Sustainable Development: The New Liberation Front (1 June 1995)



Migration which has historically helped relieve the pressures of poverty, suffering and persecution, is no longer a practical alternative for most. Although the pressures for migration will continue to mount, the borders of the world are closing for all but the privileged few.

Statement by Maurice Strong, Chairman, Ontario Hydro and Chairman, The Earth Council, as a Distinguished Lecture to the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, at Clingdael,Tthe Netherlands

It is a special privilege and honour to be a part of this distinguished lecture series. I must use this opportunity to congratulate the Institute of International Relations for its trailblazing diplomatic work over the past 12 years of its existence. And of course, I want to add special tribute to Prof. J.J.C. Voorhoeve, who was so instrumental in transforming the Institute from merely an influential "think-tank" into a world-renowned and highly successful and most constructive"do-tank. "

The profound sense of honour which I feel at being asked to speak here is enhanced by the fact that I share the platform with Dr. Pieter Winsemius, who is doing so much to marshall and co-ordinate the forces of private and public enterprise in the cause of sustainable development.

The Institute could, of course, find no better example of accord in this world than the relationship that exists between Canada and the Netherlands, and between the Canadian and Dutch people -a relationship which has again been re-affirmed and strengthened by the special anniversary events of the past few weeks. A month ago, along with millions of other Canadians, I watched via satellite television the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of The Netherlands from the tyranny of Nazi occupation. And, like those other Canadians, I was proud of the special role Canadian soldiers played in that historic event, and gratified that a friendship which was forged over the embers of war and suffering has managed not only to survive but to grow and flourish in 50 years of peace time.

A special moment

Anniversaries have three purposes. The first is to celebrate and relive the joy of a special moment - a birth, a marriage, in this case freedom from oppression. The second is to reflect on the lessons and guidance which we derive from it. And the third is to rekindle the positive spirit engendered by the occasion -to resolve to apply those lessons to making a better life on this planet, for people now inhabiting it and for future generations.

As we rejoice in the liberation of Holland and the other countries of Europe that had been subjected to an evil and repressive servitude, we must ret1ect on the lessons to be drawn from this tragic episode in our common history. For World War II resulted from a failure of the will of nations to act to protect the rights, the values and the interests that are indispensable to the maintenance of peace, security and justice within and amongst civilized societies in the face of clear and growing evidence of their wilful violation. This lesson inspired allied leaders in the aftermath of World War II to create the United Nations as an instrument for cooperation amongst the nations of the world to insure their people against the horrors of war and to build a more peaceful, secure and just community of nations. But these early hopes soon gave way to fears of a new war and the nuclear arms race amongst former allies which gave them the capacity for total destruction of our civilization. This capacity for mutual annihilation also served as an effective deterrent against war by the nuclear powers and with the end of the Cold War we have moved from nuclear confrontation to a new era of cooperation.

But let us not forget that, despite progress in nuclear disarmament and the permanent extension of the non-proliferation treaty, the capacity for total nuclear destruction remains and as long as it continues to exist, we can never be free from the threat that it will be used.

In the meantime, with the demise of the Cold War, long simmering regional and ethnic tensions have erupted, producing a new generation of victims and proliferating human tragedy. Yet the will to deal with both the causes and the consequences of these conflicts and to support a more effective role for the United Nations in preventing and resolving them is weakening. It presents an ominous portend which should move us to re-examine the lessons we should have learned out of World War II.

Traditional security risks

As we thus confront the sobering reality that traditional security risks are still with us, albeit under somewhat changed and more complex conditions, we face a new generation of risk even more complex and ultimately more ominous for the human future. I speak of the threats to the environment, resource and life support 'systems of our planet from the vast escalation in human numbers and in human activities that have occurred, principally in this century. Paradoxically, this has arisen as an unforeseen by-product of the advances in science and technology which have produced such unparalleled levels of prosperity and power for the privileged minority of the world's people, concentrated primarily in the industrialized countries. The concentration of population growth in developing countries and economic growth in the more developed countries has created some gross and deepening imbalances which are clearly incompatible with the prospects for a secure and sustainable future. Of these, the persistence and the entrenchment of dire and debilitating poverty, largely but not entirely in the developing world, and the widening gap between rich and poor in both developing and industrialized countries is undermining political and social stability. Capital and knowledge are the primary sources of added value and competitive advantage in the modem economy and the benefits of economic growth accrue disproportionately to those with the capital and skills that are in demand, while those who have only their labour to sell are increasingly disenfranchised and marginalized.

These imbalances in our political and social life will inevitably make it more difficult to achieve the degree of cooperation required, not only to deal with local and regional conflicts, but the even more dangerous imbalances resulting from our failure to reconcile our economic drives with their destructive impacts on the Earth's environment, resource and life support systems. This, I submit, is the ultimate threat to the future of the human community. It is one that is shared by rich and poor. It provides strong and compelling new imperatives to redress the imbalances which now divide them and unite them in a new compact to secure our common future.

The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 made clear that to develop and secure a sustainable way of life on our planet we must learn to manage the forces that are shaping our future in an integrated, systemic way. And it produced agreement on a set of principles, the Declaration of Rio, and a program of action to give effect to them, Agenda 21, which provides the basis for doing this. Agenda 21 called for what the Swiss Industrialist, Stephan Schmidheiny, and his Business Council for Sustainable Development referred to as a "change of course" to a new eco-industrial civilization based on fundamental changes in economic behaviour and in relationships between rich and poor. This change of course is something that we must undertake -not only willingly, but with a will -as we are now the primary agents of our own evolution. The Rio Agreements provide the basis for this change.

Of course we know, even if we didn't have critics to point them out, that there are deficiencies in them. But despite these, the Rio agreements represent the most extensive and comprehensive program of action for the future of our planet ever agreed by governments. And the fact that they were agreed - word by word - by virtually all of the nations of the world, most represented at the highest levels, provide them a unique degree of political authority.

A continuing process

Neither the Declaration of Rio nor Agenda 21 was intended to freeze the state of international agreement on these issues at the level of the consensus achieved in Rio. That process must be a continuing one. As I said to the world leaders gathered in Rio in my final statement to them: "What is important now is to get on with the job of implementing those agreements while continuing the process of negotiations on the many areas that need strengthening.

This process continued at the U. N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Social Summit in Copenhagen. The forthcoming U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing in September and the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in June 1996 will focus world attention on two other very important dimensions of this spectrum of issues. UN conferences make important contributions to raising public awareness of these issues, mobilizing political will to deal with them and providing the political framework for cooperative action. But they must not be used as a substitute for action, which must in the final analysis be undertaken at the national, local and institutional levels and largely by people and by private business and public service organizations. I must admit to some concern that the effect of global UN conferences can be diluted by having too many of them with too little linkage and continuity from one to the other.

You will not be surprised to learn that one of the questions I am asked most frequently these days is how far have we actually moved since Rio and what are the prospects for implementation of the agreements reached there and realization of the hopes and visions to which Rio gave rise. Almost three years after the conference, it is clearly too early to pronounce final judgement. After all, the changes called for by the Rio agreements are fundamental in nature, and fundamental change does not come quickly or easily.

There have been some encouraging moves on the part of governments. China has launched its own National Agenda 21 -one of the most extensive and comprehensive of any nation and, I would add, one of the most important, given the sheer size of China, as well as its current and potential influence in the East. Many other developing countries have taken similar initiatives even though the additional financial resources they had anticipated have not been forthcoming. Particularly noteworthy is the creation by the Presidents of the seven nations of Central America, led by Costa Rica, of a Central American Alliance Sustainable Development based on Agenda 21.

Recession in political will


Despite progress in a number of areas, it has to be said that overall there has been a recession in political will since Rio. While the first meeting of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention in Berlin recently did manage to patch together agreement that will keep the process of implementation and further negotiation alive, it highlighted the continuing differences that exist, particularly as between industrialized and developing countries, and the degree to which political will has receded since Rio.

On the whole, the world continues on a pathway that is unsustainable. The gross imbalances produced by our technological civilization have concentrated economic growth, and its benefits, in the industrialized countries and population growth, with its attendant costs and pressures, in the developing countries. This is accentuating rich-poor differences and compounding the problems of managing cooperatively the risks to our common future arising from the growing pressures on the Earth's resource and life-support systems.

Migration which has historically helped relieve the pressures of poverty, suffering and persecution, is no longer a practical alternative for most. Although the pressures for migration will continue to mount, the borders of the world are closing for all but the privileged few. I see signs of a "fortress north" mentality developing in industrialized countries. The title of today's lecture includes the words, "Sustainable Development Sustaining the Pace." I'm afraid that, at the political level at least, the pace needs to be resuscitated before it can be sustained.

Our own experience confirms the evidence of the scientists and statisticians as to the progress made during the past twenty-five years on what you might call the "close-in" environmental problems which has produced observable reductions in air and water pollution and improvements in the quality of life in our cities and in much of the countryside. Now, it almost goes without saying that the Dutch people are more familiar with "close-in" environmental problems than any other nation on earth. Your history is preoccupied with the struggle to accommodate human development with the forces of nature.

Responsible leadership

You have been remarkably successful in this, although the large-scale flooding you experienced last spring dramatized the reality that this struggle is a continuing one. I have immense admiration for the enlightened and effective ways in which you deal with your domestic challenges and for the exemplary role of the Netherlands in international affairs. In the fields of international cooperation for the environment and for development, with which I am most familiar, no country has exercised more consistently enlightened and responsible leadership both in respect of policy initiatives and material support. None more than the Dutch have recognized the special responsibilities of societies and enjoy a standard and quality of life that depends upon an effectively functioning international community. If all the world were to adopt the Dutch development model, concentrating so many people and so much economic and industrial activity in such a small land area, global development would for not be sustainable. At the same time, given the world as it is, sustainable development on a global basis will only be possible if other countries, particularly those who have enjoyed the principal benefits of industrialization, follow the example of the Netherlands in assuming their special responsibilities for international cooperation.

Despite some welcome improvements at home there is no basis for complacency at the global level. Developing countries are now experiencing the close-in environmental problems in even more acute form than we did. And their cities are growing at unprecedented rates. At the same time, developing countries are contributing more and more to the larger global risks such as those of climate change, ozone depletion, degradation of biological resources, loss and deterioration of arable lands. These are issues somewhat more removed from our own immediate experience and it is therefore more difficult to maintain the levels of public interest and commitment required to support the actions needed to deal with them. Yet these risks continue as the forces that drive them persist. It is sobering to remind ourselves that all of the environmental deterioration and risks that have arisen to date have occurred at levels of population and economic activity that are much less than they will be in the period ahead.

There is a widespread assumption that measures designed to foster environmental improvement through sustainable development run counter to job creation, economic opportunity and competitiveness. In fact, the evidence is, on the whole, to the contrary. During the past two decades, Japan has reduced domestic air and water pollution levels and increased the efficiency of energy and materials used more than any other industrialized nation while maintaining high rates of economic growth and improving competitiveness. The Netherlands was also in the vanguard of environmentally-conscious countries when in 1989 it published its first National Environmental Policy Plan, aiming at sustainable development nationally within one generation. The second NEPP Green Plan, as it is called, released only a few months ago, provides some fine-tuning which should help to ensure the attainment of the original plan's ambitious objective.

 

The principal reason we cannot afford to be complacent is that the new round of growth in the world economy is taking place primarily in the rapidly developing countries of Asia and Latin America. A recent survey of the global economy by The Economist points out that if current growth patterns continue by the year 2020 nine of the fifteen largest economies in the world will be what we now call developing countries.

Same growth pathway

If the developing countries follow the same growth pathway taken by the more mature industrialized countries, their impacts on the larger global environmental risks we face will undoubtedly move us beyond the thresholds of safety and sustainability. Our environmental future 'will be largely determined by what happens in the developing world. Yet we who have largely created these risks, and benefitted most from the processes of industrialization that have given rise to them, can scarcely deny the right of developing countries to grow. Nor would it be fair or reasonable for us to act unilaterally in imposing constraints on their growth in the name of environment.

What, then, is the answer? To retreat into a domestic shell of complacency and apathy, however tempting, would be ultimately self-defeating. Surely we must continue to build on the environmental improvements we have effected during the past twenty-five years, with a greater emphasis on incentives which complement and reinforce regulation rather than replace it. As pointed out by Stephan Schmidheiny and the Business Council for Sustainable Development in their book "Changing Course" eco-efficiency is the key to sustainable development which meets both environmental and economic goals -efficiency in the use of energy and materials and in the prevention, disposal and recycling of wastes.

This will enable us to leave "space" for developing countries to grow and set them an example that enables them to avoid the abuses and the costs of our own growth experience. But they will be much more influenced by our example, and by evidence that sustainable development is in their own interest, than by our exhortations.

And it is clearly in our own interest to ensure that they have both the incentives and the means to make the transition to sustainability. This means facilitating their access to the latest state-of-the-art technologies and to the additional capital they will need to employ them. It would be unrealistic to expect that this would come through increases in foreign aid in traditional terms. Over-all, foreign aid is in decline and private investment now accounts for the principal flows of financial resources to the rapidly developing countries. Accordingly, we must develop the incentives and innovative financial mechanisms to ensure that private capital will be utilized for sustainable development. Otherwise it would be illusory to think that we can make the transition to sustainability provided for in Agenda 21.

Win-win solutions

In no field is this more important than energy. It is inconceivable that the massive amounts of new capital required by developing countries to meet their needs for electric power alone will be available if they attempt to do so on the basis of current wastefully low levels of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency offers the best "no regrets" basis for improving economic performance as well as reducing emissions. It offers a win-win solution for both developing and industrialized countries. And it buys precious time to change the energy mix away from our over-dependence on fossil fuels. There are similar prospects in other sectors.

At a time when all governments are experiencing limits on the amounts of new debt they can incur and new taxes than can levy, it would clearly be unrealistic to expect totally new funds to be made available for these purposes. Neither is it necessary to do so. For governments everywhere continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on direct and indirect subsidies for activities which run counter to sustainable development -as for example, chemically intensive agriculture and to fossil fuels. These impose costly burdens on people as taxpayers and consumers as well as encouraging environmentally unsound and unsustainable practices. A reorientation and redeployment of these resources would provide all the funds required to effect the transition to sustainable development, at home and abroad, while improving economic efficiency.  And such new financial mechanisms as tradeable emission permits can utilize markets to channel funds available for environmental improvement to the places where they can be employed on the most cost-effective basis.

There is a major shift of economic power away from governments, of which the widespread movement towards privatization is but one manifestation. As we approach the limits of government, a wide variety of new actors is emerging within civil society who are becoming primary agents of change. This is certainly true in the field of environment and sustainable development. The most exciting and promising post-Rio developments are occurring outside of governments, where there has been a virtual explosion of activities and initiatives on the part of grass-roots organizations, citizen groups and other key sectors of society.

Engineers and architects, through their international bodies, have committed their professions to sustainable development and cooperative programs in implementation of Agenda 21 in their sectors. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development brings together an impressive group of world industrial leaders in a continuing commitment to leading the way in effecting the transition to eco-efficiency and sustainable development. Many of the world's cities are establishing their own Local Agenda 21 under the aegis of the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives. And some 100 National Councils of Sustainable Development, or equivalent bodies, have been or are being formed, bringing together a unique multi-sectoral mix of representatives of government and various sectors of civil society.

The Earth Council, a new kind of non-governmental body, headquartered in San Jose, Costa Rica, has been formed to facilitate the process of communication and cooperation amongst these actors, focusing particularly on linking people at the community and grassroots levels with the policy and decision-making processes which affect them. Again, we are greatly indebted to the Netherlands for the leadership and support it has provided. I know I do not have to explain the role and objectives of the Earth Council to this audience. Many people in this room, along with the government of The Netherlands, Green Cross and the Earth Council, are collaborating in developing an Earth Charter. It is designed to build on the Declarations of Stockholm and Rio as a complement to the International Covenant on Environment and Development recently promulgated by the World Conservation Union, in enunciating the fundamental principles that must guide people and governments in charting a new course towards a sustainable future.

The Netherlands has had an intluence far out of proportion to its size or population in shaping our modern world. It continues to provide enlightened and responsible leadership in the evolution of the new Europe and reinforcing the foundations of global cooperation by renewing and strengthening the multi-lateral organization which provide the primary instruments for this cooperation, notably the United Nations and its family of related organizations, together with the newly created World Trade Organization. Never has this leadership been more needed than it is today as we need to hark back to the lessons of the liberation we now celebrate. Creeping apathy and preoccupation with narrow and parochial self-interest in our times can lead to breakdown and conflict even more destructive than that of World War II. The spirit of mutual interest and common responsibility which saved occupied Europe from a repressive tyranny must be re-kindled if we are to ensure fulfilment of our aspirations for a more secure, sustainable, and promising future. Only then will liberation be permanent and universal.