The European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development, July 2001

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Series Details 14.7.01
Publication Date 14/07/2001
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Date: 14 July 2001

At its meeting in Gothenburg (Göteborg) in June 2001, the European Council adopted the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development. This strategy requires that ecological issues be given the same weight as social and economic issues in any formulation of future EU policies. Every year at the spring meeting of the European Council, the representatives of the Member States will report on the progress of the strategy. The new strategy will concentrate on four themes:

  • Climate
  • Transport
  • Health
  • Natural resources

An integral part of this strategy will be the Sixth Environment Action Programme.

The European Union's work in promoting sustainable development needs to be seen in the context of other international, regional and national activities initiated by the United Nations.

The term 'sustainable development' was first coined by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 5-16 June 1972. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Bruntland Commission) brought the idea of sustainable development onto the international agenda and provided the most commonly used definition:

development to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

In 1989 a UN Resolution called for an international conference on this subject.

In 1992 about 180 countries met at the 'Earth Summit' (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) in Rio de Janeiro to discuss how to achieve sustainable development. The Summit agreed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which set out 27 principles supporting sustainable development. It agreed a plan of action, Agenda 21, and a resolution that all countries should produce national sustainable development strategies. It also set up the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development to ensure effective follow-up, to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at local, national, regional and international level. In the same year the European Union's fifth environmental action programme 'Towards sustainability', was adopted. It aimed to integrate environmental concerns into other policy areas in order to achieve sustainable development.

In 1997, a special UN conference (Rio+5) was organised to review the implementation of Agenda 21. This repeated the call for all countries to have sustainable development strategies in place - in particular by the time of the next review in 2002. The United Kingdom had been among the first to respond with its 'Sustainable development: the UK strategy' in 1994. In 1999, the Labour Government in the UK launched a new strategy 'A better quality of life: a strategy for sustainable development in the UK'. Other national strategies can be seen on the UNED Forum's Earth Summit 2002 web-site.

Both the United Nations and the European Union have been working towards sustainable development strategies throughout the nineties. The European Commission's fifth Environmental Action Programme (1993-2000), entitled 'Towards sustainability', differed from previous programmes in that it set longer term objectives and focused on more global issues.The Amsterdam Treaty, 1997, made sustainable development one of the main objectives of the EU. Article 6(3c) of the EC Treaty explicitly mentions the need to integrate protection of the environment in all Community sectoral policies. The EU is also committed to producing a sustainable development strategy for the Rio+10 Summit in South Africa in 2002 that is being held as follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) and the Rio+5 summit in New York in 1997.

Sustainability 21 Conference
One of the three advisory bodies set up under the EU's fifth environmental action programme was the European Consultative Forum on the Environment and Sustainable Development.In November 1999, the Forum and the Finnish National Commission on Sustainable Development, in co-operation with the European Environmental Advisory Councils, organised the Sustainability 21 Conference, at which the European Union was urged to draw up a comprehensive sustainable development strategy by 2001 and the European Council was urged to put sustainable development high on the agenda of the next European Council meeting. The Helsinki European Council (December 1999) then invited the European Commission to prepare a proposal for 'a long-term strategy dovetailing policies for economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development' in time for the Gothenburg European Council in June 2001.

Consultation Paper
In a speech to Friends of Europe on 21 January 2001, Margot Wallström, European Commissioner for Environment, set out the two principles guiding the Commission in its vision of a sustainable Europe:

  • The first principle is that sustainable development is concerned with the welfare of both present and future generations. Too often, if a policy has benefited us in the short-term, we have turned a blind eye to its long-term repercussions.
  • The second principle is that we should base our actions on an holistic analysis of the links and synergies between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of our policies. Too often, our economic policies have been designed with no consideration for their environmental or social consequences . . . For example, subsidies to agricultural practices that are bad for the environment and cost consumers.

As a first step, the Commission opened up discussion on the subject with its Consultation paper for the preparation of a European strategy for sustainable development, issued on 30 March 2001. Six trends were identified as potential threats to sustainable development:

  • Climate change
  • Potential threats to public health
  • Reduction of natural resources and loss of biodiversity
  • Poverty and social exclusion
  • Ageing population
  • Congestion and pollution from current patterns of transport

The paper also pointed out some common obstacles: policy making which focuses on a specific area, while ignoring the bigger picture, can mean that policies work against each other; short-term approaches are often responses to crises which have been a long time developing; incentives can encourage production and consumption. A change in behaviour is critical to achieving sustainable development. The main features of the paper can be seen in the Executive summary . Public hearings took place on 26-27 April 2001, allowing some stakeholders (businesses, trade unions, NGOs, academics) to express their views on the consultation paper and contribute to shaping the Commission's final proposal and the European Council's conclusions. The overall time for public consultation, however, was very short (one month) and the opportunity for creating public awareness and generating debate at a local level was lost. Also in April (23-24), the European Consultative Forum on the Environment and Sustainable Development held a workshop in Stockholm 'Towards a sustainable Europe in a global society - visions, knowledge and implementation'.

Proposed strategy
The second stage of the process was the preparation of a Commission proposal 'A sustainable Europe for a better world: a European Union strategy for sustainable development' (COM (2001)264 final (15 May 2001)) for the European Council in Gothenburg in June 2001.

In a speech to the European Parliament on 15 May 2001, Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, said:

The real challenge of a sustainable development policy is to ensure that economic growth, social cohesion and environmental protection can go hand in hand
European Commission: Speech: SPEECH/01/221, 15 May 2001

And, the following day, he said:

Sustainable development is not a choice. It's an imperative. We must do everything possible, even if this means making some sacrifices during the period of change and transition. What is at stake is leaving our children, grandchildren and future generations a world worth living in, with a more just society and a healthy clean environment. This is a duty in which we must not fail.
European Commission: Press Release: IP/01/710, 16 May 2001

Six potential threats to sustainable development were mentioned in the consultation paper. For two of them (poverty and social exclusion and the implications of an ageing society), measures have already been agreed by the European Council in Lisbon, March 2000. The proposed strategy, therefore, concentrate on these four areas:

  • Limiting climate change and increasing the use of clean energy
  • Addressing threats to public health
  • Managing natural resources more responsibly
  • Improving transport systems and land use

Detailed measures for each of them are set out in the Commission's proposed strategy.

Gothenburg Summit
The European Council, meeting at Gothenburg in June 2001, adopted the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development.

First, it agreed to a sustainable development strategy on the basis of the Commission's proposal that the environmental dimension of sustainable development be on a par with social and economic developmentSecond, it endorsed the Commission's view that sustainable development requires a more integrated approach to policy developmentThird, it recognised the global dimension of sustainable development and committed the EU to an international leadership role in the run-up to the Rio+10 conference in 2002.

Although not all the specific measure contained in the Commission's proposal were mentioned in the Presidency Conclusions, the European Council invited the Council of Ministers to examine them for the purpose of implementing the strategy. While confessing to being disappointed that the Gothenburg conclusions were not more specific on concrete actions to promote sustainable development, Margot Wallström concludes:

  • Gothenburg marks the start of a process, not the end. The Commission and the European Council will from now on consider progress in sustainable development every year.
  • This process will still present us with many challenges, and when I say 'us' I mean environmental policy makers who will have to feed this process.
  • We are also all aware, I believe, that sustainable development is not something for public policy alone. Policy has a critical responsibility in setting the right framework conditions and bringing its own decisions into line with sustainability objectives.
  • However, it is individual citizens, business and local initiatives and authorities who will have to make the necessary changes in production and consumption patterns.
  • Without a broad mobilisation of society the goal of sustainable development will remain elusive.
  • Also in that sense the Gothenburg conclusions are a starting and not an end point.
    European Commission: Press Release: SPEECH/01/295, 18 June 2001

World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
On 6 February 2001, the European Commission adopted a communication Ten years after Rio: preparing for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 (COM(2001) 53). It sets out priorities and actions for the EU in preparation for this event and proposes four strategic objectives:

  • Increased global equity and an effective global partnership for sustainable development
  • Better integration of environmental and development at the international level
  • Adoption of environmental and development targets to revitalise and provide focus for the Rio process
  • More effective action at national level and stronger international monitoring

In an accompanying Press release (IP/01/167) the Commission stresses the need for an effective EU contribution to the Summit. The new European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development and the Sixth Environment Action Programme are both important elements of this contribution.

Further information within European Sources Online:

European Sources Online: Topic Guides

  • The environmental policy of the European Union

European Sources Online: In Focus

  • Convention on Climate Change, Bonn, 25 October - 5 November 1999
  • European Commission adopts Sixth Environmental Action Programme, 24 January 2001
  • European Council, Stockholm, 23-24 March 2001
  • European Council, Gothenburg, 15-16 June 2001

European Sources Online: Financial Times

10.05.01: OECD calls for action on climate change
17.05.01: Brussels push for sustainable development
18.06.01: EU still stands behind Kyoto emissions pact

European Sources Online: European Voice

19.04.01: Wanted: a global guide for humanity
21.06.01: Belgian presidency must bear fruits of Göteborg labours
12.07.01: Profit and preservation: Swedes lead by example

Further information can be seen in these external links:
(long-term access cannot be guaranteed)

European Council, Gothenburg, 15-16 June 2001

Sweden: EU Presidency

European Commission: DG Environment

European Commission. European Consultative Forum on the Environment and Sustainable Development

European Commission: DG Press and Communication: SCADPLUS

European Parliament: Fact Sheets

BBC News

13.06.01 Analysis: Gothenburg's place in history
16.06.01 Q&A: Gothenburg aftermath: what has the summit achieved?
18.06.01 Analysis: Gothenburg's legacy

European Commission: DG Press and Communication

10.02.00 Margot Wallström: The future of European environmental policy: the way towards sustainable development (SPEECH/00/33)
13.04.00 Christopher Patten: Sustainable development and governance: the Reith lecture, London, 30 March 2000 (SPEECH/00/140)
26.01.01 Margot Wallström: Sustainable development - a new vision for Europe? (SPEECH/01/24)
10.05.01 Margot Wallström: Sustainable development and the environment: the challenges facing the EU (SPEECH/01/201)
15.05.01 Romano Prodi: Sustainable Europe for a better world: a European strategy for sustainable development - the Commission's proposal to the Gothenburg European Council (SPEECH/01/221)
17.05.01 Pedro Solbes comments on 'Sustainable development' at the OECD Ministerial Meeting in Paris (MEMO/01/184)
18.06.01 Margot Wallström: The results of the Göteborg European Council with respect to sustainable development and climate change (SPEECH/01/295)
03.07.01 Margot Wallström: Report on the European Council in Göteborg. Statement to the European Parliament on behalf of the Commission (IP/01/325)

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

United Kingdom. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

United Nations: United Nations Environment Programme

United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

United Nations. World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 2002

UNED Forum. Earth Summit 2002: building partnerships for sustainable development

Green Spider: the European Environmental Communication Network (informal network of European environment ministries)

The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe

World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development Gateway

Further and subsequent information on the subject of this week's In Focus can be found by a search in European Sources Online: insert 'Sustainable development' in the keyword field.

Freda Carroll
KnowEurope Researcher
Compiled: 14 July 2001

At its meeting in Gothenburg in June 2001, the European Council adopted the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development. This strategy requires that ecological issues be given the same weight as social and economic issues in any formulation of future EU policies.

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