to engage constructively in finding common solutions to global challenges. #ICSW2016 will be held in Bogotá, Colombia from 25-28 April with the objectives to connect the different sources and forces of citizen action, share tools and experiences for enhancing citizen action and celebrate the power of innovation to effect social change. An estimated 600 people will enjoy a series of conferences, workshops, training sessions, volunteer initiatives and cultural experiences under the banner of “Active Citizens, Accountable Actions”. Register here to join them in Bogota. During this week, there will be also a meeting with civil society organisations to discuss further the shaping of a Global Coalition to work on and watchdog the implementation of the SDGs worldwide. The EEB is one of the active steering group members of this coalition to cover the environmental part of it. More info here.

Running for justice, not from justice

If you think that running for justice makes a lot more sense than running from justice, you may consider becoming a Grrrowd hero. Grrrowd is the organisation that crowdfunds for cases where lawyers help communities to get environmental justice. The EEB helps Ecuador oil spill victims to get Chevron to pay for the damage. But there are other campaigns as well and a Grrrowd hero is someone who chooses a cause that he or she wants to support by doing something and asking friends, family and colleagues for support. It’s easy to set your own page up and you can add a video and some text to explain why you’re doing what you do.

Degrowth conference in Budapest

Between 30 August and 3 September 2016, Budapest will host two parallel, yet complementary events. The 5th International Degrowth Conference will foster discussion between scholars, researchers, civil society and practitioners about their degrowth-related research and activities. The GPS unit from the EEB will be there and organise an event on Degrowth alternatives to the retail market monopolisation.

Simultaneously, across Budapest, Degrowth Week will bring discussions, public panels, artistic performances and exhibitions, practical workshops and conviviality events into public space. This open platform for degrowth dialogue, practice, networking and expression will introduce Degrowth to Budapest and its inhabitants, and also to the scholars, researchers, civil society and practitioners being present at the conference.
If you wish to share your thoughts, experiences or artistic expressions with Budapest and global degrowth communities, the time is now. The call for Degrowth Week events is officially open. You can suggest events and activities until midnight on May 1st.

UNEA registration open

The second United Nations Environmental Assembly kicks off in Nairobi on May 19. The overarching theme is “Delivering on the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” – very relevant for anyone working on sustainability. The registration for this key global event is now open. More details on UNEA2, how you can engage and how to register are in the link.

Promising practice: Sidley

In 2012, Sidley Austin launched the Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Pro Bono Program. This program provides free legal support to small and medium sized agricultural-related enterprises and development NGOs in Africa and Asia. The focus is to empower farmers and businesses to expand their operations to improve the livelihoods of the world’s poorest farmers and their communities. Access to Sidley’s international legal experience can eliminate a host of finance, investment and trade challenges to grow and pave the way for future successes. Sidley’s lawyers and staff devote more than 100,000 hours to pro bono projects annually and for that work they received several awards.

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The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the EEB