“We’re moving too slowly”

Gro Harlem Brundtland – high priestess of sustainable development – tells Joydeep Gupta why progress towards a healthier, happier planet is still too slow, wrapping up our special series on well-being economics.

Gro Harlem Brundtland – high priestess of sustainable development – tells Joydeep Gupta why progress towards a healthier, happier planet is still too slow, wrapping up our special series on well-being economics.

Gro Harlem Brundtland is the high priestess of sustainable development. The former head of the World Health Organisation and Norway’s first – and so far only – female prime minister commands a level of respect around the world perhaps matched only by Nelson Mandela.

Not many remember that she is also a medical doctor with a degree in public health, and that it was from the health sector that she took the concept of well-being and applied it to planet Earth when she became the chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983.

That commission is still better known as the Brundtland Commission, and it is no exaggeration to say its 1987 report, “Our Common Future”, has determined the direction of global debate from then until today – and that it is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It was this report’s concept of sustainable development and the urgent need to implement it that led to the so-far only Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. And it was that summit that gave birth to the three Rio conventions, at least one of which – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – has commanded global attention. The other two aim to preserve biodiversity and combat desertification.

Now the UN secretary general’s special envoy on climate change, Brundtland visited India earlier this month to attend the annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, organised by NGO The Energy and Resources Institute. Speaking to the third pole project on the sidelines of the summit, Brundtland made clear her assessment of sustainable progress to date: implementation of the Rio conventions has been “too slow”.

Asked to recall the milestones of the sustainability and well-being debate since publication of “Our Common Future”, Brundtland said: “The Rio conventions were drawn up five years after the publication of the report, and the Kyoto Protocol was signed within another five years. So that was all right, and you can’t blame the conventions. But since then, the implementation of climate change and other conventions has been too slow.”

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, set down the principle that developed countries must reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, which are warming the atmosphere and causing climate change. But it took another eight years for the exact quantity of reductions to be agreed – and, even then, only reductions to 2012 were determined. The United States (at the time of the Kyoto Protocol the world’s largest carbon-dioxide emitter) has never ratified the treaty. Despite many meetings and summits, we not only have no agreement on the volume of reduction after 2012, but there is also a concerted attempt by governments in many rich countries to dump the protocol altogether.

Acknowledging the difficulty in reaching any international agreement on this, Brundtland said: “The issue is large. Those who point out that the Montreal Protocol worked very well forget that it was much more limited [in scope].” That agreement, which came into force in 1989, was used to phase out chemicals that were harming the protective ozone layer on top of the earth’s atmosphere.

Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to combat climate change, said Brundtland, “is much more complex because the totality of our economy is at stake”. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, emitted by thermal-power stations, most factories and vehicles, and whenever a tree is cut down. Given the ubiquitous presence of these industries around the globe today, “having difficulty in agreeing over who does what is not surprising,” she observed.

But, insisted Brundtland, two of the Rio conventions – the pacts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss – are still highly significant and will continue “to play an important role” in global affairs. “I’m still optimistic, although we’re moving too slowly,” she said.

How can the negotiations be sped up? “We hope people learned from the breakdown in [the 2009 climate summit in] Copenhagen about the importance of listening more to each other,” Brundtland said, adding that there was no alternative to patient negotiations and no escaping the need to cut down greenhouse-gas emissions. The business world – let down by the paralysis in climate negotiations – must also be given more direction by politicians: “Businesses have not yet got the correct signals from governments. For example, the global price of carbon is not certain.” However, she said “more progressive” businesses were forming strategies to move towards a greener future.

The United States did not join the Kyoto Protocol – even though it was the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter until 2006 and is still the second largest today. Politicians, civil servants and observers from around the world have long felt that this, coupled with the failure of the current US government to pass the climate bill it promised, has done much to stall international negotiations on emissions reduction. Agreeing with this point of view, Brundtland said: “It is the oil and coal lobby in the United States that is mostly responsible for creating the kind of atmosphere that has prevented progress. These big corporations are very powerful. I know this myself from working against the tobacco industry.”

So who is working for the welfare of both the planet and the people? Would Brundtland count green NGOs among them? “Those that are analytical and pragmatic have been helpful,” she said. “They have tried to look for solutions and are working to see how you can accommodate the problems of politicians and businesses as well. Those NGOs which reply more on protests have also played a role in keeping the issue on the news agenda. They have made an important impact, mostly positive.”

But other groups must also get involved in building a sustainable future, she said, including “associations of businesses and people serving the business community”. “They should be active in helping out. Apart from that, spreading knowledge is the way to the solution. Empower people.” As a key figure in the debate, she is trying to do this herself: “I’m being an inspirer to different groups, from businesses to NGOs. Now we need political decisions. There is too much inertia there.”


Joydeep Gupta is project director (south Asia) of chinadialogue’s third pole project.

Homepage image from Mosseby

Also in this series:

Is earth justice possible?

How to make China happy

Growth can’t go on

Towards sustainable capitalism

Tim Jackson on restoring social balance

The dangers of happiness indices

Famine to feast: health impacts of a rising China

“China must measure happiness”

Bhutan’s experiment with happiness