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Twenty years of political commitment to sustainable development? [ Article 20120321 - 16/12/2011]


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The Federal Report on Sustainable Development 2011 has been published to implement the Belgian Act of 5 May 1997 on the Coordination of Federal Sustainable Development Policy. It is the sixth sustainable development report and the first since the 2010 revision of the act. That revision stipulates that a report has to be drawn up during each five-year cycle of the act and that it consists of a status and evaluation part and a foresight part. The 2011 report presents the status and evaluation part. It examines three aspects: sustainable development trends for the past twenty years based on indicators, the Belgian federal sustainable development strategy for 1997-2010, and a series of policy measures selected from the Federal Plan for Sustainable Development

The first part of the report focuses on 25 headline indicators. They measure the evolution of Belgium at the federal level towards sustainable development. The starting point is the 1992 situation at the time of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. By evaluating the trends since then, the report contributes to Belgium's preparation for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), also referred to as Rio+20.

The report shows that the average standard of living in Belgium has increased over the past twenty years, without increasing income inequality. Yet Belgian society faces serious social problems with, for instance, over two million people at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Environmentally, emissions of several pollutants in the air and water show a reduction but the state of environmental resources remains of concern. Economically, progress towards sustainable development means changing unsustainable production and consumption patterns. In this respect, the report points at some decoupling of resource use from GDP and qualifies this as moderate progress.

Ten of the 25 headline indicators of the report were provided with quantitative targets, adopted by policy makers and to be realised before or in 2010. All of these indicators show changes that travel in the direction of their target, but it seems that the target will be attained on time in only two cases (greenhouse gas emissions and the share of renewable sources in energy consumption). The evaluation suggests that the adoption of targets is good practice but that in most cases progress was insufficient (examples: employment rate and public debt). The report also examines the EU 2020 targets and raises the question of whether for Belgium they can be a step in a transition towards sustainable development by 2050. The report concludes that the EU 2020 targets are necessary but not sufficient to achieve the sustainable development goals regarding poverty and climate change by 2050.

The second part of the report evaluates the Belgian federal sustainable development strategy, resulting from a commitment made at the 1992 Rio Conference. Belgium has a well-developed legal framework for sustainable development with plans, reports, interdepartmental consultation, and civil society participation. Also positive is that in the near future a long-term vision with goals and indicators will be added to this. The report notes that the strategy contributes to the development of a monitoring and evaluation practice in the federal public services. Monitoring and evaluation show that after four years' duration of a plan, about half of its measures are implemented and this degree of implementation increases as follow-up continues. Room for improvement exists in systematically including a timetable and providing clear responsibilities for implementing the measures.

The third part of the report describes eighty measures, selected from the more than one thousand measures in the two adopted sustainable development plans, and evaluates their implementation. These measures are related to eleven sustainable development themes: demographic changes, consumption and production patterns, energy, transport, food, public health, poverty, atmosphere, biological diversity, global partnership, and governance. Due to a late policy decision or slow implementation it is too early to conclusively evaluate four of the eleven policy cases (for example, carrying out a sustainability impact assessment of Council of Ministers' decisions). The other seven cases were provided with a sufficient period of time for evaluation. In three cases the goals were not attained despite the implementation efforts (for example, promoting healthy food). In four cases the goals were reached or almost reached (for example, increasing the accessibility of healthcare). In these four cases the policies most likely favoured the realisation of the objectives, although their specific contribution could not be determined.

Finally, the report presents ten recommendations for renewing political commitment to sustainable development. For instance, all federal public services should contribute to the preparation and implementation of the commitments regarding the two Rio+20 themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development. Furthermore, the federal government should adopt a sufficiently differentiated set of very long-term social, environmental, and economic sustainable development goals as well as sufficiently ambitious intermediate objectives.

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