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Sustainable development

“Despite all the efforts being taken, we are collectively leading our planet towards an ecological disaster by overexploiting its resources, bringing species to extinction, destroying tropical forests and effectively diminishing the opportunities for present and future generations,” the environment ministers of France, Germany and Spain wrote in May 2005 in the «Les Échos» daily.

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“In the long term, development is not possible if it is not economically efficient, socially equitable and ecologically acceptable.”

Since the dawn of global eco-awareness, sustainable development has been progressively climbing up the international political agenda.

- 1987: The Brundtland Report

The term “sustainable development” was coined by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norwegian prime minister and chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development (commonly called the Brundtland Commission). The commission’s report - “Our Common Future” – defines it as “development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

- 1992: The Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro

The UN Earth Summit brings together the governments of 178 countries in Rio. They adopt the Rio Declaration (a list of 27 principles) and a global action plan for sustainable development in the 21st century called Agenda 21. The Brundtland definition is modified to include three “pillars” of sustainable development: economic progress, social justice and preservation of the environment.

- 1997: Kyoto Protocol

International attention focuses on climate change with the Kyoto Protocol, signed by 180 countries. It includes a commitment from 38 industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels by 2008-12.

- 2002: World Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg

Representatives of governments from around the world meet to assess progress made on commitments made ten years earlier at the Rio conference. They decide to reinforce the fight against poverty and inequality.

- 2005-2014: The UN decade of education for sustainable development

The UN Economic Scientific and C Organisation is the organism responsible for promoting the decade. The objective is to integrate the principles, values and practices of sustainable development in all areas of education and learning.

Facts and figures :

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the global warming of the last 50 years is due to human activities. The concentration of CO2, the key anthropogenic greenhouse gas, has shot up from around 280ppm (parts per million) during the pre-industrial period to 368ppm in the year 2000, mainly due to developing countries’ emissions: 20% of the world’s population living in the developed world are responsible for 90% of CO2 emissions.

By 2100, concentrations of CO2 could rise to a level of 540 – 970ppm, leading average global temperatures to go up by between 1.4 and 5.8°C, while sea levels would rise by 0.04 and 0.88m (GIEC, 2001). Climate models also predict a change in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme events: there will be more hot days and more strong precipitation.

Climate change, sea level rise and growing pollution are threatening the productivity of ecosystems. Biodiversity is in constantly degrading: the numbers of vertebrate species have shrank by almost a third in 30 years; 11,000 species of plants and animals are threatened with imminent extinction; and 60% of the world’s ecosystems have already been seriously damaged (Millenium Ecosystem Evaluation, 2005).

The danger is not solely ecological. Growing water and food shortages are directly menacing the survival of humans: 815m people are under-nourished, more than a billion do not have access to drinking water and 2.5bn lack sanitation. The overuse of natural resources and energy in particular is creating tensions and mounting conflict. Climate change and its consequences are increasing global inequalities between rich and poor countries, but also fuelling the spread of illnesses.

An aggravating factors is the explosion in the global population that we are currently experiencing. We passed the 6.5bn mark in 2005 and are heading for around 10bn by 2100, according to current estimates. Population growth will be particularly strong in developing countries, which already represent nearly 80% of the world’s population. At the current consuming and development we will need the equivalent of two planets by 2050 to satisfy global demand (WWF, 2006).

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