This is the transcript of a video interview produced and directed by Michael O'Callaghan at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, in 2002.
Full transcript (3,597 words, slightly edited for clarity).
© 2002-2019 Global Vision Foundation.
Achim Steiner is Director-General of IUCN - The World Conservation Union (, based in Gland, Switzerland. IUCN played a major role at World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 2002, where it hosted 10 days of workshops, seminars and multi-stakeholder dialogues on global environment and development issues. .
What do you think about about the progress or lack of progress in the 10 years since the first Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992?

I think you need to look at Rio in two ways. Rio for the first time created a new commitment amongst governments to look for a new way of trying to work together to address global environmental challenges and development challenges. What we have seen since Rio is a very slow attempt by governments to construct new ways of working together on issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, desertification. And if you think of the fact that 180 nations are trying to develop a new relationship, it probably is not surprising that after 10 years we don't have major breakthroughs yet, however frustrating that is to those of us who know the urgency to act.

But, what has also happened since Rio is that you have NGOs, community groups, local authorities, businesses, beginning to develop literally hundreds of thousands of initiatives across the world, and that to me is the real story of Johannesburg: that there are people out there who are proving that sustainable development is a doable concept, and they are realising it often in completely new forms of partnership also. And I think this is really, to me, the consolation of Johannesburg. Even if the summit itself is not delivering great new initiatives and leaps forward, around the summit people are doing precisely that.

You can see why so much is happening around the sustainable development agenda when you look at the private sector moving it, the NGOs moving, and then you see the difficulties of the inter-governmental process in actually moving things forward. And I think what we've seen here in Johannesburg is probably a very interesting thing: that the leadership, at the moment, on sustainable development issues is not coming from governments, because they are caught up in trying to construct a new international framework, and that's been caught up in the whole trade debate. Meanwhile you have at this summit here, you know, some of the world's leaders, pioneers, doers - from community groups, NGOs, business, science - who are actually showing how it can be done, and who have been doing it since Rio! And I think that's a major message, there are two summits going on here.

How do you feel about the European Union's response to all these challenges?

If you look at what is happening within Europe from an environmental point of view, there are some encouraging developments. For instance the new Water Directive that the EU has developed in recent years really takes on many of the lessons about the fundamentals of water resources management as being part of an ecosystem approach. Similarly the attempts to reform the Common Agricultural Policy - trying to turn farmers not into maximising grain production only but really being landscape managers and in some ways also in the long run conservers of biodiversity - you see some positive developments. At the same time you have the contradictions of the subsidies continuing to be an issue, where the European Union is not moving fast enough. You have an issue that basically we are subsidising the depletion of fish resources around West Africa because of fisheries fleets being subsidised by the European Union and essentially fishing the waters around West Africa to the point where local communities no longer have the resources they need to survive.

What about the trade and corporate aspects? The corporations want voluntary standards and agreements. Do you think that would work, or do you think legislation is required?

You see a slightly contradictory set of messages. One the one hand, I think business has realised that - particularly if it wants to operate on a global marketplace - it actually does need good governance, it needs good legislative frameworks. And therefore, you have people like Sir Mark Moody-Stuart [former chairman of Royal Dutch / Shell], who is the spokesperson for business here at the summit, arguing actually for legislation, for good governance frameworks. At the same time, corporations intuitively would not like to be told what to do, and I think they will have to figure out how they balance these two interests. Because you either operate within a legal framework and you accept what society believes are acceptable ways of operating as a business, or you stand outside that and take advantage of loopholes. But sooner or later those catch up. And the reason why you see a lot of big business at this summit here is that they have realised that their business case relies to some extent on understanding how they are going to come to grips with, on the one hand, environmental issues, but also the social inequity issues: from indigenous people to poverty to how they benefit the communities within which they operate.

How can we address the huge challenge of making our cities more sustainable? Half the world now lives in cities, and mega-cities like Berlin, Mexico City or Sao Paolo have huge ecological footprints and are very unsustainable. Is there real hope that we can contract that footprint?

It's an interesting question because in some ways cities are a threat to the environment and in an other sense they can also be at least an interim relief on pressure. Because today the greatest threat to biodiversity is in fact the loss of habitat. And the urban sprawl that you see in many countries is a significant part of that threat, and therefore also the footprint that cities leave behind. The dimension of the problem is escalating rapidly. If you think of India, for example, in the next 20 to 30 years I think more than 280 million people will be added to the cities of India. That's the entire population of the United States and Canada, almost, put together!

If you think of those dimensions you realise that cities will have to re-think their approach to managing both the in-take of resources and also the output of waste and products that have to be put somewhere once the cities spew them out again. And I think here we are seeing many of the local authorities, the city councils, beginning to be perhaps the most important actors on the front line of sustainable development. I'll give you just one example. There are choices that cities can make: New York had a choice not so long ago of building additional plants for the purification of water, or to invest in the watersheds North of New York in order to be able to be able to generate the kind of clean water they needed. And instead of building new plants and putting new infrastructure in, they could do natural water management schemes at a fraction of the cost, and yet also - by protecting landscapes and watersheds - deliver enormous biodiversity benefits! So there are many choices: public transport, waste management, water recycling. A city like Johannesburg recycled some parts of its water seven times today: that is a factor of seven times less water wasted.

We're still spending astronomical levels of money on defence, and the military people in the United States and other countries don't seem to understand the real eco-social threats to our security. We - the global taxpayers - are making the weapons industry extremely wealthy when a fraction of that money would solve most of the underlying environmental, economic and social threats that lead to wars in the first place. How do you think we can address this problem? Do you see any signs that military people are beginning to re-define security?

It's difficult to know. You will always find in the military establishment within governments, those who actually look ten, twenty, thirty years ahead. And I think you can realise today already, if you go to the web site of the CIA, there's a significant amount of environmental information on there because environmental issues are part of stability, of livelihoods, whether it's at the level of an individual household or a community or a nation. I think from that point of view, the military is paying attention to it, but more from a coping strategy rather than from a security agenda, where sustainable development is in a sense a pre-emptive approach to minimising conflict. And you need to look at security and environment also from different perspectives: an individual, a household has a very different definition of livelihood security than, for example, a nation that shares a river with a number of other countries. And I think what we are seeing at the moment is a significant number of initiatives to try and reduce the potential for conflict that arises from, for instance, water resources. I'll only give you one example that the World Bank, the United Nations system and all the riparian countries of the Nile basin have taken - for the first time in literally thousands of years of history - to sit down together and talk about how to use that river collectively. And that is a significant step in the direction of avoiding an environmental resource becoming a source of conflict. But you can turn to many other parts of the world, and very quickly you will see that land, access to water, forests, biomass, are increasingly a source of friction because, you know, with six billion people, you have a very completely different set of options available for using those resources. And the more people we are, the more clever we have to become in managing them, and that has to do also with reducing the potential for conflict.

What about the Hydrogen transition? Amory Lovins said that the stone age didn't end because the world ran out of stones, it ended because we discovered metal. Many people now see hydrogen fuel cells as the feasible alternative to petroleum and the combustion engine. Do you think that will happen?

Yes, I think so. In some ways it's remarkable it hasn't happened earlier. But that is part of the way our system of economics works. Until the price reaches such a level that you are driven to innovate - to invest in new technologies and new production mechanisms - you do not see these innovations come forward. I think we already at this summit here have seen some of the major car manufacturers showing off what could be a new approach to mobility in terms of vehicles. I think the hydrogen economy in general is an inevitability because we know that fossil fuels will run out, and we also know that the impacts of climate change are so significant that other options need to be found. But the Hydrogen economy is also viewed sometimes by individual industries as merely a way of retaining the same model of transport. And I think this is where, in the next few years, you will also see a change in perception by societies. How much more do we want to spend time in traffic jams? Is individualised transport the only way of doing it? So alongside technology changes also will come changes in approaches to mobility, to transport, to production.

Climate change, and the rate of change of climate change: there is some possibility that the melting Arctic icecap may divert the Gulf stream away from Northern Europe, making Ireland and the UK snowbound for most of the year. What do IUCN scientists feel about this? How urgent is the threat? Do we know anything much about it?

Well we know as much as I think the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been able to establish, and we very much benefit from the work they have done. What we are looking at in particular is what are the implications of climate change on biodiversity, from the point of view of habitat? Because if, for example, the Gulf Stream does shift, you have a change in climate, in microclimate, you have a change in landscape, it will affect species composition. Species composition is essentially the functionality of ecosystems, the diversity of life. So we are looking at the implications of that, which can be very significant. We could have a fundamental change in vegetation. Some of that vegetation may be essential for communities to survive in that landscape, particularly when you look at areas such as the Sahel, where a small change or the loss of a few species could mean that the entire base for survival is lost. In other areas you may have gains; the difficulty will be in how to adapt to that. This is an area that we are focusing on. How, in terms of managing the natural environment that we have available to ourselves today, how do we adapt and to some extent prepare for that change which is coming - while at the same time trying to speed up the rate of change with respect to emissions?

And this is where it is remarkable that in Johannesburg, the majority of nations are ready to move and we are still discussing in some ways how to move forward the Kyoto Protocol. Time has already run out! We know we need hundreds of years to even recuperate the kind of atmosphere that we had before - even if you were to implement the Kyoto Protocol today - and yet nations are struggling to make those commitments! And I think that if you have another ten or twenty years with two or three more floods like we have just seen in Germany or in China, perhaps the willingness of governments to invest in this will be much higher.

What about corporate social and environmental responsibility? Most of the big corporations are doing very visible things on this front. In your view, how much of that is greenwash and how much is sincere? And also, to what extent can individual corporations or industries make the changes unless everybody in the same industry goes along?

Well the first thing I think: no institution - be it a corporate or a government department or even and NGO - can really be sincere. I think it comes down to whether an individual is sincere and whether a CEO is sincere. So what you're seeing at the moment in business is a realisation - particularly with those who are global players because they are affected by different markets and their ability to operate in different markets - they have realised that they can no longer simply do greenwash. That was the era of the seventies, and eighties, and maybe the nineties. The reasons why Shell, ABB, Rio Tinto and LaFarge and other companies like this are beginning to really look at their operation in terms of the sustainability agenda, is that they know there is a business case there, not only in the sense of profits in new products, but there is in fact the threat of not being able to operate any more. And from that point of view, I do regard some of the initiatives that also the mining industry have taken - to understand what they actually need to change in order to internalise sustainability issues - I think we should take them seriously. I think they are ultimately dependent on us as consumers, and therefore on the marketplace. The marketplace is going to get more and more agitated about environmental issues and also inequity issues. And I think corporations who look forward ten, twenty, or thirty years, know that they need to prepare a different business strategy and that's why they are developing a business case. The difficulty is that they are still very much at an early stage of understanding what actually sustainable development is about, in terms of their footprint as a business. And that is one of the reasons why we at IUCN are interested in working with them, because if we sense that there is a genuine intent to look at these issues, we have some of the expertise today in the conservation movement, in the environmental movement, on how to address those issues, and that's why partnerships are a significant way of moving forward.

To come back to the security issue: we are now seeing the biggest migration in human history, from the countryside to the cities. In many countries, the economic conditions set by the WTO and other groups are making it more and more difficult for people to subsist on the land. If this trend continues, don't you think it will exacerbate the social unrest, fundamentalist reactions and terrorist backlash? Is there a way to reverse the urbanising trend, realistically?

It depends. I think urbanisation can either be an escape from poverty - then it is actually a relief if you can find a new livelihood in an urban context - or it can be further marginalisation if you end up trapped in a slum. And I think what we have seen in every society is that for stability, the best condition is for people to be able to make a life, a livelihood, to have employment. And we have seen it even with basic issues such as crime: in the United States in the last ten years crime went down significantly because the unemployment rate went down, and it goes up again when the latter goes up. So, if you are talking about urbanisation in India, for example, with the massive slums that exist there, I think you will find a different kind of existence you are moving into when you come from the rural areas. If you are moving in let's say, some of the so-called Asian tiger economies or some of the Latin American countries, economic opportunities do exist and they give you a way out of otherwise being constrained by a piece of land that you may not even own but need to use. So I don't think urbanisation itself is a threat. I think it is again what is driving urbanisation, and where is the absorptive capacity of urban areas to provide people with an economic means to survive.

In the last ten to fifteen years we've seen the very successful ability of the Neo-liberal market ideas to propagate themselves and become accepted by every government, pretty much, in the world. I look at the sustainability challenge in terms of communication: we have incredible opportunities - new technologies, ideas, solutions, networks, organisations - and yet we don't seem to have been able get our message across. How can we do it? What are we not doing yet that we need to do to communicate that vision?

I think that you have the difficulty that Neo-liberal models have had a good run for the last ten or fifteen years, but what you are already seeing is that the marketplace alone cannot ensure sustainability - because it cannot capture the true costs and benefits of development! You know, twenty years ago we were drying up wetlands around the world as if they were the greatest plague, so to speak, because they stood in the way of development, they were a waste. Today we estimate the ecosystem services of wetlands at around thirty trillion dollars, simply because we've begun to realise what it means to have a wetland, to have - as a part of the hydrological cycle that we depend on - how water is in a sense recycled for us as a society, just to mention one benefit.

I think even corporations today have realised that increasingly they need a regulatory framework which is the expression of society, of how it values certain elements of its life, be it natural environment as leisure space or simply the fact that species continue to exist. And we are still facing an onslaught of a lot of ideological guidance on this. Take the Competitive Enterprise Institutes that you find in the United States, who are basically absolute market believers; they are simply putting hypotheses up! I think the evidence that we see today is far clearer, that managing a complexity such as a society in terms of its economic, its social, its environmental operation, requires a mix of many different consensuses, compromises, negotiations, and it is not just a matter of letting the market determine what happens. Clearly that is a philosophy that I think will live much longer as we see the evidence of bad markets operating!

Do you think that the environmental and sustainable development organisations can take steps to communicate their message more effectively than we are doing at the moment?

Yes, yes and yes! I think we have a lot to learn about not being driven by our focus alone, but by being able to relate what we know, what we have learned about the natural environment, to where people actually live, to their problems. It is one of the phenomena that much of the green movement, much of the environmentalist movement was almost devoid of an understanding of what it means to be a peasant farmer in Africa, or in Asia. And I think one of the challenges - particularly in an organisation like IUCN that is a global membership organisation - has been to understand that the preoccupation of one person is not the answer to another person's survival. And as a union, working globally, what we have tried to do is to create a learning platform where environmentalists meet with people who are trying to ensure the livelihoods of millions of people, and develop the kinds of understandings that we need to be able to move forward with sustainable development. We have a lot to learn not only about how to communicate that to the public, but also how to communicate that to our own constituencies.