Towards a sustainable future

When we in government look at our collective record on global sustainable development at the start of the 21st century, it is difficult to feel a sense of satisfaction. For despite the progress in some areas, we have been unable to reverse the worrying trends in global development. Too many people still live in abject poverty and in many places exploitation of water, land and other natural resources is well above critical limits.

Improved energy and resource efficiency in the rich countries has often been more than outweighed by increased consumption. Private investments in the developing world have risen markedly, but to the benefit of only a handful of countries. Moreover, official development aid has decreased. The Heads of State meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in 2002 will undoubtedly agree that the record since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 is at best unsatisfactory. It is all the more vital therefore to revive the enthusiasm and political commitment manifested in Rio.

We do have reason to feel encouraged. Experience has shown that it is possible to achieve growth while ensuring sustainable development. There is a widespread understanding of the need for change: people acknowledge that the fight against poverty and social inequality must be based on sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems and that we all have to decouple our resource consumption and environmental exploitation from the rate of economic expansion. We need more effective mechanisms to ensure a rapid spread of cleaner technology; and a partnership of trust has to be established between North and South in order to enhance economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development.

Everything indicates that world economic and population growth will continue to place a great strain on nature for many years to come. The environmental problems are manifold. Land degradation is a major problem in rich countries as well as in poor ones. Our seas and oceans continue to suffer from pollution and overfishing. Threats abound to the climate, the ozone layer and biological diversity. There is the spread of hazardous chemicals; deforestation; degradation of farmland; desertification and water shortages; and threats to human health from many sources.

How can we carry on at this rate, especially with the world’s population expected to grow by 50% in the next 50 years? There is an urgent need to take global action to correct the unsustainable production and consumption patterns we have become used to.

Our concern for nature and the environment has to be integrated in industrial, agricultural and forestry policies, in the energy and transport sector, in urban policy and regional development strategies. The market must be made to work for sustainable development too. Internalisation of costs (making polluters pay), green taxes, the phasing-out of environmentally harmful subsidies and support for cleaner technology: all these must become important elements of our economic policies for the future.

The industrialised countries bear a heavy responsibility for the present state of our globe. That is why the OECD Ministerial Council on May 16-17, 2001 is so important. (See communiqué link below). I am proud that it has fallen to Denmark to chair the meeting which, to be blunt about it, has an historical obligation to make recommendations that can guide our thinking and action on this important theme for years to come. We have to establish mutually supportive links between sustainable development and trade policies for instance, and in our policies towards technology and the new economy. Sustainable development affects so much of everything we do, as the public debates at OECD Forum 2001, which runs in conjunction with the Ministerial, will no doubt underline. (See Forum 2001 link below)

The OECD’s work on sustainable development will help industrial nations to implement new policy frameworks and make the transition to sustainable development. For a start, we should seriously consider including sustainability in our economic review process. For this purpose our countries should agree on a core set of indicators to measure progress in decoupling environmental and resource exploitation from economic growth. This would contribute significantly to make political headway up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Our main challenge is to combine the fight against poverty and inequality with sustainable use of natural resources and ecosystems. We have to do this in a way that enables each country to develop and improve the welfare of its people without starting a headlong rush for resources. When trade and investment policies and environmental and social policies are mutually supportive, sustainable development is enhanced. OECD countries should reinforce this coherence, both domestically and in international negotiations. One key lesson from Denmark’s national and international environmental experience is that true progress requires the active involvement of ordinary citizens. This is why Denmark is such a strong proponent of the 1998 UN-ECE Århus Convention on access to information, public participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. Transparency and public involvement should be at the heart of our efforts to achieve sustainable development and balance the needs of man and nature.

Addressing the issue of sustainable development is like aiming at a moving target. It is not enough to adjust policies and recommendations to present day realities. We have to anticipate change and be ready to respond adequately to the challenges of tomorrow. It is my hope that the OECD will reflect this ambition.

©OECD Observer No 226/227, Summer 2001 

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