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Introducing environmental decision making
Introducing environmental decision making

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2.5.3 United Nations initiatives for sustainable development and decision making

Out of UNCED emerged conventions on climate change and biodiversity, a set of guidelines of forest principles, a declaration on Environment and Development, and an extensive international agenda for action for sustainable development for the 21st Century – Agenda 21. From WSSD came reaffirmed commitment to sustainable development, including a declaration that committed to ‘a collective responsibility to advance and strengthen the interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection – at local, national and global levels’ (the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, 4 September 2002). WSSD also produced a plan of implementation. Between these two international Summits came the UN’ s Millennium Summit when Heads of State adopted a series of goals with targets concerning peace, development, environment, human rights, the vulnerable, hungry and poor, Africa and the United Nations.

These initiatives are inter-related and each has built on what had been done before. Their significance for environmental decision making is that, in common with some other international initiatives, they have attempted to address issues that cannot be addressed at just one level (local, national or regional). National-level programmes (e.g. Local Agenda 21 (LA21) programmes) have been linked to the international level. In all three of the UN Summit processes, concerns about and recommendations for decision making were included.

Agenda 21 was developed well over a decade ago, for UNCED in 1992 (Quarrie, 1992), but it had a long-term horizon with targets for implementation and monitoring of progress and dealing with changing priorities that took place through the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. It therefore became an ongoing process and although the language of Agenda 21 is less in evidence now than it was in the 1990s many of the principles and agreements reached in the Agenda 21 process are still relevant.

Agenda 21 was published in some 40 chapters, each presented with a basis for action, objectives, activities and an estimate of financial costs. It had four main focuses:

  1. Social and economic dimensions
  2. Conservation and management of resources for development
  3. Strengthening the role of major (stakeholder) groups
  4. Means of implementation

Two chapters to note in the context of this course are:

  • Chapter 8, ‘Integrating environment and development in decision making’, which considers integrating environment and development at the policy and management levels, providing an effective legal and regulatory framework, making effective use of economic instruments and market and other incentives, and establishing systems for integrated environmental and economic accounting.
  • Chapter 40, ‘Information for decision making’ , which considers bridging the data gap between the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds, and improving availability of information that could be used for the management of sustainable development.

After UNCED the many recommendations in Agenda 21 were taken up in varying degrees. There was a series of issues around implementation ranging from finance to participation. However, many people worldwide were involved in the overall process of Agenda 21 and it has been a major focus in many different countries for a great deal of activity on environment and development. LA21 programmes were developed in several countries.

In September 2000, at the UN Millennium Summit, 147 Heads of State and Government agreed to a set of development goals, with targets, for combating poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women. These goals became known as the Millennium Development Goals (see Box 2).

Box 2 The Millennium Development Goals

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger:
    • Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day;
    • Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
  2. Achieve universal primary education:
    • Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling.
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women:
    • Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015.
  4. Reduce child mortality:
    • Reduce by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five.
  5. Improve maternal health:
    • Reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio.
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
    • Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.
    • Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability:
    • Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; reverse loss of environmental resources.
    • Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.
    • Achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020.
  8. Develop a global partnership for development:
    • Develop further an open trading and financial system that is rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory. Includes a commitment to good governance, development and poverty reduction – nationally and internationally.
    • Address the least developed countries’ special needs. This includes tariff- and quota-free access for their exports; enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries; cancellation of official bilateral debt; and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction.
    • Address the special needs of landlocked and small island developing states.
    • Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term.
    • In co-operation with the developing countries, develop decent and productive work for youth.
    • In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.
    • In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies – especially information and communications technologies.
( 2005)

A further plan of implementation of action for targeting specific areas of sustainable development emerged from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

From the Johannesburg WSSD process came a range of outcomes including:

The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, the official declaration made by Heads of State and Government

The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, negotiated by governments and detailing the action that needs to be taken in specific areas

Type 2 Partnership Initiatives, commitments by governments and other stakeholders to a broad range of partnership activities and initiatives, adhering to the Guiding Principles, that will implement sustainable development at the national, regional and international level.

(UNEP DTIE website, 2002)

An explicit reference to decision making was made in the Johannesburg Declaration:

We recognise that sustainable development requires a long-term perspective and broad-based participation in policy formulation, decision-making and implementation at all levels.

(Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development (2002, part of point no. 26)

Decision-making processes, including environmental decision making, are implicit in ideas of public– private and other multi-agency partnerships which are mentioned both in the Millennium and the Johannesburg Declarations. As ‘Ensuring environmental sustainability’ is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (see Box 2), environmental decision making is also implicit.

Activity 10 Environment and the Millenium Goals

How is the term ‘environment’ used in the Millennium Development Goals?


Three bullet points are included under the ‘environmental sustainability’ goal. All three seem to assume anthropocentric definitions of ‘environment’. The first is about integration of sustainable development into country policies and programmes with an emphasis on reversing loss of ‘environmental resources’. It is not specific about which resources, but given the context of the goal I assume that it is linked to issues of livelihood. The second highlights ‘sustainable access to safe drinking water’ as a part of environmental sustainability and the third focuses on quality of life.

How does environmental decision making link up with decision making for sustainable development? Are they the same thing? The short answer is ‘No’. For example, a social services department might decide to use more transport to allow more people to have access to basic services. This decision may be in direct conflict with their stated environmental aims to reduce transport-related emissions and yet it is in some ways a sustainable development improvement. This single decision is focused more on social sustainability than environmental sustainability. However, a social services department committed to sustainable development might, as a whole, make a series of trade-offs between environmental, social and economic considerations, so it is misleading to consider the single decision out of context.

I mentioned previously that the focus on environmental decision making in this course is to ensure that environmental considerations are not forgotten. However, I also pointed out the need to integrate environmental, social and economic considerations. In some cases this means that decisions can be made that have positive effects in all three of these areas, such as the win– win situation of an environmental business that provides employment. In other situations it means choices between one aspect and another, involving trade-offs, as in the example of the social services department. Sustainable development is the context for environmental decision making.

In some cases, LA21 programmes were adopted by governments, authorities and organisations that had already developed environmental policies and plans. For instance, nearly all UK local authorities produced LA21 strategies by the end of 2000, although they did vary in form and quality (Webster, 1999). The process they have had to go through to change course from a focus on environment to one on sustainable development has generally been one of moving out boundaries to include a broader range of both people and ideas in decision making. The UK Local Government Act 2000 meant that UK local authorities had a duty to promote economic, social and environmental well-being and sustainable development of their areas in their community planning although they did not have the power to raise money specifically for this activity. Environmental decision making can take place within the context of sustainable development. The process needs to start with groups of people thinking critically and systemically and working out what is relevant in a particular situation, rather than trying to think about everything at once.

The way that the use of the sustainable development concept has brought people with environmental, social, political and economic agenda into the same forums for discussion and action is a very important part of the context of environmental decision making.