“We have to go first”

Twenty years ago, Volker Hauff was a member of the Brundtland Commission, which first popularised sustainable development. Now, he tells Isabel Hilton, it is time for rich countries to show leadership on the environment.

Isabel Hilton (IH): How important is sustainable development in German economic policy? 

Volker Hauff (VH): It has been an issue of increasing importance in Germany, and in all industrialised countries since the Brundtland report, which was published 20 years ago in London, and said that sustainable development should be our idea of growth –  and of the future. The Rio summit on environment and development followed in 1992, in a period of optimism following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everyone was talking about peace dividends, and we looked forward to a peaceful and healthy world.

In Rio, it was decided that we should meet again in 10 years’ time and everyone was to prepare a national sustainability strategy. For the Johannesburg summit in 2002, Germany had prepared a strategy and decided on an organisational framework to implement it, with a “green cabinet” under the head of Chancery and the Commission for Sustainable Development. Now we have growing public awareness and increasing interest in all political parties, departments and government institutions. The really important thing is the intensification of the public debate. It’s important because you won’t get a good result if you rely only on the political decision makers.
IH: Why is that? 

VH: Because it is the consumers who make decisions on what kind of food, which school, what kind of car; they have the power to influence the producers. Without business and civil society, it will be impossible to create sustainable development. There are 12 sustainable development commissions in the European Union, all of them supported by government, but independent of government. They act as a bridge to civil society and to the business and scientific communities, and that is what we really need.

IH: But that raises the question of how much power the sustainable development commissions have against powerful ministries, like Economy, Finance or Industry. Don’t sustainability issues always lose out?   

VH: I’m not so sure, because they have growing public support – and that is our strength. Our commission has no direct power, but we are a pressure group for good arguments, well presented. That’s our power – and it’s growing.

IH: What do you expect the public to do with the arguments, apart from their own decisions about consumption? Are they to make demands on the politicians? 

VH: I think both are very important. They will make their personal decisions: their way of life, their consumption, their lifestyle, how as they lead their companies in business, how they choose which company to work for and what they expect. Businessmen tell us that the best young people say that companies must do more than just pay lip service to corporate social responsibility.

IH: What would you say were the differences between sustainability issues in advanced countries, like Germany, and countries in the global south?

VH: The answer is very simple. If you look at the problem from a global perspective, it’s very clear that if the industrialised countries are not successful in showing that we can have prosperity and peace with lower consumption of energy and natural resources, a better, safer environment and social justice, sustainable development will not be attractive to developing countries. We have to go first, and show that we can do it with our technology and science, with our wealth and resources. Globally, advanced countries have to demonstrate that this is a good basis for the future – or we won’t be able to convince developing countries.

However, we also have to differentiate between developing countries. Some are very poor and need our aid and development assistance. But I would say that countries like China, which is not only able, but is also actually building atomic weapons – we can’t say that they are too poor for sustainable development.

IH: So you wouldn’t say that a large transfer of resources or technology ought to be a condition of sustainable development in such countries?

VH: It is a prerequisite, but not on the basis of just delivering the technology for nothing – there has to be a fair transaction in technology transfer. Industrialised countries have to be fair, but receiving countries also should pay fairly for what they are getting.

IH: In Europe and Germany, what are the main obstacles to this kind of transaction, which other countries might want to emulate?

VH: You need to understand the whole process – and we are at the very beginning. I expect this will be the issue in international relations and development for the rest of our century. We must understand that we need many more steps to achieve   sustainable development. We need better public understanding, clear communication and understanding in political institutions that this mission requires modern management tools. It requires political, business, civil society and scientific decisions; it is really a public/private partnership.

Take energy policy, for example – the really outstanding issue in sustainable development. We need a better understanding of where we can rely on market forces, what regulatory changes we need and where taxation can be used as the instrument; we need to understand where voluntary agreements with industry will work and where it makes sense to let competition set the benchmarks and define best practice.

It’s fine to say that we will increase energy efficiency and productivity by 3% a year, but how do you reach it? What is the role of industry and other elements – the power producers, those who make domestic appliances and industrial machines? If you want to be sure of a 3% increase, you have to define everybody’s contribution – and monitor and control it. You have to define the date, who is collecting the data and what are the milestones. You can’t just say, “We will increase efficiency by 20% by 2020.” That doesn’t make sense – I don’t believe in such figures. The real challenge to our political institutions is to create adequate, modern management tools for this kind of public/private partnership.  

IH: But industry argues that this kind of thing puts them at a competitive disadvantage. 

VH: One hears it from time to time, but you also hear about well-functioning, profitable companies – in the energy sector, in recycling, in wind power and so on. I find it very interesting that in the United States, the CEOs of the biggest companies called on the government to be more active and clear about carbon emissions – the picture is a little more colourful than you say. There is the old-fashioned way – the way the Bush administration is handling the issue – doing nothing and telling industry not to bother. But business leaders also see that energy efficiency is not a luxury, it is a pure necessity – for the insurance companies, for instance, who are having to pay out more because of natural disasters caused by climate change.

Ten or 20 years ago, you had the NGOs and idealists telling industry that they weren’t doing enough and industry ignoring them. Today, you have a much better understanding in the NGOs about how to compromise and have an effect, and much more willingness in industry. Take the case of Lufthansa, for example: for more than 10 years, they refused to act on carbon emissions, now they are offering a ticket that allows you to finance the carbon dioxide equivalent of your flight.

IH: But offsetting, of course, is a controversial area.

VH: Yes, but the question is not whether it’s the best solution. It’s about people thinking about what they can do – thinking that they have to do something. Ten or 20 years ago, industry just said, “No, it’s too expensive, it doesn’t make sense.” Today, the debate is much more open.  

IH: A great deal of the world’s manufacturing is now in India and China. How do we apply best practice to those manufacturing industries there, whose products we use? 

VH: The message has already reached the Chinese government: they published a report saying their annual GDP is reduced 3% a year through environmental damage – obviously, they know the arguments. China has very serious problems in its cities.   It’s creating immense health problems and they are now starting to change. They are in the position we were 15 years ago, taking steps to control sulphur emissions. Now we are starting to control CO2 and China will soon realise it is in their own interest to take much more action. We should be open to how to help them. 

Volker Hauff is chairman of the German Commission on Sustainable Development, and was a member of the 1987 Brundtland Commission.



Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue. Homepage photo by Claudecf