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Environmental mainstreaming: plugging the gap in sustainable development

16 Dec 2014
Barry Dalal-Clayton, Senior Fellow, International Institute for Environment and Development,
The concept and principles of sustainable development are now firmly embedded in international law and policy and widely referenced in the strategies and plans prepared by developed and developing countries. Yet their wholesale implementation has proven difficult and continues to present major challenges for governments, industry and the global community. One reason is that environment - one of the three pillars of the classic model of sustainable development - remains an externality in most development decisions. The institutions that deal with these issues hardly communicate. Finance dominates development discussions and decisions - we speak, for example, about a dollar per day as the poverty line, providing budget support, and achieving the 0.7% of GDP as a donor aid target. But finance is largely missing from environmental management - only about 1% of national budgets is spent on the environment.

Yet integrating these two concerns has never been more urgent. It is the cornerstone to achieving the goal of a green economy - one of the key themes for Rio+20. Despite the financial crisis, the past two decades have seen rapidly growing economic activity with rising GDP in many countries and increasing foreign direct investment. But, as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) clearly showed, this has been accompanied by rising trends for a swathe of other factors, e.g. population, damming of rivers, consumption of fertilisers and paper, use of water, communication and tourism - all of which have negative environmental impacts. The cumulative effect of such trends is that ecological limits are being breached. In his Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock viewed the world as behaving like an organism. Taking this perspective, we would be justified in diagnosing that our planet's environmental health is in an increasingly critical condition - it is suffering from what we might call 'Environment Deficit Disorder'. There is a clear need to respond, quickly and effectively. For example, infrastructure and agriculture must be climate-proofed, industry must become energy-, materials-, and water-efficient, and poor people’s environmental deprivations must be tackled. The environmental rights of the poor, children and disadvantaged must be recognised and supported. Environmental institutions need to work more closely together with other institutions - for too many of which the environment is treated as an externality.

As useful as the 'outgoing' MDGs may have been in providing a framing focus for development planning and assistance, particular on poverty and health, their environmental foundations have been weak - despite there being clear environmental issues associated with each goal (Table 1)

Table 1: MDG links to the environment
Development Goa
Links to the environment
1. Eradicate extreme
poverty & hunger
The livelihoods and food security strategies of the poor often depend directly on the natural resources available to them (farming, livestock rearing, fishing, etc.)
2. Achieve universal
primary education
As resources become depleted, children spend more time gathering firewood and water or looking for grazing for the family livestock - meaning they have less time for school.
3. Promote gender equality
and empower women
Poor women are susceptible to respiratory diseases caused by indoor air pollution, and they tend to have unequal access to land and natural resources even though they are often responsible for collecting firewood and water and for tending fields.
4. Reduce child mortality Water-related diseases affect children under 5 in particular. Children are also susceptible to malnutrition as yields decline due to soil degradation and erosion.
5. Improve maternal health Indoor pollution and carrying heavy loads of water and firewood over increasingly long distances have adverse affects on women’s health and can lead to complications in pregnancy and childbirth
6. Combat major diseases One fifth of the total disease burden in developing countries may be attributed to environmental risk. Poor urban planning and land use management contributes to the spread of malaria. Declining natural resources force people to migrate and find new ways of earning a living which can contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS
7. Ensure environmental
Unless the current trends of environmental degradation and global threats such as climate change are reversed, it will not be possible to meet the MDGs (or any SDGs that might follow).

Merely agreeing a raft of new SDGs at Rio+20 will not be enough to deliver progress on sustainable development or to release a transition to green economy. Urgent action is needed to ensure that policy-makers, planners, and decision-takers in government, the private sector and civil society fully understand and are convinced that environmental issues matter. And that environment is much broader than climate change which has dominated the international agenda in recent years. They need to show a commitment to act and integrate environmental concerns effectively with economic and social ones in reaching decisions. To help them, they need to receive the necessary environmental information and analysis in a clear and understandable format, and at the appropriate stages in policy and planning cycles, project design and investment processes.

o plug the environmental gap in development, Rio+20 and discussion of new SDGs and green economy must push for urgent and proactive steps to ensure environmental mainstreaming - defined as "the informed inclusion of environmental concerns into the decisions and institutions that drive development policy, rules, plans, investment and action" (2). Experience in many countries shows that such mainstreaming can be catalyzed by a number of drivers and inhibited by a range of constraints. Drivers include, for example, increasing stakeholder awareness and demands, national legislation and regulations, the values of progressive organizations, donor conditions and initiatives, international commitments, environmental disasters such as floods, company business plans and requirements, managing risks and the influence of environmental champions. Common constraints include, for example, lack of political will for change, environment being perceived as an institutional and economic ‘externality’, weak environmental mainstreaming initiatives and precedents to date, lack of data and information on environment-development links, lack of skills and institutional capacity, lack of awareness about available mainstreaming tools, and broader governance constraints. (3).

A large kit of tools and tactics can be harnessed to help with mainstreaming and realizing a green economy: information tools (e.g. impact, economic and financial assessment, social surveys, monitoring and evaluation); approaches supporting planning and organization (e.g. plans, policies, legal frameworks and tools); tools for deliberation and engagement (e.g. community meetings, stakeholder councils); and management tools (e.g. energy and environmental compliance audits, eco-labelling). Key decision-makers need to know which tools are available, how they can help, when to use them, and who they can turn to for help.

To start addressing the challenge of environmental mainstreaming or to add emphasis and impetus to existing efforts, some countries have found it useful to establish a small ‘learning group’ (of national environmental ‘champions’, key leaders and decision-makers from different stakeholders). In Nepal, for example, a national environmental mainstreaming workshop in 2011 delivered a package of recommendations to government to help it prepare for Rio+20 and place the country on a sustainable development footing following years of conflict.

Rio+20 and debate amongst those engaged in discussion on new SDGs must not forget that environmental issues need a real and effective seat at the table in development decision-making and in the institutions that take them.


(1) Irish Aid (2007) Environment and Poverty Reduction. Irish Aid Key Sheet No. 6. Irish Aid, Dublin (available at: http://www.irishaid.gov.ie/Uploads/6%20Poverty%20Reduction.pdf

(2) Dalal-Clayton D.B. and Bass S (2009) The Challenges of Environmental Mainstreaming. Environmental Governance Series No.1, International Institute for Environment and Development.

(3) For more information, see www.environmental-mainstreaming.org