Select Committee on European Scrutiny Second Report


COM(01) 53

Commission Communication: Ten years after Rio — Preparing for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

Legal base:
Document originated: 6 February 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 7 February 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 9 March 2001
Department: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration: EM of 9 May 2001
Previous Committee Report: None
To be discussed in Council: No further substantive discussion expected at this stage
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


18.1 The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio agreed an ambitious and comprehensive strategy to address environmental and development challenges through a global partnership for sustainable development. However, according to the Commission, fundamental challenges still remain, in that, although environmental policy has developed since 1992, natural resources continue to decline, pollution is increasing, and a growing number of people are in poverty, with an increasingly wide gap between the richest and poorest. It therefore sees the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa as providing an opportunity to build on the political resolve which it says characterised Rio. In this Communication, it has suggested how the Community might approach that Summit, in terms of its strategic objectives, the synergy with related Community processes, and the preparatory measures to be taken in the lead-up.

The current document

18.2 In analysing the outcome of Rio, the Commission says that this reaffirmed the concept of sustainable development, and in the process adopted a number of principles addressing key sectors such as agriculture, industry and urban management, and a range of environmental priorities such as biodiversity and climate change, as well as a series of cross-cutting issues such as technology transfer, poverty, population and trade. It also set up a UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to monitor implementation.

18.3 As to the practical developments since then, the Commission points out that, although there have been a number of positive trends, such as economic growth, improved health services, and increased awareness of environmental issues, the unsustainable trends prevailing at the time of Rio have not been reversed, and that pressures on the environment and the natural resource base are increasing. In particular, many natural resources are already being exploited at or beyond their limits, with the problem becoming even more acute with a projected 50% growth in world population by 2050, almost all of it in developing countries (where there will also be pressure to move towards higher consumption levels and to adopt more resource-intensive economic practices). The Commission suggests that this will impact most heavily on energy and water consumption, on land availability, biodiversity (including fish stocks), and exposure to pollutants. It also highlights the fact that, alongside these problems, concerns persist in developing countries over infant mortality and the effect of AIDS on overall life expectancy.

18.4 The Communication goes on to identify the four key problems which the Commission says have arisen in implementing the Rio agenda.

— Failure to change unsustainable patterns of consumption and production

The Commission says that continued economic growth in industrialised countries, coupled with population growth and the desire of developed countries to catch up, is placing increasing pressures on the environment and the natural resource base, which are detrimental to the environment, economically inefficient and wasteful. The reversal of these trends is therefore seen as imperative, by means such as internalising environmental considerations into economic activities and providing consumers with information enabling them to make informed choices.

— Shortage of financial resources

The Commission says that, although the need for additional resources to tackle global environmental problems was fully recognised in 1992, this was not followed by an increase in the financial assistance to developing countries, with official development aid, including debt relief, actually falling between 1992 and 1998, and that, despite a slight increase since then, the Rio target of 0.7% of GNP is far from being met. It suggests that, although this type of expenditure is not the sole source of funding for sustainable development, it is of strategic importance, but it also points to progress in introducing a more systematic use of environmental appraisal into aid programmes, and to the positive effect of trade and private capital flows in bringing about technology transfer.

— Insufficient response from international institutions

The Commission says that, although the CSD has brought together major groups and set in train a number of processes, this does not seem to have delivered sustainable development on the ground. It believes this situation could be improved by better coherence between objectives, and the setting of priorities within an overarching, politically uniting target.

— Weaknesses in domestic governance and capacity

The Commission says that there has been increased attention at national level to sustainable development objectives, but that progress has been patchy. Also, although some 70 countries have strategies in place based on the Rio commitment, their real effectiveness is still not known.

18.5 The next part of the Communication sets out ways in which the Community can make a contribution to the 2002 Summit, and stresses the need for it to be able to point to progress internally as well as in relation to third countries. It highlights the need for key strategies such as those on sustainable development and the Environmental Action Programme to be complementary and to reinforce each other, for these to be integrated into other Community policies, and for them to relate as well to Member States' strategies. It also points to the importance of the Community ratifying and implementing all relevant international agreements, and in particular the Kyoto Protocol; to the significant impact which enlargement will have on global sustainable development; and to the refocusing of Community development cooperation.

18.6 This analysis leads the Commission to its strategic objectives for next year's Summit, against the need for a renewed political commitment to the revitalisation of the Rio process. These objectives include:

  • Equity and partnership

    The Commission believes that the Summit should lead to a renewed atmosphere of partnership, assuring developing countries that their needs will not be subordinated to the developed world's environmental concerns: this would be achieved by stressing the need for sustainable economic and social development and environmental protection to be interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
  • Integration and coherence at international level

    The Commission suggests that, just as the Community is seeking to integrate the environment into all its policies, the Summit should help to foster integration at international level, within and outside the UN system. It also believes there should be a greater degree of coherence in the follow-up to the other main UN summits.
  • Environment and development targets

    The Commission considers that the Rio goals were too imprecise, and that, in order to revitalise and sharpen the political commitment, more specific sustainable development targets could be adopted.
  • Effective action at national level and international monitoring

    The Commission says that the Summit should encourage the implementation of the Rio target on sustainable development strategies, and that, in order to achieve this, it should put in hand mechanisms to assist countries and monitor progress, combined with a continuous peer review mechanism.

18.7 Finally, the Communication sets out a series of key issues for the Summit agenda It says that these need to be balanced, to have a high political content, and to be forward looking, but that it is not in the Community's interest to lock in its position on the substance too early. That said, it has identified the following four closely linked sets of issues, which it believes should be addressed in an integrated manner.

— Protecting the natural resource base of economic development

18.8 The Commission says that the Summit should concentrate on those natural resource issues of particular importance to economic development, and focus on those not effectively dealt with by other intergovernmental processes. The overarching priority will be to come to terms with unsustainable production and consumption, with the decoupling of economic growth and environmental pressures being a key element. The Commission says that this implies the need to change growth, not to limit it, with a target on eco-efficiency. Within this overall aim, key natural resource issues are seen as energy, freshwater, and land and soil degradation, the aim being to reverse current trends in environmental losses at both global and national levels by 2015.

— Integrating environment and poverty eradication

18.9 The Commission says that Rio showed the strong links between poverty and environmental degradation, and that understanding these is crucial. In particular, it wants the Summit to reaffirm the view taken in Rio of the need to move away from the belief that environmental problems can only be addressed once economic growth has been achieved, and to promote the integration of an environmental dimension into achieving development targets in areas such as health and education.

— Making globalisation sustainable

18.10 The Commission says that globalisation affects sustainable development by influencing economic, social and environmental patterns all around the world, and the Summit should address these. It adds that international trade in goods and flows of capital are part of this process, but that their impact on sustainable development will depend upon whether they lead to more eco-efficient resource allocation or additional pressure on scarce environmental resources. It therefore concludes that the sustainability impact of investment and trade liberalisation need to be addressed. It notes that this concept is enshrined within the World Trade Organisation's aims, and that it is essential to launch a new round of multilateral trade negotiations with sustainable development as a central objective. It also states that trade can make a decisive contribution in this area by promoting the participation and equitable integration of developing countries in the global economy, thereby allowing them to benefit from improved market access. However, the Commission also points out that this step needs to be augmented by improved supply-side support in areas such as training, technology transfer etc.

18.11 Other points identified by the Commission under this heading include ways of amending WTO rules to facilitate exports of environmentally-friendly goods originating in developing countries, promoting the social dimension of sustainable development, increasing the role played by business interests, and utilising the potential of the new "Information Society".

— Enhancing good governance and participation

18.12 The Commission says that there is growing momentum for the Summit to address global governance on sustainable development, and that there is a need to address both the role of the CSD and the adequacy of current UN structures. It adds that good governance is also a pre-condition for sustainable development at both national and local levels.

18.13 As regards the implementation of the aims it has identified, the Commission believes that official development assistance, together with technology transfer, will continue to be of prime concern, coupled with the replenishment of the Global Environment Facility and the development of private financial flows. It also emphasizes the need for the Community not to work in isolation, but to draw on all available mechanisms. This would involve a dialogue with the candidate countries and with the developing countries, the involvement of OECD, and links with UN regional commissions.

The Government's view

18.14 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 9 May 2001, the Minister for the Environment at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Michael Meacher) says that the 2002 World Summit is an opportunity to reinvigorate the international sustainable development process, and that this Communication provides a useful contribution to Community preparations. He considers that the policy objectives outlined by the Commission as possible priorities are in line with those identified within the UK, and that the Communication is a useful document for the Government to draw upon in the consultations it has been carrying out.


18.15 Although this Communication — like many other similar documents produced by the Commission — is both lengthy and couched in somewhat general terms, it clearly deals with a subject of significant economic, environmental and political interest, and, for that reason, we are drawing it to the attention of the House. However, it is also clear that the document itself has no legal or procedural implications, and the Minister has pointed out in his Explanatory Memorandum that any impact on Member States would arise only as a result of the Commission bringing forward specific instruments. We are therefore clearing it.

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