Crisis strengthens European society focus on sustainable development

"Indignados" of Barcelona.
(Photo: Calafellvalo/Flickr/
Creative Commons)

European civil society organizations had already focused on the issue of sustainable development before the beginning of the current economic, environmental and social global crises. This concern has spread throughout the societies in several forms, from a mounting pressure on governments, massive demonstrations and calls to referenda, stresses the Social Watch Report 2012, to be launched this week in New York.

This fact goes hand in hand with appeals to switch the prevailing paradigm of a nation’s development from the economic wealth to the living conditions of the population, the equality and the protection of the environment, eroded by European authorities’ steps taken to balance their accounts.

This emergent change of mindset should encourage governments and regional and international institutions to design new indicators that go beyond the gross domestic product (GDP), according to the study, based on 66 national reports produced by organizations in the struggle to eradicate poverty and the causes of poverty, to end all forms of discrimination and racism, to ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and the realization of human rights.

“The questions the indignados are posing should be taken seriously and change the EU’s discourse,” warned Mirjam van Reisen, chair of International Social Responsibility at Tilburg University, along with Simon Stocker and Georgina Carr, both from Eurostep, in a chapter of the report. “Development, if truly sustainable, needs to take place for and through people; human rights have to be placed at the core of any developmental approach. At the same time living conditions and general well-being have to be improved in a sustainable manner.”

Next, some abstracts of national contributions to the report related with the new European trends towards sustainable development:


Belgium: A call for climate justice for everyone

Belgium will face major challenges related to climate change in the immediate future, including rising temperatures and severe disruptions in the annual distribution of rainfall. However, it is not putting into practice the commitments made by the international community. The dialogue among the different regions of the country, the industrial sector and civil society has become paralysed […].

In the context of a strong tradition of social dialogue, however, Belgium is missing the step between institutional mechanisms and effective implementation of a proactive policy towards sustainable development. A clear example of this is the challenge posed by climate change, which brings important social and economic repercussions. It is undeniable that the impact of global warming in Belgium will be far from insignificant. […]

Investing in the transformation of the Belgian economic and energy model would have a long-term positive impact on the country’s economy. It would require adjustments to some sectors that emit a great deal of greenhouse gases, such as the steel and auto industries, and that such adjustments should be accompanied by strong social measures, particularly in terms of job losses. [National report by CNCD-11.11.11.]


Bulgaria: The environment is back on the agenda

Soon after the 1989 democratic changes, […] Bulgarian public became more concerned with the price of bread than a clean environment. Only now, years later, has environmentalism enjoyed a resurgence in public consciousness. The initial focus was legislation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). […] A bill liberalizing the production and release of GMOs on the market passed a first reading in Parliament in January 2010. Less than a week later, […] thousands of people gathered for a rally […] under the slogan “For a GMO-free Bulgaria!” […] The strongest, most successful civil campaign in Bulgaria’s most recent history won over public opinion. Instead of the originally planned legislation opening the country to GMOs, […] a law […] made Bulgaria the seventh EU member state to impose a total ban. [National report by the Ecoforum for Sustainable Development and the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation.]


Croatia: Civil society, the sole defender of the public interest

The Government of Croatia is favouring non-sustainable approaches to development. […] The people’s well-being often has to be defended by civil society organizations. […] The 2008 global economic crisis had a profound and negative impact on the economy. […]  Reduced employment, decreased real income and a salaries’ freeze in the public sector have pushed many people below the poverty line. […]

The Eko Kvarner organization strongly opposed the proposal to extend the Družba Adria pipeline, which is already the longest in the world and carries oil from Eastern Russia […] through Croatia and Hungary to reach the Adriatic Sea. […] Eko Kvarner cast enough doubt on the validity of the environmental impact assessment to ensure that the authorities rejected the proposal.

Two organizations, Green Action and Green Istria, sued the Ministry of Environmental Protection for extending permits to a build a golf course despite a problematic environmental impact assessment. As a result the Administrative Court annulled the permits. [National report by the Croatian Law Centre and Eko Kvarner.]


Cyprus: Sustainable schools needed

The potential advantages of the involvement of local non-governmental organizations for sustainable development became evident in Cyprus through the evolution of the centres for environmental education […]. The first centre was a private venture in a small village in southwest Cyprus, established in the 1990s. It proved to be extremely successful in researching and developing practices and tools for environmental education. Even so, it wasn’t until 2004 that State authorities established the first public centre.

Today these centres are already considered to be pioneers in the promotion of research and development. The progress achieved so far demonstrates the potential and opportunities presented by the integration of local civil society actors in formal and informal education for sustainable development. […] Full adoption of the sustainable development framework requires the Government to enlist active involvement of local actors in the decision making process, as well as in the implementation of education strategies. [National report by CARDET.]


Czech Republic: Civic society gives some hope

The Czech Government is sticking to the implementation of a neo-liberal nonsustainable model, which undermines social well-being, and is refusing to consider policy on a long-term basis. Currently, the country faces threats such as the impoverishment of middle-class and low-income groups, increasing unemployment and rampant gender inequality. Loss of biodiversity and radioactive pollution are among the environmental challenges that need to be assessed immediately. Increasing involvement in these issues by civic society gives some hope that the demand for change will be heeded. […]

The Government’s strategy since the onset of the global crisis in 2008-09 has been to cut social expenditures. […] Most of these measures will have an impact, especially on low-income groups and the middle class. […] Dissatisfaction with the response to the crisis […] has increased tensions in society. […] The growing income differential leads to an increase in xenophobia, racism and the degradation of social solidarity, [and] to a more radically negative attitude towards migrants. […]

In response to the anti-social politics of the Government, the ProAlt movement has emerged, a civic initiative criticizing the proposed reforms and supporting alternatives. […] The “Alternativa zdola” movement supports the participation of citizens in the political as well as economic life of their communities […]. The “Česko proti chudobě” (Czech Republic against poverty) campaign constantly points out the necessity to increase the effectiveness of development cooperation and to criticize the country’s failure to make good on its pledge to increase Official Development Assistance resources. […]

Increasing political activity in civic society does give at least some hope that people will demand redressing policies and will not turn their anger against the poorest, whom the political elite already accusses of being the reason for State prodigality and of indebtedeness. [National report by Ekumenická akademie Praha, Alternativa Zdola, Fórum 50 %, Gender Studies, o.p.s., Evropská kontaktní skupina ČR, Nesehnutí and]


Finland: Politics of sustainability

Finland is showing growing interest in understanding well-being in new ways and to supplement GDP with other statistics in the national accounting system. Social movements and scholars have proposed the introduction of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), and the Government has agreed that something of this sort is needed. […] As the costs of negative issues are subtracted, resource depletion and the costs of criminality and pollution are counted as negative. This indicator emphasizes equal possibilities for everyone to fulfill their needs and the money spent on education. […]

Finland has failed to ratify the ILO-169 convention which would guarantee land rights to the indigenous Sámi who claim a historical right to nomadic reindeer herding. […] Conflicts over Lapland or Sámi forests began in the 1990s as Finnish multinational pulp and paper companies such as Stora Enso bought wood from the State logging company, including from the few remaining intact natural forests. […] 

After Sámi reindeer herders and Greenpeace International directed an international campaign against Stora Enso […], logging in the Sámi forests stopped and negotiations began. In 2009 and 2010, over 80% of the disputed areas were protected or exempted from logging. However, increasing disruptive tourism flows and mining concessions, supported by the State, are now threatening reindeer herding. Legal recognition of Sámi rights by Finland has not proceeded. [National report by the Service Centre for Development Cooperation Finland (KEPA).]


France: Less inequality and a little more fraternity

The world economic crisis hit France’s society quite hard. The economy has recovered somewhat, but unemployment and inequality have worsened and society has become more competitive to the detriment of values like fraternity and solidarity. The country also has pressing environmental problems including air and water pollution and a loss of ecosystems. The State has made commitments to pursue sustainable development, and these should now be re-examined not just from the national or European perspective but in terms of their impact in the world. […]

In the context of the crisis these ideas should be the basis for defining sustainable social development priorities. The way forward has to be to adopt a holistic vision of social, environmental and economic problems, to redistribute wealth and to give everyone a reasonable share. […]

France will have presidential elections in the first half of 2012 and it currently occupies the presidency of the G20, and this means civil society organizations have an opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. This is a chance to open up new perspectives, to reformulate the aims and strategies of economic development and social progress, and to change course in society towards a new model geared to seeing social and ecological matters in a different way [National report by Secours-Catholique / Catholic AID.]


Germany: Great expectations, limited outcome

Sustainable development in general seems to be widely accepted in Germany. A more detailed look however shows that there is still some resistance. Climate change is not properly addressed, and renewable energy sources are still reliant on subsidies from the Government and consumers. Moreover, these subsidies are being reduced, particularly for solar power, while the operating life of nuclear plants is being extended. In addition, the budget item for economic compensation to countries affected by climate change has been deleted from the 2011 draft budget. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor is growing and social policies are not fully implemented. […]

The Parliament’s decision in late October 2010 to extend the operating life of nuclear power plants marked a radical break with previous energy policy […], and was implemented even though a solution for the final storage of nuclear waste is not in sight and the majority of Germans have consistently opposed nuclear power for decades. At the same time, subsidies for renewable energy sources are being reduced, particularly for solar power, despite firm evidence that their use reduces power generation costs. […]

The most significant social policy debate in Germany in 2010 followed a decision by the Federal Constitutional Court on 9 February 2010, which said that welfare benefits must be calculated “in a transparent and appropriate manner according to actual need, that is, in line with reality” and that “the assessment of benefits must be justifiable on the basis of reliable figures and plausible methods of calculation.” The judgement forced policymakers to review the welfare benefits system. […]

In response to the global economic and financial crisis and in advance of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, Germany’s sustainable development debate is steadily gaining momentum. In November 2010, Parliament established a Study Commission on Growth, Well-being and Quality of Life […]. Its purpose is to “consider the role of growth in the economy and society, develop a holistic measure of well-being and progress, and explore the opportunities and limits for decoupling growth, resource consumption and technological progress.” It remains to be seen whether this group of experts will provide significant impetus for the progress towards more sustainability. [National report by Social Watch Germany.]


Hungary: Growing social inequalities

Over the past 20 years Hungary has seen significant changes in the areas of education, employment and social inequality. Poverty and social exclusion have caused the greatest tensions, but demographic trends, health issues and food security have also created challenges. […]

Measured by living standards, income levels, health, education and access to public services, social inequalities have increased substantially. The territorial concentration of poverty and segregation has also increased. Almost 12% of the population live below the poverty line. And among the Roma – perhaps as much as 10% of Hungary’s population – living standards, housing conditions, health status, employment, and schooling are far below the national average. […]

During recent decades, […] on the whole, several damaging environmental and lifestyle trends have been amplified. Hungary’s consumption structure is becoming more similar to that of Western European countries. [National report by ATTAC Hungary.]


Italy: Sustainable development, not the Government’s priority

Commitments on combating poverty and social exclusion, as well as on increasing gender equality, have not been met in Italy, while policies undermine the availability and delivery of essential services. Although sustainable development is not part of the Government’s priorities, four successful referenda promoted by civil society (against nuclear power, forced privatization of water and other public services and against the exemption of the Prime Minister from the rule of law) that brought almost 27 million Italians to vote, have pushed the country in the right direction. […]

Since a referendum in 1987 agreed on the country’s exit from nuclear power, there are no active plants in Italy. However, a programme for the revival of nuclear power started in 2009, providing for the construction of 8-10 new power plants at the expense of investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy savings. […]

There has been widespread mobilization by Italian citizens. […] A large movement of students, teachers and researchers from high schools and universities protested in the second half of 2010 against the cuts in education and research, with hundreds of schools and universities occupied. […] The charges of extortion and child prostitution initiated against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brought out a million women and men to demonstrate in the streets in February 2011. [National report by the Italian Social Watch Coalition.]


Malta: Time to wake up

Although Malta was one of the pioneers in recognizing global environment issues, its first national sustainable development strategy was not published until December 2006. It is the numerous environmental NGOs in the country that have been regularly covering the different environmental issues. […]

Construction and demolition create around 90% of the country’s annual waste. They are also causing problems due to the generation of fine particles, leading to air pollution. […] Maltese environmental NGOs keep reminding politicians and public authorities about the degradation of the natural heritage. […] Everyone has a role to play in the promotion of sustainable development. Civil society representation and participation should take place at all levels of decision-making. [National report by Koperazzjoni Internazzjonali (KOPIN).]


Poland: A Green New Deal

The Government favours a neoliberal model of development that has led to growing social stratification and rising pressure on the environment. An alternative could be the Green New Deal, which aims to address global warming and global financial crises by implementing a set of policy proposals intended to secure global sustainable development. […]

Poland is one of the very few countries that have introduced the concept of sustainable development at a constitutional level. […]  Paradoxically Poland is also a country where any reference to the concept of sustainable development
is rather difficult to find in public debate. […]

In July 2009 the Government issued “Poland 2030-Development challenges”, intended to be the mainstream analysis and strategy line for development over the next 20 years. Written in hard-tounderstand jargon it favours the “polarization and diffusion model” as opposed to that of sustainable development. […] One of the co-authors said that the departure point for the creation of this new model was the observation that “in reality, sustainable development is only a myth.” […] But this model has led instead to increased social stratification, decreasing social capital and rising pressure on the environment measured by the total use of energy and nonrenewable resources. […]

Roofs Over Heads, a coalition of 15 NGOs led by Habitat for Humanity Poland, launched a campaign in 2008 to raise awareness about poor housing conditions in the country. […] Nearly 12 million Poles – almost a third of the population – live in overcrowded homes. [National report by ATD Fourth World Poland and The Green Institute.]


Serbia: Laws and strategies await implementation

The country’s severe environmental problems constitute key challenges for sustainable development and poverty reduction. […] The National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) for the period 2009–2017 was developed with the participation of civil society organizations and adopted in May 2008. The NSDS is based on three key factors: sustainable economic development, sustainable social development and environmental protection with rational utilization of natural resources. This strategic document has identified the following key environmental problems: water pollution […], air pollution […], inadequate waste management […], soil degradation [and] unsustainable forest management […].

The failure to implement reforms and the worsening of living conditions at the beginning of 2011 – particularly for vulnerable groups such as the unemployed, rural population, Roma, people with disabilities and pensioners – has been further complicated by the reshaping of the Government and political instability. Social discontent and insecurity are in creasing due to lack of access to employment and decent jobs. At the same time, jobs are increasingly insecure due to the ongoing bankruptcy of firms, the enormous internal indebtedness and a badly led process of privatization resulting in a mounting number of strikes in 2011. […] Trade unions estimate that average monthly salaries will decrease in 2011 from USD 435 to USD 350. […] The Government is simply in denial regarding the real economic trends and the evident fall in the population’s living standards. […]

Success in addressing the key environmental challenges depends on building capacity for implementation, monitoring and enforcement, raising environmental awareness and securing political support for environmental management. [National report by Association Technology and Society.]


Slovenia: The downward spiral continues

The lack of coherent economic, environmental and social policies is leading Slovenia in a downward spiral in which exploitation of the environment and people continues to take an increasingly high toll on the population’s well-being. […] The economic crisis has revealed many underlying contradictions and uncertainties in Slovene society, with the public debate revolving around questions of employment, intergenerational solidarity, wealth distribution and the environment. […]

The new flexible part-time work law (passed in October 2010, entering into force in January 2012) addresses the issue of student work by limiting the number of part-time working hours, previously unlimited, to 60 per month while also setting an annual earning limit, previously unlimited, of EUR 6,000 (USD 8,492). It also greatly increases the pool of people who are able to work in this fashion by including retired people, the unemployed, asylum seekers and other non-active individuals. […] Student organizations and trade unions have launched a massive campaign opposing the legislation, and a referendum will take place in Spring 2011. Another expected referendum regards the proposed reform of the pension system, which relies heavily on a prolonged working period of a minimum of 38 years (40 years for men) and a retirement age of 65.8 […]

The largest investment in the Slovene energy policy will apparently be a new EUR 1.2 billion (USD 1.7 billion) coal power plant in Šoštanj. […] The project has been subject to much criticism for alleged environmental, economic and legislative flaws. […] Another pressing issue is the illegal burning of waste in the Lafarge cement factory in Trbovlje […]. The company lost the legal battle over this, but it continues to ignore court orders. [National report by Društvo Humanitas.]


Spain: Wasted words, empty policies

When the present Government came to power it announced it would support sustainable development, but it has not made good on these commitments. […] There are no solid policies to promote gender equality or to work towards a sustainable development model that involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions or promoting the development of renewable sources of energy.

In 2011 the Government moved even further away from the pursuit of sustainable development and turned instead to economic policies centred on adjustments and reducing public spending. In spite of numerous protests it has continued to reject any of the alternative proposals aimed at fiscal reform, changing the production model or implementing anti-cyclical measures […].

In October 2010 […] the Ministry of Equality was closed down, which left no doubt what the Government’s new priorities were. […]  Not long ago the sense of solidarity with the victims of abuse, and pressure to use institutions, mechanisms and budgets to […] eliminate gender discrimination, were reflected in Parliament by the progressive left […]. But today there is almost no difference between the two sides in Parliament; they both have an orthodox neo-liberal stance and both are promoting economic adjustment policies. […]

After more than a year and a half of troubled procedural delays the sustainable economy bill was eventually passed into law in March 2011, [but] heavily influenced by the economic crisis, including measures with little connection between them, and some that even contradict each other. […]

The Zapatero administration has also reneged on its commitment to close down the country’s nuclear power stations. In 2011, in the wake of the tragedy at Fukushima, there was renewed public debate about how safe these installations were, but plans to definitively close down the nuclear programme have not been forthcoming. [National report by Plataforma 2015 y más.]


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