Sustainable development


Twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UN is planning to assess what progress has been made at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which will again be held in Rio. Hans-Peter Repnik, the chairman of the German Council for Sustainable Development, wants more to happen. He demands a new start.

By Hans-Peter Repnik

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit innovatively linked the ideas of environment and development. Sustainable development means that present needs must be met in a way that allows future generations to meet their needs just as well. Sustainability has environmental, financial, business and social security dimensions.

The international community has tackled many challenges since 1992. There has been progress. All summed up, however, not enough has happened. The need for sustainability is more urgent than ever, given that the environment is under increasing threat due to the growing global economy. Climate change is merely the most obvious indicator of this trend, not the only one. Too often, we see development efforts get bogged down because of a lack of funds or because of exploitation, corruption and political instability.

Two decades on from 1992, it is high time for developmental and environmental policy to become part of economic policy in general. All policymakers and business leaders are being urged to commit to the principles of sustainable development at all levels, in particular at the international one. The UN wants the 2012 summit in Rio to focus on two topics:
– how to make economies sustainable in the sense of long-term development and
– reform of the global governance institutions in charge of environmental issues and sustainable development.

One of humanity’s major challenges in this century is to reconcile the forces of globalisation with need for sustainability. To facilitate sustainable development, politics and governments must create appropriate regulatory settings, which ensure infrastructure quality as well as social and environmental standards at more than minimum levels. Sustainable development, however, will not be brought about by command. At national and international levels, all socially and politically relevant actors must be involved.

Every company and every institution will be affected by the gradual change to basing market economies on the principles of sustainability and social equity. There is still a long way to go before satisfactory solutions are found. Therefore it matters that Rio 2012 set the right course. The review of the past must serve a new vision for the future. The conference’s official abbreviation is “Rio+20”. This term does not go far enough, as it focuses only on the anniversary instead of considering the future and the urgent steps that need to be taken. I therefore prefer to speak of Rio20+.

The political appeal of Rio 1992 was great. The conference was where multilateral rules and standards on environmental protection were born. It was the starting point for sustainability strategies at all levels.

In 2002, Germany introduced its National Sustainability Strategy, which defines goals, indicators and management principles. Germany’s government and parliament have established new responsibilities and new agencies. For several years, major private-sector companies too have been rising to the challenges of sustainability. “Sustainable development” is no longer a mere niche term. On the other hand, it is not generally appreciated either, and too often, it is associated with meaningless concepts. It is noteworthy, however, that the idea of sustainability is gaining ground.

A revised agenda

Now it is time to spell out visions of sustainability and to implement measures in practical terms.
– Rio 1992 stood for cooperation in a sense of inclusive community, for taking new approaches and developing new mind sets. All of this must be renewed and expanded in the 2012 conference.
– The Rio agenda depends on effective international agreements, including on climate protection. All involved must prove that they are not simply comfortable to belong to the generation of conference-makers, but that they are taking action, now and in the future.
– Germany’s Federal Government should signal forcefully that it considers the Rio process important. I think it should more assertively communicate its decision to discontinue nuclear power and rely on renewable energy sources. People everywhere are interested in this new dawn of “sustainability – made in Germany”, and it makes sense to encourage them to follow this example.
– We must gradually wean our economies from fossil fuels. The alternatives are low-carbon technologies, reliance on renewable sources and efficient use of energy. Fast economic growth and the flow of foreign direct investments facilitate change at the global level. Such change is inevitable, given the pace of population growth, urbanisation, greenhouse gas emissions, global resource depletion and the loss of bio­diversity.
– Sustainability deserves more attention in development cooperation. It makes sense to use the experience of national envir­onmental and sustainability councils in Europe by incorporating it in budding international institutions. Small and me­dium-sized enterprises deserve particular support, because they have a special role to play in making sustainable development happen.
– Europe should carefully examine its approach to sustainability in the terms of the goals defined in Rio 92. A review of the European strategy for sustainable development is overdue. The EU should commit unconditionally to its Sustain­ability Codex which measures corporate performance all over the world on financial and capital markets.

Growth must no longer be based on the overexploitation of natural resources. Systemic solutions are needed for sustainable urbanisation, sustainable mobility, sustainable resource use and sustainable consumption. This is a formula for new growth of an unprecedented extent:
– Climate protection worth its name will only be achieved through a radical change of the energy infrastructure we use for production and consumption purposes.
– Ensuring mobility for the world’s population, which will soon be nine billion strong and is becoming ever more demanding, will depend on completely new, yet unknown modes of travel and the requisite infrastructure.
– To provide food to nine billion people, without waste and environmental damage, humanity must move on to a new era of production with differently allocated access to resources.
– Since resources are finite, we must not turn them into garbage, but must continue to use and re-use them. Such necessities will drive industrial diversification.

All in all, we need a new idea of growth. It is crucial to set up infrastructures in a strategical manner to gear entire economies towards sustainability. It is equally crucial to create an appropriate investment climate to encourage action in the private sector. The new concept of growth must provide markets with the right incentives.

More solidarity

I think Rio 2012 deserves serious attention, and more attention than its two official agenda items (“green economy” and “institutional framework for sustainable development”) would suggest. We are witnessing destructive trends: humanity is using up its resources rather than protecting them; it is tolerating poverty rather than fighting it; it is debasing financial and other assets. No doubt, we need more courage and more involvement from everybody.

Why should we not expect more solidarity from Rio20+? Why should we not make sustainability mandatory? Why should environmentally and climate-friendly technologies not be made avail­able to all countries in the world? To achieve that, we can make intellectual property rights more flexible. We can simplify and promote the transfer of clean technology. We can foster networks, teach skills and develop capacities – and use them for investments in local production and value creation.

Successful cooperation and communication depend on alliances based on partnership. So does the drafting of mean­ingful roadmaps. At the German and European levels, we are already working on roadmaps to tackle issues of energy efficiency, electromobility, biomass, climate, transport and efficient use of resources. Other important issues are waste management and comprehensive recycling. To protect the oceans or the climate, we need global roadmaps.

People must understand that sustain­ability is not a new label for environmental protection. Sustainability has social, economic and ecological dimensions. Unless all are paid attention, humanity will never be able to tackle all major challenges ahead. Sustainability is the basis for new alliances.

For roadmaps to be effective, they must be drafted from the perspective of the decision-makers. To be relevant, they must deal with the tensions between, for example, the public interest and private interests. Drafting roadmaps is a great occasion for discussing goals, methods and steps, for considering the big picture as well as things in detail. I recommend linking this process to an upgrading of the global institutions for environmental governance and sustainable development.

Leaders must now make people interested in Rio20+. Of course, the conference’s final results must be clear diplomacy mandates and resolutions. Nonetheless, politics begins with winning people’s hearts and minds.

I know that Rio will affect my personal life and even more the personal lives of my children and grandchildren. I am sure that many people share this view. Curiosity comes with knowledge and one’s own scope for action. Ultimately, only people who know, see and also promote alternatives are capable of making a difference in a world under threat.

The German Council for Sustainable Development invites businesses, organisations and civil society groups to join in for Germany’s Day of Action for Sustain­ability at the start of the summit on 4 June 2012. We are calling on people everywhere: development agencies, municipal governments, the environmental movement, companies and corporations, universities and students, trade unions and churches, sports clubs, local loan and savings banks and, of course, the media. Anyone who wants to show that sustainable development is more than just a slick term should take part.

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