Briefing Document: Critical Role of Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology

World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg South Africa, August-September 2002
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--The Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 established a vision of "Sustainable Development." Where development historically was based almost entirely on economic calculations, there would now be an environmental component as well. Taking the natural environment into account would necessarily lead to a long-term focus, and would enable industrial practices to remain sustainable in way that traditional development practices cannot, given current and projected rates of population increase and economic globalization.

--Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated that Sustainable Development remains a high priority. Regrettably, the U.N. itself characterizes Agenda 21, from the distance of the length of the succeeding decade: "Good Plan, Weak Implementation."

--The three legs of Sustainable Development--economic, environmental and social-- have each become more challenging as a result of simultaneous emerging factors: continuing rapid population increase, globalization (cultural and economic), information and communications revolutions, HIV-AIDS, urbanization, and the need to increase wealth creation in lesser developed regions and nations. As the definition of Sustainable Development becomes more encompassing, it is recognized that disciplines that are now separate (such as economics and science; various branches of science, etc.) need to be brought together in the context of achieving measurable results in local settings, thereby meeting global needs.

--While there has been progress in some areas, much remains to be done on matters such as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, reduction of consumption and waste of non-renewable fuels, reduction or neutralization of byproducts from industrial process that are toxic, otherwise undesirable and lack economic value.

--In order to meet the Secretary-General's ambitious goals-which have the express support of the United States-it is clear that there must not only be increased action, but new thinking.

The Role of Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology

--Biotechnology has been publicly recognized as a necessary part of the vision for Sustainable Development. See, e.g., Chapter 16 of Agenda 21, the work program intended to implement the goals of the 1992 Rio Summit.

--Industrial and environmental biotechnology has unparalleled promise for the next phase of Sustainable Development. Indeed, without technological improvements that can be applied rapidly and distributed widely, it is difficult to conceive that progress toward Sustainable Development can outpace competing factors such as ongoing population increase, and globalization (economic and cultural).

--Industrial and environmental biotechnology has a proven track record across a range of industry sectors, including: chemicals, textiles and leather, food, animal feed, pulp and paper, energy, metals and minerals. These are documented, for example, in the OECD publication, The Application of Biotechnology to Industrial Sustainability (2001).

--In addition to direct progress toward the environmental component of Sustainable Development for developing nations, industrial and environmental biotechnology may also afford them much-need economic opportunities (thereby achieving progress in all three aspects of Sustainable Development). For example, it may enable developing nations to move from exporting raw materials to exporting finished products (examples cited include textiles and mining). This may also shift comparative advantage in economic terms to manufacturers in developing nations while lessening the environmental impacts from transportation, etc. If industrial and environmental biotechnology is included as a key element of the overall discussions in Johannesburg, it should be possible to craft a Sustainable Development implementation program with mutual advantages for developed nations who have produced the technologies, and developing nations who can build upon pre-existing investments in research and development to increase their economic, environmental and social well-being.

Action Points

--It is essential that the United States, as well as other nations, ensure that industrial and environmental biotechnology is a prominent part of the agenda for the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, August-September 2002. This would build on the generic recognition that the Rio Summit of 1992 afforded biotechnology in its generic Agenda 21 implementation program. To achieve ultimate implementation plans that will increase the pace of progress from Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Summit will presumably aim toward a higher level of specificity and accountability. This suggests that, from the beginning, the level of consideration of industrial and environmental biotechnology should be deliberate and wide-ranging.

--Though the preparatory documents and multi-stakeholder dialogues include references to technology, and have aspirations that appear to assume industrial and environmental biotechnology solutions (e.g., on cutting non-renewable fuel consumption, reducing industrial waste, etc.), the importance of industrial and environmental biotechnology necessitates a direct focus. The U.S., as well as other nations, should seek specific reference to the advantages of industrial and environmental biotechnology for achievement of the economic, environmental and social goals of Sustainable Development at the Johannesburg Summit.

--In assuring recognition of the importance of industrial and environmental biotechnology from the outset, the U.S. and other nations can provide a context for, and should then seek to achieve, comprehensive consideration of important, related matters such as intellectual property protection, and harmonization of regulatory standards, that can expand or limit the prospective biotechnology advances toward Sustainable Development.

--Given its promise for providing solutions for key issues identified in Agenda 21 implementation, it is important that industrial and environmental biotechnology be specifically included as integral part of the implementation plans resulting from the Johannesburg Summit, including resulting national action plans.

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