So what, you might ask? After all, international meetings on development and the environment are hardly rare occurrences these days. Conferences on the likes of climate change, deforestation and health feature heavily on the international political calendar, as witness the World Water Forum in Mexico this March. And as the OECD’s development and environment ministers have not formally met together since 1991, why should they meet now?
There are several good reasons. For a start, though we all know that development can bring environmental degradation, which in turn can damage the interests of the poorer countries, the scale and urgency of the challenges we face have increased.
Fifteen years ago, the concept of climate change was not widely accepted. Today it is acknowledged by most people to be one of the greatest potential threats mankind has ever faced. OECD work shows that a large proportion of development aid is directed at activities potentially affected by climate risks.
Moreover, we now know that the essential services provided by ecosystems, from food production and water to disease management and climate regulation, are being sadly eroded. Many millions of the world’s poorest people depend on basic natural resources for survival. In fact, such resources account for a quarter of national wealth in low income countries, compared to barely 4% in the OECD area.
Poor people are also increasingly vulnerable to the side-effects of accelerating economic expansion, including urbanisation and pollution. They bear the brunt of pressures from climate change, sea level rise and extreme weather conditions, such as the recent hurricanes that struck Central America, as well as catastrophes like the tsunami in 2004.
The OECD members of the Development Assistance Committee handle over 90% of bilateral aid, and it is not surprising in the light of these circumstances that donor interest in the environment should intensify. In fact, the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness calls upon all countries to deepen progress towards harmonising environment impact assessment approaches in development co-operation, “including addressing implications of global environmental issues such as climate change, desertification and loss of biodiversity”.
Unlike 15 years ago, developing countries today take a firmer lead in setting priorities for development assistance, with donors playing a supporting role. Development aid is at last rising again, and many recipients, development agencies and civil society groups insist that environmental considerations form a coherent and integral part of development strategies. However, many are understandably anxious that excessive environmental criteria should not hold back development. This adds urgency to our discussions in Paris.
We know that together we can make a difference. Our colleagues’ work in 1991 led to the systematic integration of environmental impact assessments into projects and programmes supported by official development assistance. This advance made an important contribution to the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the so-called Rio Earth summit, the following year.
Thanks to this work, we now know that linking the environment and development can facilitate sustainable growth. The OECD has documented the results. In Ghana, for example, an environmental assessment helped to relieve pressure on primary forests and fragile river ecosystems while generating new timber resources. A similar Strategic Impact Assessment on the new hydropower facility in Lao People’s Democratic Republic helped avoid damage to precious environmental resources there. Other impact assessments have highlighted the development and environmental risks in China.
It is our belief that such lessons help in the broader battle to reduce global poverty too. Call it “sustainable development” that binds economic, social and environmental objectives together. That notion was just gaining currency in 1991. Today it is everyone’s priority. In Paris, environment and development ministers must set up a clear framework for common action and shared goals. The time has come to push the agenda forward.
©OECD Observer No 254, March 2006