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The 1990s: implementing sustainable development

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 (Bennett 1995).

'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 PicturePoint

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.