One of the most notable - and instructive
- events of the decade since the Rio Summit was the signing, in
1997, of the famous Kyoto Protocol on the voluntary reduction of
greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, but not exclusively, carbon dioxide
or CO2). Implementation of this agreement - a laborious process
that is still at the discussion stage - shows to what extent the
problem of sustainable development introduces an entirely new context.
It involves going beyond a uniquely environmental view of global
change to embrace, simultaneously, a multitude of political, economic
and social aspects.
The North-South divide
After Kyoto the real test lies in implementing
the essential measures for global sustainable development and overcoming
the divide between the acceptance of the notion by the industrialised
countries and the reluctance of the developing countries. The present
environmental debate highlights the importance of the future of
the developing countries, the key question for the Johannesburg
The equation is easy to formulate but hard to
solve: these countries, especially the poorest, urgently need strong
and sustained growth to generate an increase in their living standards
in all sectors. Yet, at the same time, their quality of life is
under threat: apart from having to meet basic quantitative needs,
more than others they are facing major environmental problems with
fast-growing populations and chaotic urban sprawl - with all the
consequences in terms of pollution, health problems, and the development
of adapted infrastructure which are infinitely more difficult to
manage than in the rich countries.
Don’t repeat past mistakes
The developing countries are also particularly
vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea
levels, increasing desertification and extreme weather conditions.
They are partners with a high level of demand for sustainable development
- provided they receive assistance.
In terms of catching up on living standards it
would be absurd for them to repeat the past mistakes of the rich
countries, whose ‘bad habits’ born of a traditional
ignorance of the requirements of sustainability are mainly responsible
for the planet’s problems today. Developing new ‘clean’
technologies designed specifically to meet the needs and means of
the developing countries is therefore becoming a research priority.
In the industrialised countries, the question
of sustainable development is posed in different terms. In this
case it is a question of redefining needs and lifestyles. They bear
an enormous responsibility in this respect and must show a commitment
to reform which will not come easy. New sustainable practices require
sometimes painful sacrifices in terms of competitiveness, conversion
and changes in ‘consumerist’ behaviour.
The expectations of science and technology in
tackling this North/South issue - a twofold problem which requires
a global approach - are considerable. Efforts have been stepped
up as a result, in particular in the approach adopted by European
research during the past five years under the Energy, Environment
and Sustainable Development programme.
Although the basic role of science is to take
the real measure of the state and evolution of the environment and
report the findings to policy-makers and the general public, science
has now been ‘requisitioned’ to formulate possible adaptations
and remedies as a basis for sustainable development. Of course there
is the vast field of the creation of clean technologies but, above
and beyond the technical measures (rooted in what are sometimes
referred to as the ‘hard’ sciences), there is now a
general awareness of the need to better integrate research on economic
and social sciences.
The answers which science and technology can bring
to environmental problems are coming increasingly to be judged with
reference to the changes they bring in society. They impose choices
of governance, the impact of which on economic and social groups
must be measured in terms of efficiency, the spread of costs and
social or regional equity. This is only possible if research also
seeks to develop the methodologies needed by such evaluations.
It is on the basis of this kind of holistic approach
that Europe intends to defend the argument for sustainable development
at the Johannesburg Summit.
practical guide to Johannesburg
The Earth Summit will
be preceded by preparatory meetings at local, national
and then regional level within the four main regions
of the world: Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe
and North America, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific.
Three preparatory ‘global’
meetings will then try to channel the work of the Summit,
identifying specific priority problems and possible
solutions. In addition to the many experts, delegates
will also have access to a series of reports drawn up
by UN agencies. Examples include the WHO reports, the
World Bank World Development report, UNESCO’s
Report on World Water Development, and the
United Nations Environment Programme’s Global
During the Summit itself
the debates should make it possible to prepare a Johannesburg
Declaration, an official text setting out global
policies seen as priorities for the current decade.
This new universal charter should restate - although,
crucially, it remains to be seen in what terms - the
undertakings of the players in tackling the various
aspects of sustainable development, namely pollution,
energy, water, education, health, climate, poverty and
the role of science and technology.