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Sustainable development

Our knowledge of the natural world has raced far ahead of our wisdom in using it. As a result, we are razing our forests, grinding down our mountains, siphoning off our rivers, paving our plains, modifying our climate, polluting our air and tainting our blood. We are producing, in other words, a world that none of us wants.

The main challenge we are facing in the 21st century is one of scale. There are four times as many human beings on the planet as there were a century ago, and the world economy is 36 times bigger. This growth has allowed advances in living standards that our predecessors could only have dreamed of, but it has also undermined natural systems in ways they could not have imagined.

Satisfying the projected needs of a constantly growing world population with the economy we currently have is clearly not possible.

The economic model in place in the West — based on fossil fuels, motor vehicles and disposable goods — may have dramatically raised living standards for part of the human population over the last century, but its weaknesses are now beginning to show. Indeed, the global economy cannot expand indefinitely as the ecosystems on which it depends continue to deteriorate.

If the Western model were to become the global model, and if the world’s population reaches 10 billion during the next century as the United Nations projects, the effects would be shocking:

  • If there were one car for every two people in the world in 2050 — as there are in the United States today — there would be 5 billion cars on the roads. Bearing in mind the traffic congestion, pollution, fuel use and land requirements associated with the current global fleet of 500 million cars, the impact of a fleet of 5 billion is hard to conceive.
  • If petroleum use per person were to reach the levels that currently exist in the United States, the world would consume 360 million barrels per day, compared with current production rates of 67 million barrels.
  • If everyone were to follow the typical American diet, 10 billion people would require 9 billion tonnes of grain per year, which would mean the harvest of more than four planets at the Earth’s current output levels.

In contrast to lifestyles that lead to over-consumption, crisis, disaster and instability, scientists have proposed the concept of sustainable development. The term was introduced in 1987 in Our Common Future, a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. The main idea is to improve the lives of people living today without compromising the quality of life of future generations. In simple terms, we need to live and use the planet’s natural and biological resources so that our children and future generations can inherit a planet that has not been irreversibly compromised. The three pillars of sustainable development include economic growth, environmental protection and social equality.

The economy can be maintained in the long term only if it satisfies the principles of sustainability:

  • Fish catches must not exceed the sustainable yield of fisheries.
  • The amount of water pumped from underground aquifers must not exceed aquifer recharge.
  • Soil erosion must not exceed the natural rate of new soil formation.
  • Tree cutting must not exceed tree planting.
  • Carbon emissions must not exceed the capacity of nature to process atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Plant and animal species must not be eliminated faster than new ones evolve.

The new economic model is based on a new design principle involving a shift from the one-time depletion of natural resources to dependence on renewable energy and the continual re-use and recycling of materials. It is a model that promotes solar power, more sustainable transport modes such as bicycle and rail, and the rational and efficient use of energy, water, land and materials.

The main sustainable development challenges are outlined below:

Population – In 2011, the population of the Earth reached 7 billion but is expected to level out at between 10 and 11 billion over the next 50 years. Basic challenges related to population growth will be shortages of drinking water and arable land for food production.

Poverty and inequality – Almost 25 percent of the world’s population are living on less than USD 1 per day. Because inequality continues to be a serious obstacle to sustainable development, the Johannesburg Summit (2002) resulted in a pledge to halve this proportion by 2015, and to halve the number of people suffering from malnourishment.

Food and agriculture – Increased food consumption over the past 30 years may have contributed to lower food prices, but arable land is limited in many regions of the world and the creation of new areas suitable for food production destroys ecosystems. In the future, food should not be produced at the expense of nature, and the current pace of biodiversity loss must be significantly slowed.

Drinking water – The shortage of drinking water in many regions of the world is a major barrier to sustainable development. It is expected that, at the current rate of development, every second person will suffer from a shortage of water by the year 2025. A pledge was made at the Johannesburg Summit to halve the number of people without access to clean water for drinking and basic sanitation by 2015.

Human health – In many cases, deaths in developing countries are avoidable. Humankind should direct greater attention and resources in the coming years to the struggle against diseases. The imminent task is to reduce the mortality rate among children under five years of age by two-thirds and the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters by 2015.

Energy – The consumption of all forms of energy is rising continuously. Improved access to reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources and services and the creation of national energy efficiency programmes are essential over the next 10 to 15 years.

Forests – The world’s forests are disappearing, mainly due to the expansion of agriculture. In the coming years, forest recovery and management will be of the utmost importance.

Climate change – Petrol consumption is constantly rising. Participants at the Johannesburg Summit emphasised the need to ensure the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol and to embark on the required reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries.

Environment and security – Conflicts over natural resources and environmental pollution lead to instability. Addressing environmental problems could be a first step in the general quest for solutions to conflicts.

The successful application of the concept of sustainable development requires:

  • a better understanding of the concept itself;
  • further affirmation of the role of civil society; and
  • the promotion of partnerships between the private and public sectors.

In this context, educators have a specific role in teaching both children and adults about the environment — how it functions, how they depend on it and how they affect it. Children are particularly receptive to such lessons, and the seeds of understanding planted now will produce responsible citizens in the coming generation.

One of the aims of education is to give people the tools they need to become caring and concerned citizens. Teaching students about the environment extends this understanding of citizenship to encompass their responsibilities as inhabitants of the Earth.

At the heart of the National Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Republic of Belarus is a people/environment/economy triad, in which socially inclusive, economically efficient and environmentally friendly development are seen as complementary elements contributing towards the overall goal of meeting the needs of present and future generations.

The strategy outlines a long-term programme for the gradual transition to sustainable development, defining specific areas for reform, measures to achieve strategic objectives, necessary resources and mechanisms, and appropriate management and coordination activities at local, regional, national and international levels.

In keeping with the principles of sustainable development, by 2020 Belarus aims to:

  • use the level of human development as a measure of social, political and economic maturity;
  • improve national welfare by tackling poverty and changing consumption patterns;
  • develop health care, education, science and culture, the cornerstones of intellectual life and factors that contribute to the lasting growth of productive and creative activities and the evolution of the national economy;
  • improve the demographic situation and promote the sustainable development of the community;
  • further the transition to an environmentally friendly, resource-efficient and innovative economy;
  • implement market reforms to meet the requirements of sustainable development;
  • improve the efficiency and competitiveness of the economy;
  • strengthen the relationship between the economy and the environment and build an ecology-centred economic system that operates within the capacities of ecosystems;
  • eliminate wasteful consumption and reduce the use of non-renewable sources of energy while increasing the uptake of renewables and secondary resources;
  • dispose of waste safely and responsibly;
  • develop international cooperation and social partnerships to conserve, protect and restore ecosystems;
  • adopt a green philosophy in the areas of personal life, education, morals and values;
  • ensure that the state plays a leading role in achieving the goals of sustainable development;
  • develop democratic processes and establish an open society based on the rule of law, a market economy and the contribution of civil society; and
  • improve the coordination and effectiveness of government, the private business sector and civil society.

The most important short-term social and economic imperatives for Belarus are to:

  • raise living standards and improve quality of life;
  • fight against poverty;
  • change consumption and production patterns;
  • protect and promote health;
  • improve the demographic situation; and
  • take measures to ensure bureaucratic and civil transparency.

The environmental component of the National Strategy for Sustainable Development involves:

  • monitoring the environment and anticipating potential changes in order to calculate acceptable levels of economic and agricultural activity;
  • planning and carrying out activities that gradually reduce human pressure on the environment and create conditions for restoring natural ecosystems in Belarus; and
  • developing and introducing environmental policies that reflect socioeconomic development objectives within the context of environmental capacity and sustainability.

These environmental objectives are based on the following principles:

  • Every person should have the right to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.
  • Development must ensure the conservation of the environment for present and future generations.
  • Environmental protection should not be seen in isolation, but rather as an integral part of the overall socioeconomic process.
  • Unlike current practice, nature conservation efforts should be at the forefront of economic activity.
  • Socioeconomic development should be aimed at improving quality of life, but within the capacities of ecosystems.
  • Individuals and educational systems need to embrace a green philosophy.

The following non-governmental and civil society organisations are working in the field of sustainable development in Belarus:

  • Centre for Environmental Solutions (NGO):
  • Ecodom (NGO):
  • Nerush (environmental and historical studies NGO):
  • Association of Gomel Children and Youth (ASDEMO) (regional NGO):
  • International Fund for Rural Development:
  • Ekapraekt (international public association):
  • Ekopartnerstvo (international public association)
  • New Eurasia (institution for information and education):
  • ENDO (Mogilev-based environmental NGO)