Margaret Beckett underlines the warnings of the Global Environment Outlook report and calls for globalization to be made to work for sustainable development

In Johannesburg we have a vital opportunity to change our world for the better. It is important we take it. We can no longer shy away from action to help build a world that can develop in a prosperous and sustainable way. The alternative may be a world not worth living in at all – or one in which millions are simply unable to live.

Recently I was pleased to speak at the global launch of UNEP’s third Global Environment Outlook report in London. This publication marked a critical stage in the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and will, I believe, play a pivotal role in thinking about sustainable development both there and beyond. It is an unequivocal reminder that the disintegration of the environmental pillar of sustainable development will lead to the inevitable collapse of others. That is why, at Johannesburg, environmental objectives must be placed squarely at the heart of global sustainable development.

GEO-3 shows how far the world has come since the Rio Earth Summit ten years ago – and points the way towards a more sustainable future.

Tackling shared problems
Rio marked a turning point in how the world treats its natural inheritance, and the inheritance it leaves for generations to come. It led to concerted international efforts to tackle shared problems facing the world on a global scale – problems such as climate change, land degradation and the threat to biodiversity.

Ten years on, there is an acceptance worldwide that progress towards many of our established goals has fallen short of the standards that social, economic and moral values demand. More than 1.2 billion people still live on less than one dollar a day. At least 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and about 2.4 billion to adequate sanitation. In Africa, about one third of the population is undernourished – and that number is increasing.

Degradation of natural resources such as land, fresh and marine waters, forests and biodiversity threatens the livelihoods of many, but especially threatens the poorest. GEO-3 depicts a divide between the haves and have-nots, which is growing, not diminishing, and shows those who are least equipped to cope increasingly exposed to the greatest threat of environmental catastrophe.

It used to be said that we needed to tackle climate change for the sake of our grandchildren, or at least of our children. Today humankind increasingly sees it as a threat and a challenge to today’s generation.

Three pillars
Sustainable development rests on three pillars – economic, social and environmental. Past experience demonstrates with increasing clarity the need to keep all three factors in play. It is constantly showing us how dire poverty and environmental degradation feed one on the other. The environment provides the natural resources and ecosystem upon which human interests depend. When these fail, environmental degradation is increasingly exacting a human as well as a natural penalty. The task at Johannesburg is to recapture the momentum of Stockholm and Rio and to use it to engage the efforts of civil society, business and other non-governmental actors. Governments alone cannot ensure the success of the Summit. But acting alongside the skills, energies and expertise of business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) we can build partnerships to deliver real and lasting change.
Poverty, terrorism, disease, climate change, migration, drug abuse ... are the new challenges to the international community
The United Kingdom’s strategic objective for WSSD is to make globalization work for sustainable development, especially for the world’s poorest. We want to make the Doha Development Agenda and the Monterrey Financing for Development conference part of a continuum of change to focus our efforts on delivering the sustainable development necessary, whether it is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals or other international targets.

Working towards success
As head of the UK delegation to the final preparatory meeting in Bali, I did all I could to promote these aims. Although we did not make as much progress as we had hoped, much was achieved and the United Kingdom will work closely with other partners to deliver success at Johannesburg.

As ever, we need governments to provide more aid, but the point has been forcibly made – not least recently by President Museveni of Uganda – that while aid is worthwhile, it matters little, perhaps not at all, unless we take other steps such as opening up our markets to agricultural produce. This point is driven home by the stark realities. While the OECD countries collectively contributed $50 billion to official development assistance (ODA) in 2000, they spent in excess of $350 billion on agricultural subsidies. As I am also the minister responsible for agriculture in the United Kingdom I am acutely aware of this.

In Europe, there are both domestic and international reasons why we should seize the opportunity for a comprehensive shift in the focus of the Common Agricultural Policy, and do so now. It is needed to underpin sustainable development at home, for successful and affordable enlargement of the European Union (EU) and to reinforce the EU’s position in the World Trade Organization negotiations. As importantly, it is necessary to make our agriculture more competitive, and to ensure our rural economies can flourish.

In Africa particularly, agriculture is key to sustained economic growth. As the largest sector it is vital in providing sustainable livelihoods, accounting for two thirds of the labour force, one third of GDP and half of exports. The Doha Development Agenda should lead developed countries to shift support from trade-distorting subsidies towards environmental and rural development goals. Such reductions in subsidies alongside improvements in market access are essential.

Meeting responsibilities
The Summit is about sustainable development in all countries, not just about North-South relationships. As developed countries we must meet our responsibilities and reduce our demands on the planet. Resource productivity is an important part of this; low carbon economies and sustainable energy are areas where OECD countries can, and must, show a lead. I have therefore strongly supported the EU’s efforts to give priority to sustainable production and consumption, and to national strategies for sustainable development at the Summit.

In a globalized world no one nation can solve what are collective problems. Poverty, terrorism, disease, climate change, migration, drug abuse – these are the new challenges to the international community.

At Johannesburg we have an opportunity to take up those challenges, to ensure that the many fine words spoken at Rio, and since, can become a reality, through the application of political will, practical steps and partnerships. We seek no great master plan, but Johannesburg will have been successful if, through the engagement of different actors in a range of different activities, we can create a mosaic of implementation and achievement  

Margaret Beckett is Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom.

PHOTOGRAPH: Teddy A. Suyasa/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:
Robin Cook: Everything to gain (Climate Change) 1997
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate and Action) 1998
John Prescott: Gain, not pain (The Environment Millennium) 2000
Clare Short: Tackling water poverty (Poverty, Health and the Environment) 2001
Michael Meacher: A Stronger Conscience (Looking Forward) 1999
John Prescott: Seven threats to the seven seas (Oceans) 1998

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