Earth Summit Plus 5

By David V.J. Bell

A special session of the United Nations General Assembly met recently to take stock of what the nations of the world have done to fulfill the objectives of Agenda 21. The record is mainly disappointing. Canada will not meet its commitments to reduce CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Biodiversity commitments have not yet been translated into federal legislation, since the Wildlife Protection Bill died on the order paper prior to the recent election. (The new federal Minister of the Environment, Christine Stewart, has promised to bring it back.)

As a background document for the Earth Summit Plus 5, the U.N. has compiled a report on current states and trends. I have excerpted a few observations from this document:

Approximately 100,000 chemicals are now in commercial use and their potential impacts on human health and ecological function represent largely unknown risks.

Waste production continues to increase in both absolute and per capita terms, worldwide. In the developed world, per capita waste generation has increased threefold over the past 20 years; in developing countries, it is highly likely that waste generation will double during the next decade.

Biodiversity is increasingly under threat from pollution and development, which destroys or degrades natural habitats. The first comprehensive global assessment of biodiversity was released in 1995 at a meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It put the total number of species at close to 14 million and found that between 1 and 11 per cent of the world's species per decade may be threatened by extinction.

Coastal urban centres are already home to approximately 1 billion people and are experiencing unprecedented growth, much of it in developing countries. According to a recent study by the World Resources Institute, about half the world's coasts are threatened by development-related activities.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in The State of the World's Forests, 1995, deforestation and degradation remain the major issues. For the period 1980-1990, the annual estimated loss in natural forest area is 12.1 million hectares.

Current forms of energy production and use, primarily based on fossil fuels, adversely affect the environment; emissions contaminate air, water, and soil and contribute to global warming. Developed market economies have achieved a significant reduction in energy intensity However, the increased volume of economic activity has offset these gains, and emissions of carbon dioxide continue to rise.

Climate Change

Intensive research has led to scientific consensus that human activities are having a discernible influence on the global climate. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was one of the key commitments to emerge from UNCED and it has since been ratified by more than 150 states. Many countries have developed climate change action plans involving policy measures, and in some cases targets, for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and its subsequent amendments, have already proved effective in reducing emissions of chlorofluorocarbons and have been described as a model for dealing with atmosphere-related issues and for cooperation between governments, industry, scientists, and NGOs.

Despite this progress, CO2 emissions in most industrialized countries have risen and few countries are likely to stabilize their greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. The focus until now has been on technological solutions to increase energy efficiency, which have often been offset by the volume of economic activity. There is still little movement toward financial mechanisms that would make possible fundamental changes in energy consumption. No significant new investments have been forthcoming in promoting renewable energy systems.

Transport has become the single largest sectoral end-use of energy in the OECD countries and is the fastest growing end-use in both developed and developing countries. Transport-related emissions, particularly lead, volatile organic compounds, and small particulates now constitute a serious health hazard in many cities worldwide. Initiatives of the Commission on Sustainable Development and international organizations have started the process of phasing out lead in gasoline worldwide. Research continues on alternative vehicle technology, including electric and hybrid vehicles and cleaner fuels, but persistently low fossil fuel prices have discouraged serious development and marketing efforts. Awareness is growing among authorities and consumers of the financial and health costs associated with high dependence on motor vehicles and urban congestion but, to date, there has been little movement toward strong economic incentives to encourage alternative means of transportation. Regulation, however, is being tightened in most developed countries and increasingly stringent controls on vehicle emissions are being introduced, notably in Scandinavia, the European Union and the United States.

These passages of the report indicate the seriousness of the challenges facing humanity. If current trends continue, it may turn out that T.S. Eliot has already written the epitaph for the next century with his sardonic prophecy:

This is the way the world ends,

This is the way the world ends,

This is the way the world ends,

Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Good News and the Bad

Is the concept of sustainable development "working"? Are we getting sufficient buy-in from decision-makers who must ultimately adopt the principles and put them into practice?

A report on the "Rio plus 5 Forum" held in Brazil this past March, made the following assessment:

Five years later, it is apparent that despite these commitments and the accompanying publicity, the basic concept of sustainable development is not yet well understood and the policies and structures required to implement the Earth Summit agreements are still not in place. The good news is that there is a great deal of good news; the bad news is that there is not enough of it. Despite progress on many fronts, the world community has still not made the transition to a development pathway that will provide humankind with a sustainable, secure future. Environmental deterioration continues and the forces that drive it persist."

The report made the following more specific conclusions:

There is a critical need for greater multi-stakeholder participation to integrate the social, economic and ecological dimensions of sustainable develop- ment into specific actions.

Sustainable development is still predominantly the domain of environmental ministries. Other government departments, particularly those dealing with economic and social policy, must become involved. This has important implications for the Commission on Sustainable Development, which has made notable progress but needs to include more representatives of finance and economic ministries.

Unsustainable production and consumption in industrialized countries and population growth in developing countries are the major contributors to our current unsustainable course.

Social and economic changes are a precondition to meeting the challenge of sustainability. Such changes in turn will require modifications of our political system. And all of this must ultimately rest on different values than those which currently drive our hyper-consumerist society. In effect, we must undergo a "cultural mutation" if we are to achieve sustainability.

Science And Policy

Clearly good public policy must be informed by good science. How do governments attempt to do this? By hiring scientists into the policy-making structureby contracting out scientific research or linking up with research done in universities or the private sectorby having policymakers and consultants who understand science.

Notice that this is a very "rational" model of the policy process. It is also apolitical. Omitted entirely is one very important factor: "political pressure" from the public and the media.

A recent report by UNESCO on "Science for Sustainable Development" opens with a strong statement about the importance of science:

It is no exaggeration to assert that without science, there can be no sustainable development. For many of today's major environment and development concerns, the sciences (including the social and human sciences) are essential in detecting and analyzing the problem, in identifying solutions, and in ensuring scientifically sound action. This has been particularly evident for the ozone depletion issue, and increasingly also for other issues such as climate change, erosion of biological diversity, and water and coastal pollution. Science is the basis for sustainable agricultural and industrial development, as well as for meeting the world's increasing energy demand.

Despite its enormous importance, science is receiving less funding today (proportionally) than it was in 1992 "in a majority of both developing and developed countries." Canada is no exception. Some types of environmental research are seriously threatened by imminent cutbacks.

To guide sustainability policy, science-talk must be translated into policy-talk, which in most cases simply means making it understandable to intelligent non-experts.This will involve public education, including through the media.

Are our current programs of scientific education at the post-secondary level sufficiently oriented toward the question of values and science? My sense is that much scientific education eschews discussion of the role of values in scientific research. We may want to infuse sustainability into the postsecondary science curriculum.

The necessary "cultural mutation" will require a conscious effort to promote sustainability through education. This may be the ultimate challenge of sustainability, and one that speaks directly to the role of the university.

From David Bell's Morris Katz memorial lecture at York University, where he is director of the Centre for Applied Sustainability.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1997

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1997, page 21. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by David V.J. Bell here

Peace Magazine homepage