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image European Research News Centre > Environment > RIO + 10: what's new?
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image image image Date published: 28/08/02
  image RIO + 10: what's new?
RTD info 34
  Sustainable development has become a familiar term over the past decade. Reflections by science and society as to the content of the concept - originally quite vague - have also progressed a great deal. Europe advocates and is developing an integrated multidisciplinary approach in this field, one which incorporates an increasingly in-depth study of the natural and physical environment, innovation in clean technologies and the implementation of new principles of equitable socio-economic governance.

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 Summit.

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.

Requisitioning science

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.


A 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 Environment Situation.

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.

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Johannesburg on the web

Official United Nations site devoted to the Summit:

Presentation of the Johannesburg Summit on the Europa site Environment DG

Development DG

"Global Forum" site of the NGO coalition

World Business Council for Sustainable Development

European RIO+10 Coalition

Multi-media presentation of initiatives for sustainable development

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The Coroico River in the Bolivian Amazon - Deforestation is inextricably linked to poverty. Farmers clearing high altitude tropical forest to plant cocoa or maize. © IRD - André Fatras, Laurence Maurice-Bourgoin.

The Coroico River in the Bolivian Amazon - Deforestation is inextricably linked to poverty. Farmers clearing high altitude
tropical forest to plant
cocoa or maize.
© IRD – André Fatras, Laurence Maurice-Bourgoin.


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