This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Environment and Sustainable Development
Introducing the Work of the UNU Centre ESD Programme
The Environment and Sustainable Development Programme (ESD) is one of two academic programmes of United Nations University Centre (the other is the Peace and Government Programme).
That the “total amount of human activity must be kept within the limit of capability of the Earth both in the regional scale and in the global scale” is a crucial tenet for solving our environmental problems. When the impact of human activity exceeds sustainable limits, environmental problems inevitably occur.
The Earth imposes two kinds of constraints on human activities: (1) the limitation of finite resource supplies, and (2) the functional capacity of the ecosystem. The first of these constraints is exemplified by an impending crisis in petroleum supply; production will reach a peak within two or three decades, and thereafter suffer a sharp decrease. The latter constraint is set by the quantity of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface, which in turn limits the environmental capacity of local ecosystems and the rate of replenishment of renewable (biological) resources. Pollution occurs when a substance (often the by-product of human activity) exceeds the capacity of the ecosystem to handle it, while ecosystem destruction occurs when a renewable resource (such as wood) is used faster than it can be regenerated.
Environmental problems and economic development are closely connected. Since the Industrial Revolution, and our concomitant massive and growing consumption of mineral and energy resources, human activities have sometimes exceeded the limit of the local ecosystems, and are now threatening to overwhelm even the global ecosystem. Health problems caused by environmental pollution, such as Minamata disease in 1960s, are tragic consequences of our total neglect of environmental capacities.
Economic development can be interpreted by utilizing the concept of “stages of development”, with the development of one country sometimes taking an almost identical route as the earlier development of another country. If the developing countries of today are to avoid the severe pollution problems such as happened in Japan, they may need to consider the introduction of appropriate technologies and environmental protection measures, even though that may mean a slight delay in economic development.
The consumption of non-renewable mineral and fossil-fuel energy resources has been indispensable for economic development, but today we see recognize the eventual depletion of those resources as a real possibility. The advanced countries, which are consuming several times more resources per capita than the world average, must acknowledge their responsibility and clarify their intentions to convert their economic systems to minimize resource and energy consumption.
“Environment and sustainable development” is a key concept that provides an answer to the question how humankind coexist harmoniously with the earth and with nature. Although the influence of global warming on the climate is still subject to controversy, it seems clear that the earth is now becoming more unstable and variable. Natural disasters, such as the tragic earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean region in December 2004, and the spread of infectious diseases such as SARS and avian influenza are in the headlines. The loss of the human life by natural disasters normally exceeds the loss caused by environmental problems such as exposure to manmade toxic chemicals.
In recognition of the above concerns, the UNU Centre ESD Programme focuses its activities on four broad themes:
(1) Natural resources management,
(2) Water crisis and disaster,
(3) Environment governance and information, and
(4) Sustainable urbanization and industry.
We, the members of UNU Centre ESD Programme, strive to contribute to the mission of United Nations University: to function as a think tank while maintaining a close relationship with international academia, and serving as a platform for innovative ideas that can be utilized to build capacity, particularly for developing countries.
7 January 2008