The 1990s were characterized by the search for increased understanding
of the concept and significance of sustainable development. This was accompanied
by accelerating trends towards globalization, particularly with regard
to trade and technology. The conviction grew that there were an increasing
number of global environmental problems that required international solutions.
The profile of environmental issues was also increasing in the South as
new organizations began demanding diagnoses and solutions for developing
countries. The Regional Environmental Centre was established in Hungary
in 1990 to address environmental issues in post-Soviet Central Europe.
There was significant action by private industry to put its house into
better environmental shape and explosive growth in the use of the Internet
and electronic communications.
The decade started badly for the environment with the loss of thousands
of lives in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict and a partial black-out over
some of the area as millions of barrels of oil were wilfully ignited (Bennett
1995). For West Asia, this was a major environmental catastrophe. An oil
slick - caused by the release of between 0.5 million to 11 million barrels
of crude oil - is reported to have killed 15 000-30 000 sea birds. In
addition, about 20 per cent of mangroves in the Persian Gulf were contaminated
and 50 per cent of coral reefs affected (Island Press 1999). The atmosphere
was not spared either: about 67 million tonnes of oil were burnt, producing
about 2.1 million tonnes of soot and 2 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide
'The solution cannot be that which bans the development of those
who need it the most; the fact is that everything that contributes
to underdevelopment and poverty is an open violation of ecology.'
-Cuban President Fidel Castro, UNCED 1992
Firemen trying to extinguish a burning oil
rig in Kuwait in 1991
Source: UNEP, Abdel Saurad-Mali, Kuwait, Topham
Elsewhere, while technical progress was transforming
industrialized society, few in the developing world were benefiting. The
death toll from infectious diseases (such as AIDS, malaria, respiratory
diseases and diarrhoea) was 160 times greater than the number killed in
1999 from natural disasters, including earthquakes in Turkey, floods in
Venezuela and cyclones in India (IFRC 2000). The International Federation
of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported that a 1995 survey of
53 countries showed a 15 per cent decline in health spending per person
following economic structural adjustment.
By 1997, near the end of the 20th century, some 800 million people (nearly
14 per cent of the world population) not only went hungry every day but
also lacked the basic skills of reading and writing essential to sustainable
development (UNESCO 1997).
In terms of governance, events of the late 1980s continued to influence
political developments across the globe. No region was immune as dictatorships
and military regimes in Africa and Latin America were voted out of power,
and the single party governments in some European countries were relegated
to opposition benches by a restless electorate. The people had begun to
exercise their right to elect their leaders and demand accountability.
Despite this radical change in terms of governance, there was little immediate
impact on the environment in most countries. In the countries of the former
Soviet Union, however, economic recession helped reduce waste emissions
and energy consumption. Whether such effects will prove only temporary
remains to be seen.
At the institutional level, ideas that had taken shape during the late
1980s, such as multistakeholder participation and increased accountability
on environmental and social matters, were given a higher profile by a
number of international events. The first of these was a ministerial conference
on the environment held in Bergen, Norway, in May 1990, where such ideas
were first formally endorsed. This conference was convened to prepare
for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED or the Earth
Summit) that was held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.