Sustaining Our Environment to Promote Our Development

Article for UN Chronicle, 3/2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) is the third event in a row.

The first was the UN Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 1972. In its wake, the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, was founded in Nairobi, and some UN agencies made some moves towards an ecological significance of their programmes. Ten years later, a meeting was held to assess progress since Stockholm and ended in disappointment. Continuing deterioration of the environment was reported chiefly in the developing countries. As one consequence, the World Commission on Environment and Development was created to study the reasons for that lamentable state of affairs, and Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norvegian Prime Minister was appointed Chairperson. After three years of intensive work, the Commission published its report which was submitted for discussion at the UN General Assembly in 1997. As a result, the UN decided to convene another UN Conference, this time on Environment and Development, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit” was the second in the series of UN conferences. It had three major results: The Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), the Convention Biological Diversity (CBD) and Agenda 21 with its fourty chapters. Agenda 21 was seen by many observers as a prescription leading – if properly applied – to sustainable development, a term already found in the Brundtland Report. Another five years later, the UN General Assembly held a special session in New York with a view to look back and assess progress made since Rio. Once again, the assessment was rather depressing from the point of view of the environment, and once again the UN decided to hold major conference, this time called World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that UN conferences and reports have not been able to slow down let alone stop or revert the destructive trends. To be sure, pollution control has made major progress in the OECD countries. But then pollution is no longer the main ecological concern.

  • Global warming seems to go on unmitigated. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fears that the added greenhouse effect might lead to a rise in average temperatures by some 1.4°C to 5.8°C during the 21st century. This could theoretically have disastrous effects on world agriculture and potentially on the global sea water table. If we want to halt this trend, it would be wise to stabilise CO2 concentrations at preindustrial or, less ambitious, at 1990 levels. This, however, would mean to reduce world wide CO2 emissions by at least 50 percent. Development aspirations, however, rather point at a doubling of CO2 emissions.
  • Biodiversity losses have hardly slowed down; some 50 plant or animal species are said to become extinct every day! The major cause seems to be land conversion for civilisational use. One way of measuring this land use was given by William Rees and Matthis Wackernagel as the “ecological footprint”. It represents the direct and indirect land use for living, farming, clothing, transport, industry, recreation, energy etc. OECD countries have typical per capita footprints sized 4 hectares. This leaves most OECD countries too small to accommodate all of their footprints. They therefore have to export much of those footprints to less populated and less area-demanding countries. To accommodate six billion OECD type footprints we would need at least two planets earth. As we have only one, we should reduce OECD footprints at least by a factor of 2, — under the plausible assumption that developing countries have equivalent rights and aspirations regarding wealth and well-being.

Both trends and challenges have a massive bearing on Agenda 21 and the perspectives of sustainable development. If we need to reduce both CO2 emissions and ecological footprints by a factor of two at least while simultaneously aspiring at least to double world-wide wealth, we seem to be confronted with the need to perform at least four times more efficiently with the use of natural resources.

Fortunately, this goal it not as outlandish as it may sound at first. Amory and Hunter Lovins have coauthored a book with me, “Factor Four” which features fifty examples of a fourfold resource productivity. Automobiles can do 150mpg, cooling systems can do with 25% of today’s typical electricity consumption. Buildings can be designed for close to zero external energy input. Farm produce can be made with one quarter of the typical European energy inputs. Materials can be saved by large factors using re-manufacturing techniques. Water can be used four times more efficiently than today in many industrial, agricultural and private uses.

In addition, energy and materials used can be ecologically optimised as is already happening in several countries. Renewable sources of energy are a booming industry in many European countries. And materials can be selected to be perfectly recyclable.

Prices for the use of environmentally scarce resources should be gradually moved upwards so as to create an incentive for introducing “factor four-technologies”. An ecological tax reform or tradeable permits for resource use should be seen as chief candidates for instruments leading to that goal. Both can be designed in a socially and economically acceptable way. Tax-caused price increases can be tied to the pace of progress in average resource productivity.

Aggressive strategies to invcrease resource productivity may show the way for a true harmonisation of environmental and developmental goals thus ending the ecological frustrations we have experienced since the 1972 Stockholm Conference.

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