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Environmental achievements

The policies articulated in documents such as the Stockholm Declaration and Programme of Action, the World Conservation Strategy, Our Common Future, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, have driven the environmental agenda in the period 1972-2002. Binding legal regimes - some from before 1972 - now form the body of international environmental law, providing the appropriate muscle necessary to encourage compliance. Along with the policies and legal framework, the past three decades have also seen a proliferation of environmental institutions across public and private sectors, and civil society in general. Ministries or departments of environment are now common in all regions. Sustainable development and environmental standards have become part of the lingua franca of major corporations, with many now making annual environmental reporting part of the corporate agenda. Civil society has come of age, recording many successes at different levels - from community to the international level. Some of the successes that have been achieved since 1972 include the following:

  • Addressing stratospheric ozone depletion is notable victory for global environmental governance. However, it needs continuing vigilance.
  • Concern over levels of common air pollutants has resulted in encouraging reductions in many countries, achieved through specific policy measures, including emissions and air quality standards, as well as technology-based regulations and different market-based instruments.
  • More holistic approaches to land management, such as integrated plant nutrition systems and integrated pest management, have been introduced with positive results for the health of agricultural ecosystems in some regions.
  • Freshwater policies have begun to move away from a riparian rights focus and towards exploring efficiency improvements and river basin management. Integrated water resources management is now widely accepted as a strategic policy initiative.
  • A new theoretical understanding of the benefits of ecosystem services has emerged but, in practice, information and policy instruments to protect these have been lacking or sporadic.
  • There has been a recent evolution from 'end-of-pipe' approaches to goals for sustainability and a modest shift to a more integrated approach to environmental policies and management, focusing on the sustainability of ecosystems and watersheds, for example, rather than on sustaining yields.
  • It is now recognized that poverty reduction, economic development and environmental stability should be mutual goals. This breaks with the old thinking prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s which regarded environmental protection and economic development as conflicting aims.
  • Prosperity and an informed and active civil society have been key drivers of policies to address various environmental problems that became apparent early in the 30-year period in developed nations. Ambient air quality and point-source water pollution have been addressed satisfactorily in many areas; recycling has become more common; wastewater treatment has improved; pulp-and-paper industry effluents have declined and hazardous waste threats have been reduced. Protected areas have been increasingly set aside for conservation and recreation.
  • Successes in the developing world have been mixed: there has been a growing democratization and participation process positively underpinning environment-development in some regions, with a growing civil society awareness of the debate.
  • A natural 'cluster' of biodiversity policies is emerging, of which the CBD is the core regime, but which also includes a host of other treaties and initiatives such as CITES, CMS and the Ramsar Convention.
  • Technological change has helped to relieve some environmental pressures: lower material intensity in production; a shift from materials and energy supply to the provision of services; a modest boost in renewable technology; and a significant clean-up in some regions in previously 'dirty' industries.
  • In recent years, risk reduction has been placed higher on political agendas, and response mechanisms and early warning systems have been strengthened.

An overall observation is that many of the policies mentioned in this chapter have either no clearly defined and specific performance criteria or the criteria are not readily related to environmental performance. This is true of, for example, economic policies related to taxation, trade and investment. Although some of them have significant links to environmental issues (in some cases, they are key drivers of environmental change), their built-in evaluation criteria are usually limited to economic performance. This has made their evaluation particularly challenging from an environmental and sustainable development perspective.