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Sustainable Development and Canada at the G7 Summit

Pierre Marc Johnson and John Kirton

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Over the past two decades sustainable development, in both its development and environmental dimensions, has been a substantial, and at times central, part of the agenda and achievements of G7 Summits. Development and the environment have also served as leading areas of Canada's distinctive contribution within this important global forum. In considering how Canada might use the forthcoming Halifax G7 Summit to advance major sustainable development priorities, it is useful to review the record of past Summits, to identify what development, environmental and related economic issues have been dealt with and received collective approval at the G7, and what Canada's particular role in this process has been.

This paper conducts such a review. It focusses on the development and environmental passages of the final communiqués, and, where possible, the leaders' actual discussions, at the annual G7 leaders' gatherings from 1975 to 1994. It thus deals with the success of the G7 leaders, and Canada, in setting priorities, establishing parameters, and securing agreement for sustainable development at the Summit itself. The important question of how fully and how rapidly these communiquéencoded commitments have been implemented in the postSummit period and have affected the domestic policy of the members, is left to Appendix C in this volume.

This review of the Summit agreements on sustainable development subjects suggests seven central conclusions about the G7's and Canada's past record of achievement in this realm.

In the first place, sustainable development is a longstanding and recurring Summit issue. The G7 Summit has dealt with not only traditional development issues, but also with new environmental ones from the very start. The initial concern with energy conservation quickly gave way to attention to environmental issues directly (in 1978), and to the relevance of economic instruments to accomplish environmental goals (in 1979 and 1980).

Second, the concept of sustainable development has been accepted by the G7 from a very early stage. The first elements appeared at the Ottawa Summit of 1981, well before the Brundtland Commission's report appeared. Thus, the G7 has led rather than followed global political and public awareness of the new philosophy and its priorities.

Third, the G7 leaders have over the years collectively endorsed an impressive array of practical proposals for advancing sustainable development. Many of these proposals retain their relevance at present. The following five are of particular interest:

1. As early as 1984, the Summit leaders recognized the need to develop a separate process for their ministers and experts to forward the G7 environmental program, and by 1992, regular meetings of G7 environment ministers had begun.

2. The 1987 Summit first raised the tradeenvironment link and recommended the facilitation of trade in low pollution products, industrial plants and environmental protection technologies.

3. The Summit first dealt with CO2 emissions in 1979, and the following year recognized the importance of fuelefficient vehicles, strengthened standards for fuel efficiency, and related research and development in reducing such emissions.

4. The Summit's concern with strengthening the capacity of, and cooperation among, existing international environmental organizations dates back to 1987, when the leaders directed United Nations Development Programme (UNEP), the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) to create an information exchange and consultation forum.

5. The particular problems of the poorest of the poor countries and Africa as a region have long been a major area of G7 attention and achievement, through such initiatives as the "Toronto Terms" on debt relief. The 1994 Summit's recognition of the stagnation and continuing poverty in Africa, and the absence of significant private capital flows to the region, pointed to the need for enhanced and coordinated development assistance and debt relief.

Fourth, the Summit's accomplishments in the field of sustainable development are neither routine nor automatic. Indeed, global environmental issues can easily disappear from the leaders' agenda, as they did at the Summits of 1982, 1983 and 1986. Moreover, the great focus of the G7 on sustainable development -- from 1988 to 1990 -- has largely disappeared in recent years.

Fifth, leadership does make a difference. At the Summit, Germany, Canada, and to a lesser extent Italy, have been the sustainable development pioneers. It is at the Summits they have hosted, in particular, that the major advances have come. While France and Britain have joined Canada in a continuing concern for development issues, they have not displayed a regular interest in a broad range of global environmental concerns. In general, the United States and Japan have been the least forthcoming. The Halifax Summit thus offers an important opportunity to put critical sustainable development issues back on the G7 agenda. Moreover, as France and the United States will be hosting the two Summits following Halifax, it is important to consider how progress initiated at Halifax can be sustained in subsequent years. Here the possibilities include having the Halifax heads define their sustainable development agenda for their 1996 Summit, requesting reports on priority items in future years, building ancillary bodies to reinforce the work of the leaders, or focussing on issues of growing preoccupation for publics in France and continental Europe.

Sixth, sustainable development is an important area not only of Canadian leadership, but also of Canadian success. As Prime Minister Campbell demonstrated at Tokyo, even prime ministers very new to the G7 can raise important environmental issues at the Summit and in the surrounding bilaterals, and secure agreement for forward movement from the most ecologically powerful institutionalized group of countries in the world. Moreover, Canadian prime ministers receive substantial attention and acclaim from the Canadian media for their sustainable development efforts at the Summit.[1]

Finally, there is strong support among publics and experts in Canada and the other G7 countries for the Summit to focus on sustainable development, and for Canada to play a leading part in this process. The global environment is the issue Canadians as a whole most want the G7 Summit to address. Moreover, environmental experts in other G7 countries recognize Canada as a credible leader in this field.

Taken together, this legacy of G7 and Canadian achievement on sustainable development issues at the G7 Summit, and the depth and durability of domestic and international public and expert support for this focus suggest that sustainable development should be a substantial emphasis for Canada, both at the G7 environment ministers meeting scheduled for April 29-May 1 in Hamilton and the G7 Summit itself on June 15-17 in Halifax.

What follows is a more detailed review of G7 agreements and Canadian action on development and environmental issues at past Summits, at the most recent meetings at Munich in 1992, Tokyo in 1973, and Naples in 1994, in the G7 environment ministers forum that has emerged since 1992, and in the current attitudes of the public and experts in Canada and abroad.

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