"I do not like the word sustainability"

The Danish minister of energy and environment, Svend Auken , is widely respected for promoting environmental policies which honour the interests of both developing and industrialised countries. Auken spoke to Gert Lynge Srensen on how the notion of environmental space could help achieve solidarity

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

On the concept of environmental space (that refers to the establishment of certain limits in the use of raw materials, land, water resources and carbon dioxide emissions) and on how it could be enforced in a political sense:
In Denmark, the concept is part of the official environmental policy. Ideologically, it is accepted as an attitude that would extend the notion of solidarity to future generations and different regions of the world. Practically, we use it in our predictions of, say, the amount of energy we need and thereby the amount of carbon dioxide (co2) and other greenhouse gases we will be emitting. It gives one an idea of the safe limits of emission that could be allowed.

We also use it to accept the fact that great differences exist in the use of the world's resources today. And that we in the West must do a great deal more than developing countries, to avoid the collapse of the ecosystem.

The Danish branch of Friends of the Earth has predicted that in the year 2010, the average European will be entitled to 10 km of travel by air, 25 km by car and 65 km by bus on a daily basis, in order to remain within his environmental quota. These levels will severely restrict our standards of living and personal freedom. On how Auken is going to convince European colleagues and citizens about enforcing these restrictions:
Although I admire the work done by non-governmental organisations (ngos), I will not use that as a mathematical exercise. The political use of the notion of environmental space basically means that we seriously take up the call of the Rio summit to the rich countries to transfer technological knowhow and economical assistance to developing nations to help them fight environmental problems.

Therefore, in Denmark we are now increasing development aid from the current one per cent of the gnp to 1.5 per cent in the year 2002. Half of this increased amount will be allocated to the transfer of environmental knowhow. The transfer of technology will be managed in such a manner that in the long run, developing countries will be able to deal directly with their environmental problems without help from foreign experts. A good example of this is a project in India aimed at setting up more wind mills based on Danish technology. India is now in a position to establish wind mills on its own with minimum assistance from us.

But the demands made by the industrialised world on the developing world with regard to the maintainence of environmental standards should be more fair. For instance, it should be just as difficult to allow genetically modified organisms to be released in nature to protect biodiversity in the developing world as it is in our part of the globe. We are doing this through the negotiations for a biosafety protocol.

In this context, one more issue that I personally find important is shielding the developing countries from becoming dumpyards for hazardous waste from the North, something that was advocated at the Basel Convention. The practice of doing so is a grave example of bad conduct on the part of the rich industrialised countries. On whether fairness and a more equitable distribution of environmental responsibilities will be possible in the wider international context -- an idealistic approach that you could call 'socialism with a green face':
We can express solidarity by supporting ngos and environmental authorities in the developing countries by providing them technical knowhow. One could also guide them to follow certain environmental and administrative practices to help them avoid the mistakes we have commited in the past. The above would be the short-term approach. The long-term approach is that we -- in the more affluent part of the world -- put in greater efforts at stabilising co2 emissions.

To stabilise emissions at a level of 450 parts per million -- which according to the International Panel on Climate Change is necessary to keep the rise in global temperatures at 2c over the next century -- we in the member-countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, must reduce our emissions of co2 by 50 per cent by the year 2030. This does not necessarily imply that we have to reduce our energy consumption accordingly. In Denmark, we propose to increase the contribution of renewable energy and combined heat and power plants to the energy sector -- from the current level of nine per cent to 35 per cent -- to meet this challenge. The increase of one per cent a year is not out of reach.

Thus, such a manner of applying the concept of environmental space will mean giving the developing countries some time before cuts in energy consumption are enforced. In the mean time, they can further their economic and industrial growth. We recognise the time lapse between industrialised and developing countries to meet the obligations. At the same time I would warn developing countries against using this as an excuse for complacency. In a time frame of may be 20-25 years, they too would have to start reducing their emissions of co2.

My advice is that they start right away in order to achieve growth without the environmental consequences that we have had to face. It is much easier to integrate environmental concern at this stage than it is to have to make sudden changes later.

On whether the concept of environmental space will meet with any success:
Actually, the term environmental space gives the word 'sustainability' a precise meaning. In fact, I do not like that word (sustainability) anymore. It has been used too often to conduct business as usual. One just needs to label one's actions sustainable and everything appears to be alright.

Even though solidarity in the sense of a more equitable sharing of resources may be a difficult proposition before the world today, it may not be the case in the field of environment. There is a greater understanding and acceptance in the international community of the fact that we live on the same planet and share the same 'space'.

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