Sustainable development: Beyond Johannesburg

Environment Directorate

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Sustainable development is not about the environment or the economy or society. It is about striking a lasting balance between all of these.

When heads of state and government gather at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of August, there will no doubt be many fine words said as to the enormity of the task and the historical responsibility they hold. But will the participants show leadership and pass from words to action?

Ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Johannesburg Summit aims to bring countries together under the UN banner in a bid to agree on a way forward. A negotiated inter-governmental action plan will be up for adoption and there will be a large range of partnership initiatives and commitments by various combinations of governments, business, environmental groups, and other stakeholders. This summit represents a major opportunity for us all to establish a path towards truly sustainable development. Many challenges will have to be faced along the way, including some difficult ones for OECD countries.

An OECD report to the Johannesburg Summit spells these out clearly. It finds that some progress has been made towards sustainable development since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: air quality has improved in many urban areas, for instance, and water quality too, thanks often to a mix of better technology and regulation. But the report emphasises that much more has to be done.

There can be no sustainable development without fighting poverty and disease for a start, as these continue to hamper development in many countries. Despite the recent boom years in the global economy, a fifth of the world’s population still live on less than US$1 a day and millions suffer from chronic hunger. Diseases such as HIV/AIDS undermine society in many countries and older communicable diseases once thought conquered are resurgent. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, lack of access to clean water, overfishing: all need immediate attention. Meanwhile, international and civil conflicts threaten the ability of people to rise out of poverty, setting up a vicious circle whereby poverty feeds violent conflict, and vice-versa.

OECD countries know they bear special responsibility for leadership in sustainable development, because of their weight in the global economy and their effect on the environment. Facing up to this responsibility and taking the necessary action is not easy. Yet, sustainable development will be hard to achieve otherwise. And if the OECD cannot lead by example, how can its countries realistically forge durable agreements with the rest of the world, whether in Johannesburg or beyond?

OECD members can do much to contribute to more sustainable development globally. Increasing the level – and the effectiveness – of development aid is essential to help poorer countries to develop the human capacities, institutions and governance necessary to benefit from the opportunities offered by globalisation. Most OECD countries have agreed to devote 0.7% of their gross national income to development assistance, but the majority fall well short of this target. Little increase has been seen in official development assistance in the past two decades, although there were strong signs of a new readiness to increase aid efforts among some of the major OECD countries, the US included, at the International Conference on Financing for Development at Monterrey this March.

Increased market access to goods and services, resulting from further trade liberalisation, is an essential component of sustainable development. In particular, the persistence of trade barriers in OECD countries has contributed to underdevelopment. It is estimated that developing countries could benefit by as much as US$43 billion per year from unrestricted access to OECD markets for textiles and clothing, other manufactured goods, and agricultural products. Efforts to reduce trade distortions are being strengthened through the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Agenda, and OECD countries must work together to ensure that these moves are effective.

Opening markets may not be enough; some of the poorest countries have lacked the capacity to take advantage of world trade, others have suffered from debilitating corruption. This is why OECD help in establishing adequate capacity and policy frameworks to promote good governance, transparency, and appropriate social and environmental policies, is a fundamental condition for development in poorer countries. Such action would bolster support for OECD-led initiatives, such as our guidelines for multinationals or the anti-bribery convention.

Encouraging more private investment flows and better technology co-operation can help to build up capacity. Already, foreign direct investment from the OECD to developing countries far outstrips development aid. Making sure that those investment flows support sustainable development – the sort that respects the balance between economic, social and environmental well-being – requires some serious preparation.

To further sustainable development in OECD countries, governments will have to implement policies to achieve a more marked decoupling of environmental pressures from economic growth. Despite some progress on this, economic pressures on the environment continue to increase (see chart). Urban air pollutants arising from energy and transport frequently exceed national health limits in some places, while pollution from agriculture and other sources impairs water and soil quality. Persistent and toxic chemicals are more pervasive in the environment, and municipal waste generation continues to rise.

OECD countries contribute to global environmental problems as well. They are currently responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is the non-OECD countries that are likely to bear a disproportionately high share of the impact, damage, and adaptation costs associated with global climate change.

Several policy tools already exist to encourage more sustainable consumption and production. OECD countries simply need to implement them in accordance with their situations. A better integration of sustainable development concerns across governments would help, with, for instance, transport, economics, environment, agriculture and finance departments working more closely together. They should make greater use of market-based instruments (e.g. environmental taxes, tradable emissions permits, reform of environmentally damaging subsidies), as well as working to boost public awareness (and responsibility). Education holds the key to the public support that can help governments overcome obstacles to reform. With broad support, events such as the road blockages that took place in many OECD countries in 2000 in protest against rising petrol prices or the dumping of agricultural produce in front of government offices would not cause politicians to think twice about introducing important reforms.

Naturally, there are uncertainties to be addressed, and governments and other stakeholders have to work together to preserve international competitiveness and manage any social effects of reform. Yet reform is essential. Sustainable development requires a balance that is not easy to achieve. And hiding from it will not make it go away: indeed the challenges only deepen. If OECD countries are to show leadership, they will need to tackle these thorny issues. The stakes are enormous and summits like Johannesburg do not happen often.


• Working Together Towards Sustainable Development: The OECD Experience, OECD, 2002.

• Sustainable Development: Critical Issues, OECD, 2001.

• Policies to Enhance Sustainable Development, OECD, 2001.

• OECD Environmental Outlook, OECD, 2001.

• OECD Environmental Strategy for the First Decade of the 21st Century, OECD, 2001.

©OECD Observer No 231/232, May 2002 

Economic data

GDP growth: -9.8% Q2/Q1 2020 2020
Consumer price inflation: 1.3% Sep 2020 annual
Trade (G20): -17.7% exp, -16.7% imp, Q2/Q1 2020
Unemployment: 7.3% Sep 2020
Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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