Sustainable Development

Environmentally sustainable development has been a concern of the Commonwealth Secretariat for more than 20 years.

In 1989 Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment. The leaders recognised that development which destroyed the natural resource base and jeopardised future development was not really development at all. Importantly, they recognised that the environment is a global resource which required global responses ‘… our shared environment binds all countries to a common future’. In recent years this observation has been put into sharp focus by the growing consensus on the global threats posed by climate change.

Environmental resources and ecosystem functions like the cycling of nutrients, waste products and water, are the basis for economic and human development, yet many of these resources are under pressure from extraction, over-use and the impacts of climate change. Governments, in their efforts to build lasting strategies for human development, are seeking ways to bring economic and environmental objectives together in positive and mutually supportive ways. These concerns are at the forefront of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work on environmentally sustainable development.

The Commonwealth Secretariat focuses on two rapidly emerging policy challenges. Under the 2007 Lake Victoria Climate Change Action Plan it addresses climate change issues: deepening the understanding of economic and social impacts of climate change, including in the area of trade; reducing risks from natural disasters; and underpinning the sustainable use and management of forests. The other challenge is that of rapid urbanisation: almost one in six Commonwealth citizens lives in a slum area; obviously, therefore there can be no sustainable development without sustainable urbanisation.

Drawing on Commonwealth principles, the Secretariat also advocates for the reform of international institutions to support more holistic and sustainable approaches to development. The Commonwealth Secretary-General has promoted international environmental governance reforms and was charged with a new role of Good Offices for the Environment by Heads of Government when they met in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009.


Lake Victoria and climate change

Drawing on the Langkawi Declaration and recognising the immediate threat posed by climate change to many member states, Commonwealth leaders announced the Lake Victoria Commonwealth Climate Change Action Plan in 2007. The Heads concluded that climate change presented a ‘direct threat to the very survival of some Commonwealth countries’, and agreed on action to be pursued by its members in six areas. In accordance with discussions during 2009, work on the Lake Victoria Action Plan will continue, and particular emphasis placed on strengthening the participation of highly vulnerable member states in international negotiations on climate change; supporting small states and least developed countries to advance their own national strategies on adaptation and towards carbon-neutral and climate-resilient economies; and working with different groups to support a broad engagement in climate policy.


Climate change negotiations

Small states and least developed countries are highly exposed to the most severe consequences of climate change, and have limited resources both to address these consequences and to raise their concerns within international negotiations.

The Secretariat can help to increase the effectiveness of frontline negotiators from small states and least developed countries through workshops for climate negotiators; by providing technical assistance in the context of the negotiations on issues such as insurance; and by providing an effective international platform to highlight their concerns, as occurred at the Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. This meeting supported the proposal for a Copenhagen Launch Fund of US$10 billion annually by 2012 to be focused on the most vulnerable countries, and with a dedicated stream of at least 10 per cent of the fund for small states.


Social and economic aspects of climate change

The development challenges faced by small states and poor countries will be exacerbated by climate change.

Their economies are highly dependent on trade, and that trade – in sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and tourism – is highly dependent on vulnerable natural environments. Commonwealth governments are concerned to ensure that their trade and development policies are adapted to the likely impacts of climate change, for example, by promoting diversification away from vulnerable sectors. An innovative study on the inter-relationship of trade and climate change in small states and least developed countries was developed through an engagement of policymakers, academics and stakeholders such as the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. The study was launched at the Copenhagen climate change summit and its findings will be taken forward in 2010 and 2011.

A Commonwealth adviser placed with the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize is also supporting collaborative work on a regional study on the costs and benefits of taking action on climate change.

Since November 2007, education, finance and health ministers, parliamentarians, and civil society representatives have all met to discuss the human and economic aspects of climate change. Commonwealth youth leaders have also developed a position paper, outlining a youth perspective on climate change and the role of young people in addressing this global challenge. This was used throughout 2009 to mobilise youth organisations around the Commonwealth, and to develop a network for mutual learning.

Recognising that climate change may impact basic human rights such as the right to life, food, housing, clean water, livelihoods and health, the Secretariat has also been exploring the value of a rights-oriented approach to climate change discussions. This throws into sharp relief principles of voice, participation and accountability in respect to policy and decision-making.



The forests remain the lungs of the Earth, yet current rates of deforestation continue at unsustainable levels, contributing about a fifth of all human made carbon dioxide emissions – the principal greenhouse gas that leads to global warming. It is vital that we start to put in place mechanisms that help to preserve existing forest cover and reforest areas in ways that provide livelihoods for the poorest in society. With its position on the board of trustees of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, covering a vast area of forest in Guyana, the Commonwealth Secretariat has supported the development and sharing of approaches to sustainable rainforest use. It has also facilitated discussions by environment ministers on forestry concerns in the climate negotiations.


Human settlements

One of the greatest challenges of the global trend of rapid urbanisation is the rate at which slum settlements are growing.

Commonwealth countries are among those that are most affected by rapid urbanisation and as such the Commonwealth constitutes the heartland of concern and action. The Commonwealth’s principal mechanism for addressing human settlements concerns is a multi-stakeholder partnership, known as ComHabitat.

Commonwealth ministers responsible for human settlements are among the partners and considered the ‘State of Commonwealth Cities’ at their 2009 meeting. The partnership will work through a network of Commonwealth cities to track progress towards meeting the Commonwealth’s goal on human settlements and examine aspects related to governance, environmental sustainability and climate change. The Secretariat is also working with Commonwealth planners to examine gaps in planning education to help schools develop curricula to that will bolster skills and capabilities in this area.


Going forward

Promoting development that is both environmentally sustainable and focused on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable remains an ongoing and increasing concern for the Commonwealth Secretariat. In November 2009, Commonwealth leaders drew on the theme of ‘partnering for a more equitable and sustainable future’ to highlight the threats posed by climate change in their Port of Spain Climate Change Consensus. This statement further demonstrated that environmental concerns are critical to all future concepts of development, and that the Commonwealth remains a leading advocate for sustainable development.