Sustainable development: What ministers are doing

OECD Observer

Roundtable of ministers from South Africa, Finland, France, Mexico and the United States 

How serious are we about sustainable development? Governments are frequently accused of paying lip-service to the idea, but not taking enough action to make it work. We asked ministers from a cross-section of countries – South Africa as a non-OECD country and host to the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development; Finland as a smaller, though environmentally progressive, OECD member; France, whose government has recently instituted a sustainable development portfolio; Mexico, as one of the largest and poorest OECD countries, and the United States as the OECD’s biggest and perhaps most environmentally important member – to answer the same straightforward question:

What does sustainable development mean to you and what specific measures are you taking or reccommending to make progress towards achieving this goal?

No one would deny that there is much to be done. The answers that follow show that governments are not only clearly committed to the goal of sustainable development, but they are also doing something about it. 


People, Planet and Prosperity

VALLI MOOSA, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, South Africa

The slogan we have offered for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg – “people, planet and prosperity” – sums up sustainable development perfectly for me. It is about ensuring that people have access to the basic necessities of life: food, water, sanitation, modern energy services, healthcare and a proper education. It is about providing an enabling environment, internationally and domestically, which creates jobs, attracts investment and supports fair trade. And crucially it is about doing all this while safeguarding our planet for future generations by using our natural resources in a sustainable way and conserving our environmental heritage. It is also about recognising the singular and profound impact poverty has and knowing that the eradication of poverty is key to guaranteeing global and local sustainable development.

I think it appropriate that South Africa should host the World Summit on Sustainable Development because in many ways South Africa represents the world in one country. We face the challenge of balancing economic and social development with the need to protect our environment. We want to create a more equitable society in which wealth is more evenly distributed, and all our people can share in our prosperity and improve the quality of their lives. I also believe that as an African country it is our duty to demonstrate to the world that our continent is committed to a more sustainable development path and that we are willing and able to take the necessary action to eradicate poverty, with support from the international community.

Since the democratic elections of 1994 we have made significant progress towards sustainable development in South Africa. The government has built over a million new homes, we have provided basic water supply to a further seven million homes and delivered electricity to over three million that never had such access. Our constitution guarantees the right of all South Africans to a healthy environment and to ecologically sustainable development, and the landmark 1998 National Environmental Management Act provides a supporting legislative framework.

Like most countries we still face many challenges ahead. Together with various stakeholders, our youth, women, NGOs, labour and business, sustainable development will be one of the government’s major objectives over the coming years in order to meet those challenges toward a “better life for all”.


A guiding principle of Finnish society

JOUNI BACKMAN, Minister of the Environment, Finland

We in Finland have long been striving to make sustainable development a guiding principle of our society. The process may be characterised as a joint effort involving administration, politicians, private sector, scientific society and civil society. The Finnish National Commission on Sustainable Development (FNCSD), chaired by the prime minister, was established as long ago as 1993. It brings together expertise from different fields, combining high-level political involvement and broad participation by all major actors, so ensuring transparency and continuity.

Finland’s initiatives towards sustainable development include a national action programme for sustainable development (1995), the government Programme for Sustainable Development (1998), currently under evaluation, as well as the development of national sustainability indicators (2000). Various sectors and stakeholders have also produced their own sustainable development programmes. At the local level the concept of sustainability has also become a key goal, with almost 70% of our municipalities now implementing their own Local Agenda 21. This work has not been without reward; the World Economic Forum’s sustainability index has ranked Finland first in its comparison of international competitiveness and sustainability for two years in a row.

It is with some justification, therefore, that Finland sees itself as a credible leader in the global campaign for sustainable development. We see that sustainable development now integrates the environmental, social and economic dimensions, and so goes beyond the original dual concept of environment and development. Concrete targets and timetables are now needed, to be undertaken by governments, the private sector and civil society.

My advice is: “Think big, act small and move fast”. It is an old wisdom that can help us in shaping the world’s sustainable future. Whether at Johannesburg or beyond, we will need a Declaration with political vision, an Implementation Plan guided by that vision and Partnership Agreements to put it into practice.

There is already a consensus on the poverty-related Millennium Development Goals. These need to be complemented by a solid programme on changing our consumption and production patterns, with a commitment to safeguarding our planet’s biodiversity. There is also a good basis for consensus on implementation in the Monterrey and Doha agreements, which must be reconfirmed at Johannesburg. We understand the interrelationships; now we must agree to concrete action based on small, fast steps, that together will enable us to make sustainable development a reality.


Towards "eco-responsible” government

ROSELYNE BACHELOT-NARQUIN, Minister for Ecology and Sustainable Development, France

Sustainable development has become one of the great imperatives of our time. It is based on environmental, economic and social demands. Its ecological dimension must be humanistic and it must cement the alliance between the environment, science and economic progress. Sustainable development is above all a cross-cutting concern that ought to be implicit in any government project. That is why President Jacques Chirac decided this year to set up, for the first time in this country, a Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, which I head, and within it a State Secretariat for Sustainable Development, led by Tokia Saïfi. This genuine political resolve is rooted in a sense of solidarity with future generations and a real concern for the public interest. Our objective is to rally all parties involved in sustainable development – in France, Europe and beyond – to this common cause.

On an international level, we want above all to bolster the fight against poverty by expanding access to drinking water, sanitation and energy, not forgetting healthcare and education. In particular, we are striving for responsible management of natural resources in order to foster equitable sharing of the world’s riches. Meanwhile, bringing sustainable development into the mainstream of civil society in France entails formulating a national sustainable development strategy, underpinned by extensive consultations and incorporating the government’s overarching aims. It is expected to be formally adopted towards the end of 2002. One of the main thrusts of this policy is for the State to set the example in applying the principles of sustainable development. What this really means, in my view, is that government agencies should become “eco-responsible”, whether in handling their architectural and natural heritage, waste management, or water and energy consumption. It also means that all ministries and departments should incorporate these principles into all of their policies and actions.

Another of my missions is to ensure that sustainable development objectives are factored in whenever public policies are framed or implemented. Sustainable development also means including citizens in the decisions taken by government. Bridges have to be built between the many local initiatives and representatives at the national level, and efforts stepped up to educate people about the environment and sustainable development. And we must move quickly in our fight to foster responsibility and higher ethical standards.


Building environmental governance

VICTOR LICHTINGER, Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Mexico

Sustainable development is described in the Brundtland report as a model of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For Mexico, attaining sustainable development is a challenge that must be met, and implies reconciling the urgent need to improve the wellbeing of people, while conserving our biodiversity and natural resources. This can only be achieved through the balanced integration of economic, social and environmental goals and policies.

For Mexico, 1 December 2000 was a political watershed, thanks to the entrenchment of democratic rule

in government. Among the most important aspects of this new democracy is the integration of sustainable development as a guiding principle underlying all policymaking processes, as stated in the National Development Plan 2001-2006. The reorganisation of government institutions and the inclusion of the Ministry of the Environment in all three of the new government’s cabinet divisions, dealing with social and human development, growth with quality, and law and order, was a first step towards this new approach to environmental governance. The present administration is committed to implementing environmental policy across the entire spectrum of government departments, as exemplified by the adoption of sustainability targets and indicators in the programmes of 14 institutions responsible for fiscal, economic, agricultural, energy and transport policies. Mexico has also sought more active involvement in international forums, where social, economic and environmental issues converge, encouraging other countries to share responsibility for global environmental challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

Mexico invites other nations and international organisations to commit themselves to improve governance strategies which address these and other pressing environmental problems. At Johannesburg and beyond, Mexico will promote innovative initiatives in the context of the recently formed group of like-minded “megadiverse” countries.* And, bearing in mind the critical issue of equity, Mexico will also emphasise outstanding aspects relevant to financing sustainable development.

Our firm steps to consolidate a new institutional framework will enhance co-ordination between public and private sectors, including all relevant stakeholders at home and abroad, so as to promote the goals of sustainable development. We may have to revise some original concepts. For instance, the notion of meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations is, in my view, outdated; for the future is now, and it is time for commitment.

*The megadiverse group of like-minded countries includes Brazil, Bolivia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Philippines, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, South Africa and Venezuela.


Empowering communities

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Sustainable development calls for us to manage our environmental, economic and social resources for the long term. It asks us to protect the quality of life for both present and future generations. For the US, this means working with our partners at home and abroad to achieve more sensible use of human, natural and financial resources by instilling an ethic of environmental stewardship among individuals, institutions and corporations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working to encourage this ethic in a variety of ways. I would like to highlight just a few examples that may be helpful to others.

I have committed EPA to providing open and easy access to environmental data and information. In 2002 EPA will issue its first State of the Environment report, detailing progress over the past 30 years, and identifying the challenges before us. This report will set the stage for a comprehensive, holistic view of environmental protection that gauges success based on results rather than administrative accomplishments.

EPA is also pushing the envelope on computer technology, so that citizens can view a range of environmental information about their community at the click of a mouse. Armed with this information, local officials and community groups can make better decisions about how to protect and restore valuable resources, and how to plan for future growth and development.

EPA promotes integrated environmental management and long-term planning, through programmes like the Smart Growth Network – a loose affiliation of organisations which agree that where and how we grow matters – and the “watershed approach” to managing water quality. For businesses, corporations and institutions, EPA is supporting the development of Environmental Management Systems that take a holistic view of environmental impacts, focusing on pollution prevention and continual improvement.

Finally, EPA is empowering communities to pursue sustainable development by providing direct financial and technical assistance. In January, President Bush signed new “brownfields” legislation to help states and local communities turn environmental eyesores into economic assets. Shortly after, I announced my own initiative to help EPA achieve these goals by using smart growth to enhance brownfields revitalisation and alleviate pressures to develop open space. Also in January, I announced a new initiative to channel federal resources to priority watersheds.

Through activities like these, our aim is to give people the opportunity to make choices that will enable them to live healthier and more prosperous lives – economically, socially and environmentally – and to protect that same chance for their children and grandchildren.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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