Geneva and sustainable development

Dr Katharina Kummer Peiry

Dr Katharina Kummer Peiry
Principal, Kummer EcoConsult (Switzerland)

Dr Katharina Kummer Peiry has been a staff member of the Swiss Agency of Environment and Head of the Section of Environmental Affairs in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as working for UNEP. Dr Kummer Peiry is the author of International Management of Hazardous Wastes: The Basel Convention and Related International Rules (1995) and is a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law. She teaches international environmental law at the University of Bern.

An expert view

The three pillars of sustainable development : Where do we stand after 20 years?

a factory

The challenge for the future will be to ensure the stability of sustainable development as a whole rather than focusing on a specific pillar.

When I first arrived at the UNEP offices in Nairobi as a young Swiss lawyer recently recruited, I noticed stickers on some of the office furniture proclaiming, «I am for sustainable development». Never having come across this expression before, I was not quite sure what it meant, but was reluctant to ask, for fear of appearing ignorant. This was in 1988, one year after the publication of the groundbreaking Brundtland Report. Today, nearly 20 years later, there is hardly a high school student or regular newspaper reader who is not familiar with this term. Sustainable development appears in virtually every political discourse addressing the state of the world. An international summit at the highest political level and uncountable conferences and workshops have been devoted to the promotion of the concept. It has been the subject of extensive research in the scientific, economic and legal fields, with each discipline developing its own working definition. This is one indication of how far we have come in the past 20 years - an achievement not to be underrated.

Such widespread recognition is a very important step in promoting sustainable development, but obviously not the final one. There have been increasingly frequent calls in the political arena to move from words to action - justifiably so. But looking at recent developments, we see that here too, considerable success has been achieved. Today, most multinational companies have sustainability strategies and publish regular sustainability reports. The Dow Sustainability Index determines the sustainability leaders in different domains of industrial activity. Sustainability foundations have been established and sustainability prizes awarded. Firms invest in environmental and social projects at their sites of operation. All this would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

The image most commonly used to describe sustainable development is that of three pillars, representing environmental protection, social development and economic growth, which together support the roof. As sustainable development is historically a product of the environmental discussion, the focus has long been on strengthening the environmental pillar, perceived as the weakest of the three. With considerable progress achieved in this respect, the challenge for the future will be to ensure the stability of the building as a whole rather than focusing on a specific pillar. This requires partnerships between the builders of each pillar: international organizations and government agencies responsible for environmental protection, social welfare, and economic development; NGOs working toward environmental and development goals; and the private sector, which has in recent years become active in strengthening pillars other than the economic one.

Anyone who has ever attempted to build such a partnership will recognize that it is anything but an easy task. International organizations, NGOs and private companies each have different institutional set-ups and different manners of working and communicating. Mutual prejudices built over the past decades still linger. Nevertheless, the number of partnerships created in Geneva to promote sustainable development is remarkable. They are tangible evidence that we are indeed moving from words to action.