David Anderson emphasizes the importance of environmental strands in the fabric of sustainable development and suggests ways forward

‘Our future lies between your square brackets,’ a youth delegate told the assembled negotiators at the 1992 Earth Summit.

A decade later, these words still resonate as a reminder of the high purpose propelling the international community to the World Summit on Sustainable Development – to help build a better life for more people, and to make the world a safer place in the process.

For many people, life remains a chaotic struggle for survival. A struggle that thousands lose every day, millions every year. Turning this situation around means replacing chaotic struggle with more secure, predictable access to the necessities of life for present and future generations.

Such is the goal of sustainable development, a global strategy to promote conditions that lead to a higher quality of life for more human beings in a way that maintains the capacity of the planet over the long term.

But where do we start? By ensuring access to freshwater? Yes. Or education? Yes. Or gainful employment? The answer is again yes. We must work to achieve all of these, and much more.

Fundamental issues
Sustainable development is about ensuring the presence of what any of us would identify as fundamental to our own ability and that of future generations to live secure, productive and fulfilling lives.

So, to water, education and employment we must add nutrition, shelter and health care. We must add access to energy and natural resources, agricultural productivity, safe working conditions, accountable government, a fair justice system, respect for human rights, and freedom of cultural expression and spiritual pursuits.

And still the list is far from complete.

Over recent years, through the United Nations, countries of the world have met and reached agreement on how to address many of these issues. While each of those agreements forms an indispensable component of the growing sustainable development agenda, our tendency has been to deal with them largely in isolation from each other. Our implementation is too often uncoordinated, even at cross purposes, producing mixed results and falling short of the progress envisioned in Rio a decade ago.

We are learning, however, to understand more holistically the interactions among the fundamentals of human well-being. We now see that generating wealth in ways that damage the environment only produces more poverty. We realize that protecting the environment in ways that undercut a community’s livelihood leads to social stresses and ever greater pressures on the environment.

Now there is growing momentum for drawing together all the separate threads of the sustainable development agenda and weaving them into a fabric of human progress. A fabric in which their mutual reinforcement will make them stronger and more durable.

The strands of that fabric in which I am particularly interested are in the realm of the environment. It is abundantly obvious that human well-being relies heavily on the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the natural bounty of the environments in which we live.

Somewhat more subtle is how environmental conditions can undermine human health. How lead contamination reduces the ability of our children to learn. How smog aggravates asthma, dioxin causes cancer, and ozone depletion suppresses immunity. How extreme weather events at the hand of global warming can wipe out a food crop. When we impoverish the environment, we impoverish ourselves. We short-change the human potential and curtail the prospects of development.

High stakes
And the stakes with respect to the environment go well beyond the quality of life. Our very opportunity to exist depends on the capacity of planet Earth to support living things.

Yet, as chronicled by UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook 3, that capacity continues to be damaged, in many instances beyond its ability to regenerate, and with tragic consequences for humanity.

Environmental resources are being overexploited and mismanaged. The size and quality of our natural assets are dwindling. We are still losing species. Coral reefs are dying at an alarming rate. The impacts of a changing climate are becoming more and more evident. Water resources are under increasing pressure. Forests are shrinking and desertification is accelerating.

The importance of the environment in the sustainable development equation is clearly fundamental. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s suggestion that the Summit focus its efforts in particular on water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity illuminates this point.

Of course, it is one thing for us to embrace this point and quite another to act on it.
When we impoverish the environment ... we short-change the human potential and curtail the prospects of development
Over the 30 years since the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the international community has undeniably made impressive advances in addressing many environmental issues.

As the leading environmental authority within the United Nations, UNEP has been instrumental in the development of a wide range of international agreements and conventions on advancing protection of the world’s biological diversity and the ozone layer, as well as the sound management of chemicals and persistent organic pollutants. UNEP continues to facilitate coordinated action through practical tools such as the recently approved UNEP guidelines on compliance with, and enforcement of multilateral environmental agreements.

In the decade since Rio, governments have also made many significant achievements in recognizing the integration of the three pillars of sustainable development.

However, implementation of this vision remains one of the great challenges confronting the international community. A couple of factors have particular bearing on this question.

One is that the roots of the problems we are addressing can be traced throughout society, and so all of society must participate in their solution. Governments cannot, nor should they, do it alone. Sustainable development is everyone’s responsibility.

Working partnerships
We must work in partnership with civil society, including the private sector, which is in many cases best positioned to offer the appropriate and required talents and resources. In this regard, we have learned that openness, transparency, and trust among all partners is key.

We must strive to make the proper linkages between environmental, social and economic aspects, as well as better coordinate the various multilateral agreements.

This leads to the question of how we organize ourselves to ensure effective, coordinated intergovernmental action. Environment ministers have recognized the need for a stronger international environmental governance system that focuses our attention on institutional coherence and capacity-building to support the implementation of existing international agreements.

Improved environmental governance will help us to deliver results – not simply for their obvious and important environmental ends, but because they have other beneficial impacts on economies, on societies, and on the health of people.

This is a key step towards sustainable development. We need effective government that takes action on environmental, economic, social and health issues, and gives its people peace and lasting improvements to quality of life.

On this small planet, the fate of all people is bound together. Improving the well-being of any improves it for all.

Sustainable development is therefore ultimately about our relationships with each other and with the planet on which we live. Future progress will come not from expressions of intent but from changes to the underlying structures that govern those relationships.

As we begin to unpack our square brackets at Johannesburg the questions are: how close to that day are we now? And how much closer can we get?  

David Anderson emphasizes the importance of environmental strands in the fabric of sustainable development and suggests ways forward.

PHOTOGRAPH: Frances Broome/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Agenda of hope | Changing the paradigm | Only one Earth | Beyond brackets | African renaissance | Unmissable opportunity | At a glance: GEO-3 | Asking the people | Recapturing momentum | Taking the measure of unsustainability | Breaking the grid lock | Training for transformation | Bring big business to account | Out of the changing room | ‘Dear delegates...’ | We need a dream | Two sides of the same coin: before and after Johannesburg| Quality environmental data for all

Complementary articles in other issues:
David Anderson: Progress and possibilities (Chemicals and the environment) 2002
Sheila Watt-Cloutier: Wake-up call (Chemicals and the environment) 2002
Issue on Fresh Water, 1998
Gerhard Berz: Insuring against catastrophe (Disasters) 2001
Issue on Biological diversity, 2000

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