In late 1960s and early 1970s the world began to wake up to the importance of environmental issues, shaken from its slumber by new scientific findings, the increased sophistication of civil society movements in some countries and a few high-impact publications.
These included Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich (1968) and The Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome (1972). Until the early 1970s, international efforts to address environmental issues had targeted specific environmental problems, with scant regard for the interplay between the environment and economic and social development.
It was not until the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 that an attempt was made to address environmental issues in a wide-ranging, comprehensive manner. The positions adopted at Stockholm implicitly betrayed the view that there was a trade-off between economic development and environmental protection. Developing countries stressed the need for them, firstly, to develop further so as to be able to halt and reverse environmental damage associated with poverty and, secondly, to receive international assistance to enable them to avoid the path of pollution taken by developed countries and to ensure that they were not made to suffer as a result of environmental measures taken by other countries.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992) represented a turning point in attitudes worldwide towards the environment and its relationship with development, marked by the formalization of the concept of sustainable development in a series of principles, some of which concern the way in which countries interact with one another (common but differentiated responsibilities, principle 7) and how citizens interact with their governments (access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters, principle 10).
A major obstacle to sustainable development has been the difficulty in raising the profile of the issue as a public policy objective beyond institutions and departments specifically dealing with the environment. Environmental institutions and legislation have been strengthened, but the environment continues to be regarded predominantly as a stand-alone issue, kept apart from the decision-making apparatus on other aspects of development. Ultimately, sustainable development is being mistaken for one of its essential elements, namely environmental protection.
Ensuring environmental sustainability was the focus of the seventh of the Millennium Development Goals (established in the wake of the Millennium Summit in 2000), whose first target was to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes. However, no indicators were set to indentify a minimum threshold for progress in this regard, and overcoming this shortcoming remains a key obstacle to sustainable development. Furthermore, environmental sustainability was not included in the development agenda as a cross-cutting issue.
Although the environment was once widely believed to be a matter pertaining to the well-being of future generations —and therefore of lesser importance for countries struggling to provide a minimum standard of well-being for current generations— the growing evidence that environmental degradation is causing economic and social harm to today’s populations is gradually changing that perception. The Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Stern Report (both of 2007), among other documents, were crucial in giving traction to the view that protecting the environment —in particular the atmosphere— was essential to avoid creating new obstacles to development. The concept of the “green economy”, set out in The future we want, the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (often referred to as Rio+20), maintained that the paradigm shift needed to protect the environment could also give rise to new opportunities for economic growth.
ECLAC has addressed the issue in a highly comprehensive manner, by questioning development styles, providing information on the socioeconomic consequences of failure to make environmental protection a central pillar of sustainable development policies, conducting environmental performance assessments, proposing economic policies that integrate environmental considerations and promoting greater awareness and participation in society in respect of the environment.