Geneva and sustainable development

Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland

Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland
Chair, the World Commission on Environment and Development

Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's first female Prime Minister, chaired the World Commission on Environment Development, whose 1987 report led to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. After serving three terms as Prime Minister, Mrs Brundtland was elected Director-General of the World Health Organization in May 1998, serving until 2003. Her coordination of the world response to SARS earned her the title of Policy Leader of the Year from Scientific American, while the British newspaper The Financial Times rated her as the fourth most influential European of the previous 25 years in 2004.

20 years after the Brundtland Report

An inconvenient future?... The global is now personal

Our Common Future

Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, presented sustainable development as a global political challenge to the world's leaders, one that extended well beyond their next elections. We asked policy-makers bluntly to consider future generations in their actions.

The children of 1987 are now adults. What kind of world have we given them and what do they think of their common future?

If anything, the challenges are even more urgent. None of the problems we highlighted has been solved, whether population and human resources, food security, threats to species and ecosystems, the need for clean and abundant energy, the role and responsibility of industry, the increasing demands on resources from global urbanization, management of the oceans and space, or the threats to peace, security and development from environmental degradation. Indeed, what seemed only a potential threat 20 years ago looms today as a real cloud over all our futures: global warming.

The prospect of catastrophic worldwide epidemics also now seems ever-present. I had more than an inkling of the immensity of the threat when, as Director-General of the World Health Organization, I had to confront the 2003 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The risk arose suddenly and had to be tackled rapidly. The immediate worldwide response testifies to the great strides the international community has made in coordinating action, faced with an event that could have been as devastating as any famine or natural catastrophe.

But I hope such immediate demands on our resources will not divert us from the longer-term challenges that I tried to make the keynote of my time at the WHO: health as a development issue, the ways in which poverty predisposes people to illness and illness to poverty, the chronic economic and health devastation caused by tobacco, and violence as a paramount public health issue. These are all problems that cross our conventional organizational boundaries and therefore require long-term alliances and partnerships between the «problem solving» agencies of our increasingly globalized societies. International Geneva will prove its worth if it can find cost-effective alliances and partnerships, both locally and globally, that resonate with the wider community, including the general public.

Climate change is both an immediate and a long-term test of our commitment to sustainable development. But the challenge is no longer solely for political leaders. Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth has galvanized public interest in the scientific issues around global warming, along with a willingness to take individual action to reduce our carbon footprint. The global and political have become personal. The message of Our Common Future was that anything we could do to reduce our ecological burden on the planet could pay dividends in development, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

That message is still true, but 20 years on, I find it heartening to see that the planet's younger generations appear ready to accept what might seem to be an inconvenient truth: the citizens of the 21st century, to judge by membership of environmental organizations (often greater than membership of political parties), no longer expect their governments to act alone on their behalf to create a sustainable and more equitable society.