Moving forward responsibly

Course for Sustainability points to alternative development paths for SEE region

May 3, 2009 | By Stefania Romano

Sustainable development and environmental protection are now priority goals for governments worldwide. Improved energy efficiency and increased use of renewable energy sources can help in achieving these goals, but public awareness of the importance of sound resource management is also essential.

The concept of sustainable development (i.e. striking a balance between economic and environmental demands) embraces a number of interrelated global issues such as poverty, inequality, hunger and environmental degradation. According to the Brundtland Report (1987), sustainable development must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The need for sustainability

Concerning the relationship between human beings and the environment, the Industrial Revolution marked an abrupt and dramatic change in patterns of development. Rather than local communities making use of local renewable resources and working the land manually according to the seasons, mass production was made possible with coal-fired machinery. Increased production and transportation capacities led to the appearance of disposable goods, heralding what today has become the complex problem of waste management. Since then, overexploitation of the earth has continued unabated.

The concept of sustainability emerged gradually during the 19th and 20th centuries. Much of Europe was being deforested as a result of clear-cutting: natural forest habitats were being damaged, which in turn led to inferior wood products. As wood was an economic necessity at the time, the need for sustainable forestry management became clear. It was only in the late 1950s and '60s, however, that people grew aware, albeit slowly, of the potential catastrophic effects of technology and economic growth.

The first international symposium to address the issue of environmental protection was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm in 1972 with the participation of 114 nations. A direct result of the conference was the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The World Charter for Nature was adopted by the United Nations in 1982, and in 1992 the UN reaffirmed the 1972 Stockholm declaration by issuing the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. That same year, the Club of Rome — an international association of economists and scientists — published 'The Limits to Growth' (1972), highlighting the unsustainability of existing economic patterns and warning of potentially irreparable damage to the environment. Ten years later, the phrase 'sustainable development' was definitively coined at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Environmental issues are more serious today than ever before and global in scale. Sustainable development is an important approach toward shaping and protecting the environment while securing our future economic prosperity, cultural diversity and social wellbeing. It also implies the full involvement of civil society in the search for viable solutions in a turbulent, high-speed world, driven by overproduction, consumerism and overexploitation of natural resources.

The programme

Since 2003, the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea (IMELS) has promoted the Course for Sustainability, an educational programme for senior officials and business representatives organised with the technical support of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC). The Course for Sustainability has been implemented in partnership with a number of academic institutions and representatives of the private sector, which has ensured its resounding success.

The programme was established in response to a clear need for capacity building through education in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The initial target group was high level officials from various government ministries, but the focus later expended extended to local authorities and business representatives.

The clear mission of the programme is to develop capacity building into a global tool that reaches wider geographical and social target groups. The experience acquired over the years has enabled IMELS and partners to take up the challenge to extend the programme and the concept of sustainable development to both the business sector and local authorities. The programme has also been expanded from CEE to the Black Sea countries, South-Eastern Europe (SEE) and Kazakhstan.

On many occasions, speakers invited to contribute to the Course for Sustainability have told me that they learn as much from the participants' questions as the participants learn from them. One of the programme's real achievements is the opportunity for open exchange. Having being involved in the Course for Sustainability almost from the beginning, I have been privileged to witness the rich variety of expertise and experience contributed by CEE senior government officials attending the programme.

Course for Local Sustainability and Action

While the programme now consists of various types of training, I will focus here on the Course for Local Sustainability and Action, which involves Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Kosovo. In partnership with Venice International University (VIU), the course was designed to meet the needs of local communities in SEE via strengthening of environmental planning and investment.

The VIU campus on San Servolo. Photo: Flickr

The training course took place from November 2-9, 2008 at the VIU campus on the beautiful island of San Servolo. The 35 participants were selected from local communities, national governments (ministries of local self-governance and ministries of environment), associations of municipalities and towns, regional authorities, NGOs and the business community. Representatives of local authorities from Central Asia (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) were also invited.

During the intensive training programme, environmental knowledge was shared and strengthened; networking and communication were promoted among local and national officials and representatives of the business sector; and platforms for discussion were created, paving the way for future cooperation through the alumni network.

The results achieved are tangible: participants have expressed the willingness to participate in future activities, such as seminars, alumni meetings and conferences. Of the various lectures delivered, participants found those on urban sustainability, local-level energy efficiency, and municipal waste management as the most valuable. Participants also highlighted the impact of these lectures in terms of their everyday tasks and activities.

What made this group special in my eyes was the genuine enthusiasm and enterprising spirit: on its own initiative, the group drafted a letter in which they committed themselves to future cooperation in the field of sustainable development. This example illustrates how the sustainability courses are a truly international effort to help train key stakeholders (public and private) to tackle national, regional and global environmental problems.

Why train local authorities?
As many SEE and CEE countries are now EU members, international support for development and reconstruction has weakened, although environmental problems deserve a high place on the political agenda.

The participation of citizens and communities is central to sustainable development. Local authorities have a crucial role to play in enabling communities to become more involved, by encouraging debate and by including citizens in local decision making. Local governments have the important task of revitalising and strengthening community action and motivating individual behaviour in support of common goals. The integration of social, economic and environmental objectives into action at the local level helps communities to prevent conflict and maximise the benefits of local initiatives.

Local officials also occupy a vital role between the national government and citizens, and are responsible for educating and mobilising the public toward promoting sustainable development. National associations of local authorities, towns and municipalities are likewise pivotal in communicating and disseminating information.

Nonetheless, much remains to be done. Closer international cooperation is needed in order to solve environmental problems and tackle the impacts of natural and human-made disasters. The Italian Government has played a proactive role in fostering international cooperation and identifying future threats. As we grow more closely interconnected, we increasingly recognise that our accelerated globalisation process comes at high environmental cost: pollution in India affects air quality in Europe, and a tanker accident in the Black Sea will damage the marine ecosystem in Northern Africa. Today's actions will influence the lives of future generations, just as we have inherited an environment fashioned by the green policies of earlier generations. Our interconnectedness is best illustrated by chaos theory's 'butterfly effect' concept: a butterfly moving its wings in one part of the world will cause a tornado or other weather event in another part of the world.

Governments need to reaffirm their joint commitment to reducing pollution and ending over-exploitation of the planet's natural resources. The international community needs to contribute effectively and in a coordinated manner in guiding the future toward sustainable development. Local communities need to see for themselves how their efforts can facilitate this task, even though sharing responsibility is harder than apportioning blame. Yet with concerted effort, the beauty and wealth of our planet will remain to be enjoyed by both present and future generations.

Stefania Romano is Topic Leader of the Courses for Sustainable Development in the Central Asia, Southern Eastern Europe and Black Sea regions and Head of the Italian Trust Fund at the Regional Environmental Center in Szentendre, Hungary.