Historical archive

Brundtland's speech at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Norway's former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland today gave a speech at the 15th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, 20 years after she lead the World Commission on Environment and Development.

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Mr. Chairman,
Mr. Secretary-General,
Distinguished representatives,

Twenty years ago, the international commission that the United Nations had asked me to establish and chair laid before you its findings based on years of hard work, learning and sharing experience.

The unpretentious looking book was named Our Common Future, which we found fitting since it dealt with nothing less than our common survival, rich countries as well as poor countries.

It came at a point in history when awareness was growing that we share this one world, and that we risked overstepping limits unless we adapted our use of natural resources to the long-term carrying capacity of the planet.

But it was also clear that the vast majority of the world’s population only had a small share in this overuse of our finite resources.

Unequal opportunity and unequal distribution were at the heart of the problem.

The challenge of meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs was moulded by the Commission into the concept of  sustainable development, a new political concept that includes equity and justice, within and between generations.

The Commission based its report on an all-encompassing approach, as we addressed the role of the international economy,

We addressed the issues of population and education, 
food security, biodiversity and ecosystems,
energy, industry and the urban challenge,
the oceans, space and Antarctica,
and we addressed how we need to organise the international community, based on the Charter of the United Nations, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Commission came to the conclusion that abject poverty, which is widespread,
had to be radically reduced before we could speak of progress,
and eliminated before we could claim success.

Poverty is a scar on humanity’s face
Poverty degrades people.
And it degrades the environment.

While the Commission was working, we experienced industrial and nuclear disasters.
The growing threat to the ozone layer.
Famines, drought and an increase in pandemic diseases.
To the surprise of many, the report did not paint a picture of doom or defeat, but presented a strong message of hope. While humankind doubtless had the capacity to destroy the global equilibrium between itself and the biosphere, humankind had never had greater capacities and possibilities to save that fragile relationship.

The world accepted this challenge and went to Rio in 1992.
We experienced the high expectations of the Cairo conference on population,
We listened to the millions of voices demanding freedom and equality at the Beijing women’s conference,
Then, we rejoiced over the triumphs and mourned the defeats at Kyoto.

From there and a multitude of other gatherings, we went to New York, where we adopted the Millennium Development Goals, which together with other development goals will remain our guiding beacon.
And in Johannesburg we expressed our frustrations and impatience, but managed to move the issues forward.

True, there were periods of cooling off and complacency.
But now, 20 years later, fortunately we can safely say that we are making progress in many areas.

Poverty is still our gravest challenge. We are six billion people co-existing on our fragile planet, many of whom are dangerously short of the food, water and the security they need.
Fortunately many countries are experiencing brisk economic growth. In contrast, many countries in Africa find themselves in a vicious cycle of negative growth, suffering on the fringes of the world economy.
But hundreds of millions are leaving the valleys of despair to climb the heights of justice and prosperity, not least in Asia.
This is the single most important expansion of welfare and prosperity in our lifetime,  and probably in all of history.

Girls and women are still discriminated against and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment in many countries and cultures. But trends point in the right direction.  Not least for girls’ education.

And which countries are experiencing the highest growth rates? Those that practice equal opportunities. Gender equality means a competitive advantage.

Access to safe drinking water in developing countries is increasing and the Millennium Development Goal of halving the share of people without access to safe water may be reached globally, but with greater success in Asia than in Africa.

Access to basic sanitation is increasing as well, but not quickly enough to be in line for the MDG of halving the share without access by 2015.

Still, water scarcity, water pollu¬tion and overuse of ground water resources are survival issues in many countries and regions, and many hold that this problem is even more critical than the threat of climate change.

During five of the score of years we are looking back on today, I had the privilege to serve you at the helm of the World Health Organization. Yesterday I took on a new commitment when I accepted the Secretary-General’s request that I become one of his three Special Envoys for Climate Change.

Mr Secretary-General, I pay tribute to you for focussing so strongly on climate change from the very start of your tenure.  Your leadership is essential. We are many who will support you and stand  by you.

Many of the challenges of sustainable development are possible to solve within sectors and countries.

Many such challenges can be solved by individual countries or groups of countries.

But not climate change.
We are all victims.

Nobody can hide from it.

Nobody can buy protection

Theories about the physical effects of CO2 concentrations on the global climate were first presented more than a hundred years ago.
Twenty years ago, in 1985, the World Commission underlined the findings of scientists from 30 countries gathered in Villach, Austria, under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization, UNEP  and the International Council of Science.
According to this forerunner to the IPCC, man-made climate change was possible and plausible.
At the Toronto climate conference in 1988, I took the opportunity to propose that an international convention be established to deal with science, technology transfer and concrete measures to reduce emissions of harmful gases. We signed that convention four years later.
So what is it that is new today?
What is new is that doubt has been eliminated. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear.  And so is the Stern report.
It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation.
The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.

We, the industrialised countries, must assume the largest responsibility. We are the ones who have filled up the atmosphere. We must bear the greatest responsibility for reducing emissions.

We must fight some battles. And overcome some obstacles.

Let me focus on three factors.
Firstly, the effect of climate change will not be felt until long after the necessary political decisions have been taken. 
Secondly, no one nation can solve this problem alone. It has no definable boundaries. It is hard even for the largest country to make a difference on its own.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we are hampered by a deep-rooted lack of trust.
A lack of thrust between the industrialised and the developing countries.
And a lack of trust within groups of countries.
Many industrialised countries believe that the developing countries are unwilling to do anything, and that they are doing too little.
Many developing countries believe that the industrialised world has defaulted on the promise of financial and technology assistance.
Many countries are concerned about costs and competitiveness.
Many are reluctant to undertake obligations that others will escape.

We must be sensitive to such concerns as we move forward. But we should not be blinded or lose faith in the cause. We must build trust, and find common ground.

The countries that have undertaken concrete obligations under Kyoto are only responsible for around 30% of present global emissions. We must have much higher ambitions for the new agreement.

This will require participation of the countries that produce the highest emissions, not just the United States, but also major developing countries. They, too, will have to take on concrete emissions commitments.
The government of my own country is taking on new commitments.

Firstly: to surpass the Kyoto commitments:

• In the period up to 2012 Norway will increase its emission cuts by 10% more than its Kyoto obligations. 


• Norway will cut emissions of greenhouse gases equivalent to 30% of its 1990 emissions by 2020.

But this is not enough.

Greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced much more drastically by 2050.

Rich countries need to become carbon neutral.

Thus, the third commitment is that :

• Norway will undertake to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 100% of its total emissions by 2050. 

These goals will be achieved by implementing substantial measures in Norway and by using the Kyoto mechanisms.

The measures in Norway include the construction of the world’s first gas-fired power plant fitted with a full-scale carbon capture and storage system.

This has never been done before.
It has not even been contemplated before.

When we succeed, we hope we will have the technology that can clean coal-fired plants at a cost that makes it commercially attractive.

Such technology is not only crucial for our climate. It will give us many other benefits locally and regionally, not least for public health.

Such carbon capture solutions applied internationally, in clean development mechanism projects, can generate a trillion-dollar business.

Such projects will lead to technology transfer.
They will lead to substantial financial flows to developing countries.
From new and additional sources of finance, by engaging the private sector.

In short there is a great potential in developing incentives for change and investment.

Developing countries have a right to develop.
Make no mistake, none of us should be asking
developing countries to slow down their ascent towards prosperity.
But they must be enabled to leap-frog the more polluting stages of development that many of us went through in the past.

Today, I believe we are standing on the threshold of a new, green economy.
A low-carbon economy.
Which can rid the world of poverty
And save the climate.
This is our calling.
And it can be done.

We must move forward on a broad front.
We must improve energy efficiency,
increase the use of renewables,
improve agricultural and forestry practices,
and focus on adaptation, in particular for the least developed countries and small island states.

To really make progress we must develop a truly global carbon market, based on an expanding range of clean development mechanisms.

The truly big investment will come when finance ministers and chief financial officers demand emission reductions because they are compelled to pay for their CO2 emissions.

Great achievements often start with a vision that seems to be bordering on madness.

And many of the most important scientific breakthroughs were underrated at first.

How much money was it right to spend on developing the first electric light bulb?

Between 40 and 70 thousand years ago, humankind took up the struggle with the biosphere.
Two hundred years ago we seemed able to control it.
But we turned out to be like the magician’s apprentice.

2007 will be critical.
And political leaders who believe that the world will return to business as usual are in for a rude awakening when their constituencies begin to realise the seriousness of the problem.

We need to start now to build a global regime that will be effective.
Bali will be crucial.

You may think we might fail, but I believe we will not,
because failing is not an option.