Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sustainable Development: Brundtland Commission 20 years on

In the introduction to my Environmental Economics it is customary to define "sustainable development". The natural starting point is to describe the Brundtland Commission and the Brundtland Report.

The definition given in my introductory lecture is:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

So 20 years on since the Brundtland Commission what has changed?

Steve Bass is a senior fellow of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) discusses in a post on ChinaDialogue.
It is 20 years since the World Commission on Environment and Development – the 1987 Brundtland Commission – released its influential report and introduced the concept of sustainable development to the political mainstream, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Global summits in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and Johannesburg in 2002 led to multiple governmental commitments on sustainable development, and helped to extend the concept’s reach into the worlds of business, local government and civil society.

The article then describes the 9 pillars of sustainable development - details are in the article:

1. The “three pillars” concept of integrating environmental, economic, and social objectives.

2. Legal principles.

3. International agreements.

4. Many plans and strategies.

5. Political fora and councils.

6. Tools for sustainability assessment, and for market, project and fiscal intervention.

7. Voluntary codes and standards.

8. “Triad” partnerships.

9. Considerable debate and research.

So has development become more sustainable?
... we can make three major observations: first, the pace, scale and depth of progress towards sustainable development has been inadequate; second, the root causes of unsustainability remain firmly in place even if some symptoms have been tackled; and third, most people do not yet “feel the burn” to act, whether in government, business or as individuals.

In 2005, three landmark reports commissioned by the UN emphasised the scale of the problem. The Millennium Project confirmed that progress in reducing poverty was too slow. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 16 out of 25 services that ecosystems provide to humanity were being critically degraded. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly demonstrated one major impact of unsustainable development paths. The fact that these reports were not treated together is itself a sign that an integrated, sustainable-development approach is not being pursued globally.

The new challenges facing sustainable development are listed as (more details in the article) - some are of course more important than others.

The rapid emergence of the “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, etc) countries as major economic powers

The shift from rural to urban settlement and investment, and consequent changes in demands and scarcities, as well as in dominant value systems.

Globalisation’s dramatic reshaping of economies

The increased frequency and severity of non-linear events.

The multiplication of ways for communities of interest to interact.

The dramatic improvements in surveillance, mapping and information technology.

The increasing risk of clashes between “haves” and “have-nots”.

Decreasing public appetite for “big ideas”.

The erosion of multilateralism by powerful unilateralists,and the fragile path towards improving multilateralism being trod by others.

And what of the future?
“What changes lie ahead, and how can we be resilient to them?” – a question that also demands greater engagement with scientists. In the past 20 years, scientists have proven to be key in identifying and exploring issues such as ozone layer depletion and acid rain. For the next 20 years, nothing less than a joint scientific endeavour – “sustainability science” – will be required to investigate complex syndromes, such as climate change and biodiversity, which shape our future wellbeing.

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