Articles by Peter Madden
Peter Madden is the chief executive of Forum for the Future.
"Sustainable development" is 20 years old this week.
On April 27, 1987, after four years of deliberation, the World Commission on Environment and Development released its report. The inquiry -- also known as the Brundtland Commission -- was led by the prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland.
I was at university then, and devoured the contents of the report, which was later published as the book Our Common Future. Here, at last, was someone tying together the environment and development agendas. The report had much to say, too, about the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation. And as a female leader, Brundtland was such an antidote to our own prime minister; she was pretty much everything Margaret Thatcher was not.
The report gave us an enduring definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need."
So 20 years on, what is the legacy of sustainable development as a concept?
Things are hotting-up over here on climate change. And I'm not talking about the fact that we're set to have the warmest year on record. The political temperature is rising, too.
The European Union has agreed to a joint CO2 target for its 27 member countries and their 490 million citizens. The leaders committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. But this is just a starter. The E.U. says that if other countries -- such as the U.S. -- agree to do more, we will up our target to 30 percent. So, we have 20 percent on the table unilaterally, with a chunk more if you guys step up to the plate.
Then, the U.K. government published a draft climate-change bill, which will make us the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon targets.
The bill will set U.K.'s targets -- for a 60 percent reduction by 2050 and around a 30 percent reduction by 2020 -- in statute. It will also bring in a new system of legally binding five-year "carbon budgets." These will provide clarity on whether the U.K. is on the right path to meet its commitments. There will be a new independent advisory and scrutiny body, the Committee on Climate Change, annually reporting to Parliament on progress.
The Bishop of London recently proclaimed that flying on holiday is a sin, a view that seems increasingly to be shared by greens in the U.K.
Our environment minister, David Miliband, castigated Prince Charles for flying to America to receive an award, suggesting that he should have collected it via video-link. Mayer Hillman, author of How We Can Save the Planet and one of the more rigorous of our green thinkers, wants us to "drastically reduce or stop flying."
This of course raises a problem of public acceptability; for most people, flying is still something to aspire to.
It also raises some particular problems for environmentalists. Global travel and networking are important both to how we frame our challenges and how we resolve them.
British supermarkets are now competing to go green. Two big retailers have just launched initiatives to tackle climate change.
Marks & Spencer, which sells food and clothing to Britain's middle classes, promised this month to cut waste, sell fair-trade products, and make the company carbon neutral within five years. Environmentalists praised its 100-point "eco-plan." Greenpeace U.K. said, "If every retailer in Britain followed Marks & Spencer's lead, it would be a major step forward in meeting the challenge of creating a sustainable society."
Later the same week, Tesco, one of the top five retailers in the world, set out its own stall on climate change. As the giant of British supermarkets -- one in every eight dollars spent in British shops goes into its tills -- Tesco is in a similar position to Wal-Mart in the U.S., and faces many of the same criticisms.