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The Message of the Brundtland Commission Continues to Resonate, Thirty Years On

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By Mark Halle, June 13, 2017

History is a juggernaut that crushes everything in its path. Yesterday’s heroes are forgotten today, and those of today will soon slip from memory. The world moves on and changes.

It follows that the triumphs of international cooperation enjoy their moment in the sun, only to fade and slip from sight. How many strategies, global declarations and agendas, independent commissions and panel reports, and goal sets have become the stuff of archaeology departments?

The truth is, all of these things have a shelf life—a bracket in time in which to achieve their impact, to push the chess pieces of international cooperation forward on the board, following which they are of interest principally to academic researchers and those nostalgic for past glories. That shelf life is rarely over 10 years. More often it does not exceed three or four.

It is therefore noteworthy that the Brundtland Commission, which 30 years ago, in 1987, articulated the notion of sustainable development, has had an impact that has lasted three decades so far. Who remembers the findings of the Brandt Commission (on development issues, 1980), the Carlsson Commission (on global governance, 1995), or the literally tens of others that have met, inquired, opined and published advice to humanity over the past few decades?

And yet, the notion of sustainable development that served as the principal outcome of the Brundtland Commission went on to serve as the intellectual foundation of the Earth Summit in 1992 and, more recently, for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals, currently the leading global framework for international cooperation. Indeed, sustainable development as the goal towards which all of our efforts must strive has achieved as close to a consensus as is possible to reach internationally. Few would publicly dispute it as the final destination towards which humanity must orient itself.

What accounts for the lasting power of this particular commission’s message amid a raft of others in the last two decades of the past century and the first of this century?

The answer must lie in the fact that its message is timeless. The Brandt Commission worked within a paradigm of development and North-South relations that has fundamentally altered over the years and would be largely unrecognizable today. The Carlsson Commission responded to the obsession with governance that dominated the mid-1990s. It appears wholly inadequate today.

It is important to underline that the alternative to sustainable development is, well, unsustainable development. It is a form of development that carries the seeds of its own destruction, either because it pursues a failed economic model, because it alienates large segments of the population, or because it impoverishes the natural resource and ecosystem service foundation on which development depends. Or more usually, a combination of these three. That option is familiar—indeed, it is the one we have deliberately or inadvertently chosen ever since human societies began to organize.

The generosity of the planet, the resilience of natural systems, advances in technology, and the sheer human capacity to adapt and accommodate have pushed back the date at which these systems would begin seriously to unravel. That date, however, looms on the horizon and grows ever more menacing.

We have reached the time when it is no longer acceptable to regard sustainable development as merely a navigational direction—as a distant destination towards which we should gradually move—but instead as a new reality that must be pursued systematically and with determination.

Happily, in working out how that can be done in practice, we have the roadmap in the form of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 targets, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris climate change agreement, to name only these. For once, it is a roadmap built from the bottom up, through a participatory process unparalleled in the history of development. It is the one set of targets that we really must achieve if we are to hold out a chance for a decent life for all humanity.

The good news is that the targets are genuinely achievable within the budgets and timelines set out. Achieving the target of ending world hunger—a stunning achievement for humanity if realized—would require no more than the judicious annual expenditure of a mere $11 billion over business as usual, or a fraction of what a single country (Saudi Arabia) allocates from its public budget in subsidies to carbon-based transport fuel and electricity. Even the estimates for what it would take fully to fund the 17 SDGs—between $1.9 and $3 trillion per year—represent a target that is fully attainable with the right leadership, political will and determination. It could, indeed, be paid for by withdrawing funding from activities that are unsustainable and redeploying them behind the 2030 agenda.

The Brundtland Commission scored a historic hit by setting out a positive, upbeat narrative for the planet’s future. Thirty years later, the message resonates still with a freshness few would have expected at the time of its formulation. The commission did us a huge favour by asking: what is the end purpose for our development endeavours; by spelling out what success might look like; and by providing a broad framework into which all the pieces of the development puzzle could fit. We owe Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway, a large debt of gratitude for providing us the end goal and direction. We owe it to her vision to demonstrate—30 years on—that we can honour her courage and clarity with tangible success in achieving sustainable development and thereby offering a decent future for our children and our children’s children.