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Last Updated: 05/26/2003
The Global Environmental Challenge: Is the Developed World Up to It?
Frans van Haren

This Opinion is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered by Ambassador Van Haren to the Environment UK 2002 Conference hosted by the Environment Agency in October 2002. Further details of the conference at

It was Maurice Strong, who declared that 'the world lost its innocence' in 1972 on the occasion of the UN conference on the human environment in Stockholm. There was then an emerging realisation that, depending on how the ever-increasing demands on the environment were managed, global development trends could branch into dramatically different pathways. This awareness was accompanied at the same time by the view that humanity had the power to foresee, to choose and especially to act on its own free will.


So in 1972 there were reasons for optimism because it was not yet too late. Environmental matters became a concern of governments. In many countries government agencies or ministries were established. And this resulted in a broad range of international treaties and agreements. There was also an explosion in the number of non-governmental organisations and citizens' movements, actively involved with environmental concerns. International organisations saw a major expansion of their environmental programmes and even the word 'environment' was added to the vocabulary - there where it did not exist before. The world started identifying the complications of economic success in relation to the environment and there was indeed reason for optimism.


But by the mid-1980s, some of the momentum generated by Stockholm had subsided. Progress towards achieving the environmental objectives set there was lacking. Twenty years after Stockholm, via the Brundtland Commission, the world arrived at the Rio Earth Summit. Leaders from around the globe had just given their political commitment at the highest level to a comprehensive programme for action, to new principles on development and to a number of conventions directly related to environmental concerns when the same Maurice Strong cautioned in his closing remarks that all such political endorsement did not guarantee their implementation - and unfortunately, this proved all too prophetic. And ten years later, in his report to ECOSOC in January 2002, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, mentioned that we are living in an implementation crisis.


So, did we really advance? The objective of the Environment UK 2002 Conference was, in the words of the organisers, The Environment Agency, to put the environment back into the heart of the UK sustainable development debate. This aim implied that this had not been the case and that environmental governance had been lacking. That notion is also implicit in the title given to me for my intervention. The title is 'The global environmental challenge: is the developed world up to it?' I will argue that the developed world had better be up to it, for its own sake and that of its neighbors - the developing world - with whom it shares Earth, whether it likes it or not. I will put to your consideration that we should view the economy as part of the environment rather than see the environment merely as a function of the economy. I will also argue that only through sound environmental governance can we rise up to the challenge. And finally, I will say something about the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.


What then is this global environmental challenge? For the sake of this paper, I define it as the challenge to bring about marked changes in direction in the trend of the increasingly destructive impact on the earth's environment by human actions, recognising that these negative impacts are a result of our relentless pursuit of economic benefits, often for a minority, at the expense of our life support systems.


Obviously, there will always be people who claim that our economic actions are not so destructive, or at least that science has insufficiently proven that this is the case, or that science can reverse any negative trend detectable. In a recent article in the leading Dutch newspaper NRC, a former colleague of mine at the Foreign Service described what he felt was the collective hysteria around the Kyoto Protocol. He argued that because its scientific underpinning was not fully endorsed by the whole of the scientific world community, the market would do the job and governments should stay out.


But as we all know, governments have never stayed out of anything and in fact it is their role to stay in. The question is obviously how and to what extent. Anyway he, my colleague, belongs probably to the same category of people that like to deny that the increase in human population and its corresponding demands on finite or slowly reproducing resources is something for governments to worry about, let alone to actively intervene in! A glorious future is predicted for all, thanks to the leadership of the West. The market obviously is a great good. It is ingenious, it is efficient and the West has definitely much to be proud of.


But the market is not made to deal in a timely fashion with the growing number of very poor disenfranchised and alienated people; nor with rapidly depleting resources that people need in order to survive, in order to reproduce, in order to flourish; nor with vanishing species, nor with the pollution of the earth's atmosphere and its effect on climate.


Sometimes one has the feeling that Western complacency is partly based on a selective reading of the evidence. Problems and issues that do not fit into an optimistic view of unfettered and unlimited growth tend to be downplayed or ignored. Environmentalists are often seen as too pessimistic or as 'doomsday' prophets. I think that in the area of climate change, for example, only the increasing visibility of climate change will counter the capacity of humans to deny the connection between climate and personal behaviour. I think that we have no choice but to put environment at the centre of our debate on sustainable development, to discuss exactly issues like this.


Furthermore, new research has been initiated after the conclusion of the Cold War: That debate centres on the question 'Does environment cause conflict?'. Now that the world has become a village, do villagers realise that they must take account of the fact that they share their ecological space with each other? The general conclusion is that environmental change is one stress amongst many affecting conflict, or the potential of conflict. Its precise role as a causal factor may sometimes be difficult to specify but an of us, I am sure, can think of examples where environment and scarcity have given rise to violence, or circumstances where violence is incubated.


I remember well, after having just arrived in Brazil in 1997, a speech by a retired general of the United States armed forces at MIT in Massachusetts. He was arguing that further rapid deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon region could be considered a direct threat to the national security of the United States, a causus belli. Whatever value we want to attach to these words, it is clear that issues of environment and national resources are becoming more and more part of the debate on conflict and peace. Thus, a new concept has worked itself into our vocabulary and into science. It is called Environmental Security. The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has actively cooperated with the Task Force on Environment and Security, which was established by the International Institute on Sustainable Development and the IUCN. The task force published an excellent book on this subject, which was just in time for the Johannesburg summit. Thanks to the work of Mahomed Shahnoon, the head of the task force, and that of other pioneers, the most well known being the Canadian Thomas Homer Dixon, a new discipline is emerging. Issues of greed; grievance; global and regional ecological stress; real or perceived vulnerability to environmental change; resource scarcity; social effects of natural or man-made disasters; or issues of mere survival as a result of environment are all elements related to conditions where conflicts may appear as a direct result of environmental interaction.


This serves to illustrate that the challenge that we have alluded to before, the so called environmental challenge, is a truly multi-disciplinary one. In fact, the more that one thinks about it, the more one becomes convinced that environment indeed belongs at the centre of many if not all debates. It is directly related to our life support, agriculture, climate, health, air and water, shelter, finite raw materials and waste treatment. Environmental stress can cause a decline in the quality of life, eventually, across the board. It has a major causal effect on social conditions, especially on the vulnerability of groups who, because of their poverty, contribute to environmental devastation at least as much as do their more wealthy counterparts through irresponsible, or if not irresponsible, at least unsustainable, consumption patterns. Bad environmental management has already caused the depletion of stocks, floods and massive movements of migration. It has given rise to promises of international cooperation but also, unfortunately far too often, to disappointment because of non-compliance and incoherent or contradictory policy formulation and legislation.


Although I could live with those who argue that sound environmental policies are thus to be seen as a means by which our security, our prosperity and our well being can become sustainable rather than ends in themselves, I personally would like to go a step further. I do believe that Earth itself is worth preserving for its intrinsic values. We are its custodians. If we destroy Earth willfully through greed or through ignorance we will destroy life. There is therefore also a normative, or if you prefer, an ethical aspect to environmental policy formulation and planning.


All this is well captured in a consensual document that has been discussed around the world with literally tens of thousands of people, called the Earth Charter. This is important because it makes environment not only the responsibility of governments but, in fact, the responsibility of us all, the so-called political society, the economic or business society and the civil society. I would like quickly to distinguish between these three because they together form the key actors of modem governance for sustainability. It is only when these three societies act together as stakeholders, show openness to the nature and graveness of the challenge and then seize the opportunity to revise their agenda, that global development might take the right direction.


Traditionally, the structure of political society has been the state system. Its main role is to provide security and public order and protection of territorial sovereignty. Increasingly, it also provides social protection through regulation and income transfers. In democracies it has the electoral process as the nucleus of its authority, legitimacy and accountability.


The economic or business society has evolved into the main vehicle for the creation of private wealth, mainly through corporations, small enterprises and farmers. The nucleus of its legitimacy, authority and accountability is the marketplace, and in some cases stockholders' equity.


The civil society's role has come about primarily because of a realisation that a gap existed in the partnerships between the political and economic societies. Civil society has assumed the role of being a spontaneous voice for the public good and, more specifically, in the interest of communities and ecosystems that are not part of the marketplace, or at least not recognised as such, nor given any considerable, immediate political weight. Civil society's legitimacy, authority and accountability lie in the authenticity and value of the public interest issues that it advocates. It is a normative role and not a directly representative role. Issues that do not gain public support will eventually not prosper and will die. Its financial accountability is to the transparent donors that support its programmes. Much confusion about the roles of each of these societies comes from the lack of clarity about fundamentally different functions that are not interchangeable.


Civil society, which is self - organising and not voted into office, can never assume the role of political society. Nor should political society take the role of direct involvement in private wealth creation. Our bad experiences of governments actually running businesses are a testimony to this. And while there is a lot of talk and, fortunately, a lot of action on voluntary initiatives and socially responsible business practices, which I applaud very much, business cannot assume, and should not be asked to assume, the role of protecting the public interest as its primary objective. Neither can nongovernmental organisations go into private wealth creation without losing their basic character of being not-for-profit organisations. Clarifying and recognizing these roles and their different value contributions to common, national and global responsibilities in the context of sustainable development is important. It ensures mutual respect, and will benefit the debate on which directions to take to confront the challenge that I alluded to before, and which was the basis of the Environment UK 2002 Conference.


In fact, it is now commonly accepted, and even appreciated, that it was civil society that put environment on the global agenda - first in the late 1960s, then in the 1970s and again in the run-up to the Earth Summit of 1992. A new political sphere that involves the equal but differentiated participation of government, civil society and business society in the debate is essential to the local and global government structures that can address effectively the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.


I strongly believe that the challenge is there and, in fact, has been recognised. It has been recognised by the literally hundreds of treaties, conventions and bilateral agreements where environment has been at the centre of the negotiations. The real concern is in the failure of coherent compliance with what has been agreed upon. Or, in other words, the mere signing of agreements is easy. That only requires paper and pen. Implementation has been the problem. And when we look at the interregnum between Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, case. Hopefully, I can be proved wrong.


The developing world looks towards the developed world to cure its ills, and our ills, and not to cause them. One cannot, in all reasonableness, make demands on the poor if the wealthy merely persist in their pursuit of more wealth to the detriment of finite resources and life support systems.


It seems, therefore, a matter of courage, political courage if you like, especially in the North. It is an awesome responsibility. Political society has to be assisted in rising to this challenge.


If the key actors agree on putting the environment at the centre of the debate then how does that translate into concrete steps? Let me give you some of my personal thoughts on some of the elements of such a debate for a common agenda and, above all, its implementation. My list is not complete, but it would be a good starting point. If you look at Agenda 21 at Rio de Janeiro, and at the outcome of the Johannesburg plan of implementation, you will see that what is on the table is impressive, but it is not prioritised in any way and that is a weakness.


Some of the elements that would put at the centre of the debate are:


Be sure to involve all stakeholders. Do not leave groups out, even if they prolong the decision making processes. As I have said before, it should be recognised that governments will not bring about the necessary changes by themselves. They need the debate. They also need the business and the civil societies to implement what has been agreed upon. Governments by themselves cannot do that. They need us.


Allow generously for environmental education. I am a strong believer in the greening of the curriculum. If I compare the attitude of younger generations towards the environment and environmental problems with that of my own generation, the difference is remarkable and certainly gives rise to optimism. Education works.


Another issue that is crucial is to promote and finance a coalition between ecologists and economists. It is essential that they should not be confrontational, of course, but that they should figure out together the true value of goods and services. It is not the level of taxes, but what is being taxed, that can impact on patterns of production and consumption.


Increase the capacity in developing countries to effectively deal with environmental issues and ensure financing for clean technologies. And, obviously; insist on regular, if not constant, monitoring of what has been agreed upon. If only one third of the plan of implementation of Johannesburg, or Agenda 21 which came before that, is implemented, the world would be much better off.


Then, obviously, there is the issue of the greening of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). At the Earth Council we are at present analysing the consistency, or rather the lack thereof, of the WTO entry requirements on the one hand and the requirements of Newly Independent States - we have chosen eight - to comply with the obligations under multilateral environmental agreements on the other. It is too early yet to predict the outcome, but it is the kind of governance issue that is of great importance if we want to give credibility to the multilateral system.


We have been engaged in a similar type of research in six developing countries. We studied the question as to what extent there was coherence within bureaucracies, of each of those countries, in dealing with the provisions of major multilateral environmental agreements, including climate d1ange, desertification and biodiversity. It was found that civil servants dealing with these conventions sometimes did not even know each other, let alone that there was any kind of coordination amongst them or synergies to be gained. In short, what credence should be given to the signing of conventions when there is either a lack of political will to implement their provisions, or where there are too many countervailing powers to cope with, or if there is no governance capacity at the national or local level to provide a reasonable follow-up?


In other words, the political agenda of the environmental debate will have to be set very carefully. It is our challenge and our responsibility to move forward. A modest investment to increase the capacity of civil society to sit at the table and debate in an informed way with government and business society, and a modest investment to increase the capacity of developing nations to effectively participate in the debate, will enhance the quality of the debate, its outcome and the effective implementation of what has been already agreed upon.


Where does Johannesburg fit? Johannesburg has put the issue of sustainability back on the political agenda. That was good and it was necessary. Its expectations were high. Somewhat unjustified perhaps. The original purpose of Johannesburg was stocktaking, ten years after Rio, asking ourselves where we stand globally with the implementation of the comprehensive and extensive package that was agreed upon in Rio de Janeiro. But as the frustrations about the lack of advances on Rio grew, there was a tendency away from an honest analysis. The focus was shifted to more new commitments, and in that respect the expectations were so high that soon WSSD in Johannesburg became, to a certain extent, an exercise in damage control.


On the other hand, we can be satisfied that such issues as sustainable development and the fight against poverty have been more closely linked than ever before and that issues like energy, sanitation, capacity building, good governance, etc. all receive a great deal of attention. But obviously, once more, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As the new Prime Minister of the Netherlands said during his intervention, 'we have done the talking so let's start walking'. That is the same line that Maurice Strong took ten years before - let's start implementing. Too often we have been disappointed by too much lack of coherence and by non-compliance.


I go a step further: international non-compliance equals multilateral anarchy. That is the challenge. Putting the environment at the centre of the debate by involving stakeholders is a crucial element in this process.


Time is running out for the World. The scale of the change needed is matched only by its urgency. Can we reverse environmental deterioration and life support threats before it all spirals out of control, leading to global economic decline, more man-made disasters, more stress, and more conflict? Or, as I questioned in the beginning, do we see the economy as a function of our life support systems, and the environment merely a part of our economy? We at the Earth Council have long seen the need for collective response to unify the disparate elements. What we really need is stronger global governance, with sufficient room at the table for all stakeholders. Denial is a human trait, but nobody has become any better for it, let alone been cured by it.

Frans Van Haren is an Ambassador of the Netherlands; he was member of the Group here described; at present he is Vice rector of the UN mandated University for Peace (UPEACE).