United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) Our Common Future Report (1987)
United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) Our Common Future Report (1987)
The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also called the Brundtland Commission after its Chairman Gro Harlem Brundtland (a Norwegian physician), was an international commission that discussed and devised strategies for protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission published its final report, Our Common Future, in 1987. Our Common Future stated that governments could not address environmental protection separately from related crises, such as economic development and energy production. Our Common Future also outlined a blueprint for dealing with these interlocking crises simultaneously. The findings and proposals of Our Common Future have shaped international environmental policy for the last two decades.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
The World Commission on Environment and Development was not the first United Nations conference to address environmental issues. In 1972, the United Nations convened the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. Representatives from 113 nations and over 400 non-governmental agencies (NGOs) attended the Stockholm Conference. This conference, often called the Stockholm Conference, was the first international conference to address environmental problems directly.
The Stockholm Conference produced the Declaration of the Conference on the Human Environment, which stated that every person deserves a clean, healthy environment. The declaration recognized that unchecked technological and scientific advancements permitted humans to “transform the environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale.” The Stockholm Conference declaration also stated that environmental protection is one of the major humanitarian and economic issues facing the world.
The Declaration of the Conference on the Human Environment was the first major international document to recognize that environmental problems originate from both developing and developed economies. The World Commission on Environment and Development and every subsequent United Nations conference on the environment have sought to address these seemingly contradictory sources of environmental degradation. The Stockholm Conference Declaration noted that most environmental problems in developing economies occur because of underdevelopment. Poverty in these nations leads to poor health, poor sanitation, and toxic cleanup, which place harmful human, animal, and chemical products into the environment. Governments with developing economies also often seek advancement of the economy with little regard for environmental regulation. Industrialized nations contribute to environmental problems through technological advancements and industrialization.
The Stockholm Conference also produced an action plan, which contained 109 specific recommendations for improving the environment, including limiting the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The action plan also called for a reduction of marine pollution. Finally, the action plan called on industrialized nations to provide economic and technological assistance to developing nations so the developing nations could grow their economies in an environmental responsible manner.
In 1983, the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also called the Brundtland Commission, with the passage of Resolution
WORDS TO KNOW
DEVELOPING NATION: A country that is relatively poor, with a low level of industrialization and relatively high rates of illiteracy and poverty.
NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION (NGO): A voluntary organization that is not part of any government; often organized to address a specific issue or perform a humanitarian function.
SUSTAINABILITY: Practices that preserve the balance between human needs and the environment, as well as between current and future human requirements.
38/161 (Process of Preparation of the Environmental Perspective to the Year 2000 and Beyond). The resolution called for the creation of a commission to propose international environmental strategies that would lead to sustainable development for the year 2000 and beyond. The Brundtland Commission first met in 1984.
Under the requirements of Resolution 38/161, the Brundtland Commission served as an independent body outside control of the United Nations and national governments. The Brundtland Commission addressed three major environmental issues, as mandated by Resolution 38/161. First, the commission examined critical environmental and developmental issues and formulated proposals for dealing with these issues. Second, the commission proposed new forms of international cooperation on these issues. Finally, the commission addressed ways to raise awareness of environmental issues and commitments to address those issues from individuals, NGOs, governments, and intergovernmental agencies.
In 1987, after three years of information gathering and debate, the Brundtland Commission issued Our Common Future, a report containing the commission’s findings and recommendations. Our Common Future asserted that any international environmental initiative must address sustainable development. Our Common Future defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Every United Nations environmental convention since the release of Our Common Future, including Earth Summit 1992 and Earth Summit 2002, has embraced the idea of sustainable development as a vital aspect of environmental policy.
Our Common Future asserted that sustainable development was the only solution to the interlocking crises occurring in environmental preservation, economic development, and energy production. The report asserted that any attempt to address problems occurring in only one of these areas would further exacerbate problems in the other two areas. Our Common Future stressed that governments cannot manage these interlocking crises on a local or national basis. The report stated that the only effective remedy is an international approach that simultaneously addresses all three crises.
The report stated that large-scale farming in industrialized nations harmed the environment through increased pesticide use, destruction of ecosystems through clearing land, and overuse of the soil. Industrialized nations often donate this food surplus to developing nations. This practice creates insecurity in the food supply by inhibiting the development of agriculture in the developing nations. Our Common Future argued that a better practice would be technological assistance to developing nations that would allow those nations to develop their own environmentally responsible food supplies.
Our Common Future addressed other sustainable development and environmental preservation methods. Nations could reduce energy consumption by using technology to create more energy-efficient appliances, automobiles, and machines. Cleaner forms of energy production, such as wind and solar energy, would also reduce the pollution and greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels. The report also suggested that developing nations design and implement urban planning initiatives to deal with their growing populations. Rapid urban population growth will place an enormous strain on the environment and the economies of developing nations in the twenty-first century.
Issues and Impacts
Our Common Future has served as the blueprint for international action on environmental issues. Every major international convention on the environment since 1987, including the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit 1992) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Earth Summit 2002), has drawn heavily from the principles espoused in Our Common Future.
Earth Summit 1992 produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states the rights and responsibilities of nations toward environmental protection and sustainable development. The Rio Declaration states that nations have the right to exploit natural resources within their borders if their actions do not affect the environment in other nations. Furthermore, the Rio Declaration calls on all governments to develop plans to preserve the environment and natural resources for future generations.
Agenda 21, like Our Common Future, addresses environmental issues through detailed social and economic proposals. Agenda 21 proposes addressing environmental issues through poverty reduction, conservation of natural resources, deforestation prevention, promotion of sustainable agriculture, modification of production and consumption patterns, and protection of the atmosphere and oceans.
Earth Summit 2002 produced the Johannesburg Declaration, which reiterated many of the points contained in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. The Johannesburg Declaration contains a more general statement about the environment and sustainable development, and it calls for an end to all conditions that threaten sustainable development, including drug use, corruption, terrorism, ethnic intolerance, and natural disasters. The Johannesburg Declaration, however, does not contain specific proposals for addressing many of these issues.
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United Nations. “Res. 38/161: Process of Preparation of the Environmental Perspective to the Year 2000 and Beyond.” http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/38/a38r161.htm (accessed April 27, 2008).
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Joseph P. Hyder