The path to global sustainability

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Article Published 04 Jun 2012 Last modified 17 Mar 2023
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Four decades of environmental governance helped us build institutions to better understand and tackle environmental problems. Twenty years after the Earth Summit of 1992, world leaders meet once again in Rio de Janeiro to renew the global commitment to the green economy and improve global governance.

It was at the UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972) that the international community met for the first time to consider global environment and development needs together. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2012, was established after this conference, as were environment ministries in many countries around the world.

Sustainable development means many things to many people. However, one landmark definition from 1987 describes it as: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (the Brundtland Commission report ‘Our Common Future’). These ‘needs’ are not just economic interests but also the environmental and social foundations that underpin global prosperity.

In June 1992, decision-makers from 172 countries met in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development. Their message was clear: ‘Nothing less than a transformation of our attitudes and behaviour would bring about the necessary changes’. The 1992 Summit was a turning point in putting environment and development issues firmly into the public arena.

The Earth Summit laid the foundations for many key international agreements on the environment:

  • Agenda 21 — an action plan for sustainable development
  • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
  • the Statement of Forest Principles
  • the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
  • the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification.

Exactly twenty years after the historic Rio Summit, the world comes together once more to discuss and decide how to move forward. Earth Summit 2012 will be the fourth summit of its kind and represents another milestone in international efforts to achieve sustainable development. The green economy and global environmental governance head the agenda.

I speak for more than half the world’s population. We are the silent majority. You’ve given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not on the table. What does it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.

Anjali Appadurai, student at College of the Atlantic, speaking on behalf of youth non governmental organisations on 9 December 2011, in Durban, South Africa
Closing day of the United Nations Climate Conference

There is no quick and easy route to sustainability. The transition requires a collective effort from policymakers, businesses and citizens alike. In some instances, policymakers need to provide incentives to promote innovation or support for environment friendly businesses.

In other cases, consumers may have to bear extra costs linked to more sustainable production processes. They may also have to become more demanding towards the manufacturers of their favourite brands or choose more sustainable products. Firms may have to develop clean production processes and export them globally.

Complex problems, complex solutions

The complexity of our global decision making structures mirrors the complexity we find in the environment. It is difficult to strike the right balance between legislation, private sector initiatives and consumer choices. It is equally difficult to find the ‘right level’ to target — ranging from local to global.

Environmental policy becomes more effective if decided and implemented at different scales, and the ‘right level’ varies depending on the issue. Take water management. Fresh water is a local resource that is susceptible to global pressures.

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Water management in the Netherlands, for example, is carried out by local authorities but is subject to national and European legislation. The Dutch water management does not only need to address local issues and what goes on in the countries upstream. Global warming is expected to raise sea levels, which means that the Dutch water boards need to start planning accordingly.

Most of the existing global policies and institutions, including UNEP, were established because local or national solutions fell short of tackling the problems, and global or international coordination was expected to achieve better results. UNEP was created following the Stockholm Conference because participants agreed that some environmental issues could be better addressed at the global level.

Renewed commitment needed

Copyright: ShutterstockToday, global trade enables many of us to enjoy tomatoes and bananas throughout the year, as well as products drawing together components from around the world. This connectivity brings many advantages but it can also bring risks. Pollution caused by another person can end up in our own backyard. This connectivity means that we cannot ignore our responsibility in protecting the global environment.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was one of the achievements of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It aims to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. The success of many international agreements, such as the UNFCCC, depends on the commitment of the parties involved. Unfortunately, if only a limited number of countries are engaged, then it will probably be insufficient to protect the environment, even if they embrace green economy principles fully.

This year’s summit offers an opportunity to renew the global commitment to sustainability. As citizens, consumers, scientists, business leaders, policymakers, we all need to assume responsibility for our actions — as well as for our inaction.

Excerpt from the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 3–14 June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

  • Principle 1: Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. 
  • Principle 2: States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. 
  • Principle 3: The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations. 
  • Principle 4: In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it. 
  • Principle 5: All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world.

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