Why Unity and Collaboration are Key to Saving the World with Gro Harlem Brundtland

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland is a physician, politician, and the former Prime Minister of Norway, as well as former Director General of the World Health Organization. In 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission, was established and chaired by Gro. Then, in 1987, they published a report called The Brundtland Report.

6 min read


Episode 8

This report was a true milestone, because for the first time, the principle of sustainable development was articulated at a global level. The report then led to the first Earth Summit.

Initially reluctant to take on the role, Gro understood what an important moment in history this was, despite being criticized by the opposition party in Norway for participating (Gro was still Prime Minister at the time).

“I knew that if I was going to deal with the challenges globally that are affecting the earth, I couldn’t deal with it without putting it into a broader development economic policy context, which is why I named the commission, Environment and Development.”

The issues preventing full consensus

“I was convinced if this report is going to have an effect, it has to be a consensus report, I have to have all my 22 commissioners agreeing on the text and on our recommendations.”

While there were multiple issues that made achieving consensus difficult, the two main sticking points, says Gro, were religion and nuclear energy.

Everybody on this planet should have the right to decide on reproduction and the right to access family planning care. The last thing the world needs is to be overwhelmed by a number of new people that other people didn’t want, says Gro. But for the representatives of certain religions, Catholicism and Islam in particular, they understood that what was required was necessary and important for earth and the future of humanity, but they couldn’t put their name to a report that went against their religion.

“In the end I had to take them one by one and ask them to feel the responsibility for their children’s future, instead of thinking about the fact that they would have criticism from their own religion. That was maybe the most difficult part of getting a consensus.”

The topic of nuclear energy was another hard one to get consensus on because the commission simply couldn’t conclude that nuclear energy was safe. If it was safe, it would have been a key factor in the solution for a world that needs energy transition and getting away from fossil fuels emissions.

“We found a phrase that was acceptable [for members]. It was that nuclear energy will only be acceptable if the present problems with the storage of the nuclear material are solved.”

The social aspect of sustainability

In the 1987 report, Gro expressed concern that there was too much focus on environmental issues and not enough on the social aspects of sustainability.

You need to have a holistic approach, says Gro, there needs to be a solution that moves poor people out of poverty and onto a sustainable path. If you discount the social aspect, you’re never going to find a solution to climate change, because too many people can’t afford an alternative to fossil fuels.

“The discussion going on after Paris and with COP 27 coming up, is still the discussion about who is willing and ready to pay more, and to secure more financial funding for the investments that are needed to choose a renewable energy choice or renewable pattern of development.”

While it would be cheaper in the short term to use coal as the source of energy, says Gro, somebody has to cover the cost for developing countries to switch away from fossil fuels.

Why the speed of change is slow

Back in 1987, the commission created the goal that by 2000, we would have achieved sustainable development. This hasn’t happened, says Gro, for the simple fact of what that would take to fundamentally change our economic systems across the world. 192 countries need to agree on what that means in terms of commitments and agreements of an international nature.

Early on, says Gro, the business roundtable for sustainable development understood the seriousness of the crisis and wanted to be a part of the solution. While many were simply greenwashing and trying to avoid change, we’ve moved on a lot since those days.

“Now there is more openness, more reporting required from companies, there are more civil society organizations that are looking into the reality of firms. They cannot as easily as they could 15 years ago hide what they are doing from public opinion and public knowledge.”

The lack of mandate at the World Bank and IMF

During the pandemic, it became apparent that the World Bank and IMF did not have a mandate to push sufficient money quickly into the world. And, says Gro, we’re in the same situation now, ahead of COP 27.

“There has to be change in the way the World Bank and the IMF work. They have to be able to change their systems, reforming them, so that necessary collaboration can mobilize the necessary concessionary funding to help the private sector innovate and invest in sustainable energy sources.”

The multilateral system has not developed the way it needs to, to support collaboration across countries, says Gro. Not in the area of sustainable development and climate, nor in the area of pandemics, nor with the nuclear threat. The multilateral system that is in place is outdated, compared to what the world in 2022 needs.

What the world needs now is unity

What the world needs most right now is unity and collaboration, says Gro.

“I believe that some good things will happen in Sharm el Sheikh because enough leaders are aware of the danger and the drama ahead of us, they realize we cannot drop this, even if there is a war in Ukraine. And there are a lot of problems socially, price inflation, you cannot look aside from the long term dangerous trend of climate change.”

As individual nations, we aren’t equipped to overcome these issues, but in collaboration, we stand a chance. But right now, too many young people, says Gro are focusing on themselves, on building a career, they’re worrying about what is best for them. They aren’t looking at the bigger picture, they aren’t thinking about a long term future.

“Engage yourself in ideas and principles that you believe in, whatever they are, and then try to work with others to make change in the direction of what you want, then you will find your way, and you will see where your knowledge and your energy and your enthusiasm can lead you and how you can contribute to a better future.”


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