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image European Research News Centre > Environment > Earth in the balance
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image Earth in the balance
RTD info special FP6
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  Even if the results were mixed, the recent Earth Summit in Johannesburg proved that the concept of sustainable development is the touchstone for humanity's future. In the past, growth was 'fuelled' by scientific and technological progress. Today, the embracing of the 'sustainable' dimension requires a radical repositioning of the role of research.
   
   

Increasingly evident, environmental concerns – and the research devoted to them – have changed radically over the past three decades. Initially, research mainly measured and evaluated sensitive points of impact. Gaps in our knowledge had to be filled, air, water and soil pollution detected, and emergency preventive and repair action proposed.

A bigger field

Gradually, the knowledge acquired reached a critical mass. Approaches became increasingly ecosystemic, focusing on the complex relationships governing natural systems. This continued to the point where the knowledge acquired was sufficient to detect and establish with certainty the worrying phenomenon of 'global change', with convincing evidence that the cause is human activity.

During this development, the very concept of 'environmental research' changed fundamentally into the much wider approach known as sustainable development. Scientific and technological concerns about sustainability have now penetrated all disciplines.

Research on the life sciences, agronomy, the exploitation of marine resources, new materials, industrial technologies, energy – in fact all the components of contemporary development – must now take into account the principle of Sustainable Impact Assessment. This is particularly necessary for the optimal management of resources, safeguarding biodiversity, and minimising pollution, the impact on ecosystems and global change.

The behavioural dimension

Increasing importance is also being awarded to socio-economic studies and the human sciences. Technological changes with a view to sustainable development will only be possible if behaviour and lifestyles change. This is certainly the case in the rich countries where patterns of consumption are the main cause of global environmental imbalances. It is also true for those developing countries facing huge demands and needing to develop growth models which avoid the past mistakes of advanced societies – otherwise, they themselves will be the first to suffer the consequences of a deteriorating environment.


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Sharing the workload

Sustainable development obviously concerns the whole planet and can only be effective if it is a joint effort. This is why in addition to pursuing its own efforts the Union must also open up to the wider world and to the developing countries in particular. This is being achieved through the dissemination of technology, exchanges of good practice, encouraging changes in energy consumption behaviour ('energy intelligence'), new approaches to mobility, and a more rational use of natural resources.

As Christian Patermann – director of the European research programme on the environment and sustainable development – stressed in connection with the Johannesburg Summit: 'Europe today is one of the very best laboratories where the scientific and technical tools for sustainable development are being forged. This label of excellence is a formidable opportunity to increase the influence of Europe's knowledge.' (see RTD info 34 )

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