Holistic Sustainable Development in the European Multi-Level Political System

The Case of Berlin

Term Paper, 2013

31 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1. Introduction

2. Dimensions of Sustainability
2.1. The Brundtland-Report (1987)
2.2. The Agenda 21 (1992)

3. Sustainable Development in Multi-Level Political Systems
3.1. The Federal Republic of Germany
3.1.1 The Political System
3.1.2. Sustainable Development and Political Parties
3.2. The European Union - Sustainability and Competition

4. Sustainable Development in Berlin
4.1. Berlin's Local Agenda 21
4.2. Berlin's Environmental Relief Programme

5. Conclusion



Secondary Literature


1. Introduction

Berlin has a special image as a site for innovation and a location for the so-called Green Economy. So the capital seems to be in a particular position among German cities dealing with sustainable urban development. Indeed, Berlin has launched special programmes towards sustainable development, signed declarations and entered specific networks. However, there are weaknesses and shortcomings in Berlin's approach, which are mostly not directly addressed by political actors. Furthermore, Berlin cannot act in full autarky, but is obligated to fulfil policies from the European and the federal level. So the task of this assignment is an attempt to put Berlin's efforts into perspective and to examine Berlin's approach towards becoming a sustainable city from the point of view of a holistic understanding of sustainability.

In order to do so the assignment will start with the description of such a holistic conception, namely the so-called pillar-model, which comprises interlinked and interdependent dimensions or spheres of sustainable development - the economy, ecology, political institutions and social aspects. This chapter will combine the description of the model with a summary of two significant documents. Furthermore a special focus already has to be set on issues for sustainable development, that arise from multi-level systems of governance, by analyzing the competences and efforts of the European Union and the Federal Republic of Germany in the political field of sustainable politics - and the deductive obligations for Berlin. As I will demonstrate for the case of legislative principles in the European Union substantial shifts on the superordinate level may affect the local level in the implementation and the conception of one's own initiatives. Afterwards, I will present two initiatives of Berlin - Berlin's Local Agenda 21 and the Environmental Relief Programme (ERP). All of these programmes have to be put into perspective in my conclusion, whether one can talk about a genuine approach of the Land of Berlin, or if Berlin just complies with its obligations in the multi-level political system.

Throughout the assignemt I will follow the assumption, that Berlin is heavily bound by systematic obligations and financial constraints. In those areas, where the city finally designs and implements programmes, it is obliged to do so and to rely on financial support to conduct the initiatives, respectively this support is a significant incentive.

2. Dimensions of Sustainability

In this chapter I want to give a theoretical introduction to the dimensions of sustainability. Two central documents or approaches will be presented in a short overview - the Brundtland-Report and Agenda 21 of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the so-called Rio Summit of 1992). Both of these had a significant political impact on the global scale (Drexhage / Murphy 2010: 8).

On the one hand the Brundtland-Report was chosen, as it combines an understanding of sustainability in economical, ecological and social terms with an institutional perspective in the so-called pillar-model, as Yvonne Rydin explains (Rydin 2010: 2ff.). Only with contributions from all relevant fields of possible action sustainble development can be achieved. As a matter of fact the model expresses the understanding, that economical activities depend on social aspects or services a society has to provide (e.g. education), and on natural, environmental ressources that have to be protected or restored (e.g. the ressource wood by sustainable forestry) in order to make an ongoing business possible. The economy itself provides financial incomes for the satisfaction of elementary needs or social and cultural aspects, new technologies for civilizing progress, and revenues for the state in order to govern and facilitate the provision of all governmental activities. Governmental institutions themselves have to ease sustainable development through their competences in law-making, research, education, environmental protection and so on. So the model describes a circuit of intertwined dependencies. The Brundtland-Report can be seen as a starting point of the conceptual and interpretative expansion of the topic 'sustainable development' (Langehelle 1999: 129).

On the other hand Agenda 21 as the initial point of Local Agendas 21 around the world will be mentioned - a central approach for the urban implementation of sustainable development. These documents are chosen, because later efforts mostly focused on the review of progress, on problems in the implementation or on positive results. Moreover, since these early attempts of a holistic understanding of sustainable development, a shift towards a greater emphasis on economical topics is perceived. However, the Brundtland-Report and the Rio Summit constitute the theoretical framework of any further practical implementation (Drexhage / Murphy 2010: 8f.).

2.1. The Brundtland-Report (1987)

The Brundtland-Report made the former technical term of sustainable development popular (Drexhage / Murphy 2010: 6) and is a common reference point (Rydin 2010: 2) for a basic understanding of sustainable development in academics. The report contains the standard definition of "Sustainable development [F.P.: as] development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (WCED 1987: 37). Next to its historical and conceptual significance and regardless of the fact, that the report is shaped by the Cold War with all related deductions (e.g. the threat of nuclear war), some parts or recommendations are still at the very heart of the debate, for example regarding cities in the industrialized world: "The combination of advanced technology, stronger national economies, and a developed institutional infrastructure give resilience and the potential for continuing recovery to cities in the industrial world. With flexibility, space for manoeuvre, and innovation by local leadership, the issue for industrial countries is ultimately one of political and social choice." (WCED 1987: 168).

Especially the mentioned institutions and the commitment to local governance (in cooperation with the civil society) play a particular role in the report, as politics, political institutions and the political will to change do matter - on the national and international level. But even if competent and responsible institutions exist, they are often separated from each other, their power is limited or fragmented or their cooperation with each other is insufficient. One has to keep the report's historical background in mind - but it asserts generally, that an institutional gap, deficient institutional design to treat environmental challenges, and the international unwillingness to cooperate are major problems in order to deal with an integrated approach of sustainable development (WCED 1987: 15f.). So the report aims at the elevation of the topic of sustainable development to become a cross-sectoral matter on the national and international scale: "Environmental protection and sustainable development must be an integral part of the mandates of all agencies of governments, of international organizations, and of major private-sector institutions. These must be made responsible and accountable for ensuring that their policies, programmes, and budgets encourage and support activities that are economically and ecologically sustainable both in the short and longer terms." (WCED 1987: 213).

On the national level, regardless of the design of the political system (including the local level in federal or unitarian states), there is the necessity of a coherent strategy of sustainable development, which addresses the revitalisation of growth while changing its quality. Essential human needs have to be met - mainly technical issues, which often involve urban governance. The strategies have to pay attention to the demography, to the consumption and the preservation of resources. Technology plays a role, as does risk management and the general integration of environmental and economical questions in decision-making (WCED 1987: 40). Clear objectives for sustainable development have to be incorporated in institutions in charge of economical objectives and in those responsible for foreign relations and for technical cooperation or development aid (WCED 1987: 214). The competences of existing agencies, dealing with environmental problems and resource management, have to be expanded to spread advice and assistance among national institutions and beyond national borders (WCED 1987: 217). Moreover, the report puts special emphasis on the empowerment and participation of civil society organizations and the scientific community to raise awareness, respectively to create knowledge. These actors can lead to intensive cooperation with international counterparts in networks and to special coalitions (WCED 1987: 221.). Another institutional issue is the modernisation of laws (WCED 1987: 222f.).

On the regional and interregional level (here: including global regions) the report recommends the empowerment of organizations like the former European Economic Community (EEC). New political competences can be transmitted respectively the existing agencies and procedures can be strengthened. New political priorities can be set by making sustainable development an issue in all relevant political sectors. Being an official report of a United Nations Commission and with regard to the then less developed European political framework, the report does not give many recommendations concerning the achievement of sustainable development in multi-level political systems. Mostly, the report advises to strengthen United Nations programmes and to found or copy best practices from regional agencies, which mostly have a precise and specialized objective (WCED 1987: 215).

At least as much as institutions matter in the report so does the economy - particularly regarding their compatibility with ecological challenges or threats and social issues. Starting from the perspective of the economical crisis during the 1980s, which was leading to major social problems in the global south, the report addresses a new approach towards environment and development. The industry is perceived as "interface between people and the environment" (WCED 1987: 222) and therefore a key-actor for the achievement sustainable development. As governments clearly benefit from a vital industry, which creates jobs and the aligned social conditions, incentives for innovative investments should be focused. Especially new technologies play a key role not just to provide economical growth, but to minimize ecological damage and to promote social development (WCED 1987: 31ff.).

Even if the report attaches enormous importance and emphasis on the economy, which has been harshly criticized (Langehelle 1999: 130), it shows a clear coherence and ethical position (Langehelle 1999: 146) by demonstrating the interdependency of the four dimensions: "The concept of sustainable development provides a framework for the integration of environment policies and development strategies - the term 'development' being used here in its broadest sense. The word is often taken to refer to the processes of economic and social change in the Third World. But the integration of environment and development is required in all countries, rich and poor." (WCED 1987: 33). The above mentioned description only gives a brief introduction to the report. This summary necessarily has to stay short, but the basic understanding of the Commission (as demonstrated in the pillar-model) became clear. Another major historical contribution of the report has to be seen in the facilitation of the successful 1992 Rio Summit. Without the report raising awareness to and making sustainable development a global issue this summit might not have received such attention (Drexhage / Murphy 2010: 8).

2.2. The Agenda 21 (1992)

As intensely as the Brundtland-Report was influenced by the Cold War, so is the Agenda 21 by the cooperative spirit of the early 1990s. The Agenda is described as "[...] a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment."[1] It is comprised out of the sections 'social and economical dimension', 'conservation and management of resources for development', 'strengthening the role of major groups' and 'implementation'. Already here and in the preamble the clear commitment towards global cooperation and the holistic understanding of sustainable development become clear (UNCED 1992: para 1.1.). The agenda gives guidance for every area of action - clear measures are designed and their costs are estimated. So the whole document is designed and geared to be implemented, albeit its legal character as a declaration of intent is not binding (Masberg 1998: 90).

A relevant area for urban sustainable development is chapter seven, even if it is mostly dedicated to the phenomenon of urbanization in developing countries. It has validity for cities in developed countries, too. For example, the Agenda endorses clearly a participatory and consultative approach of urban development, the implementation of special programmes to support the green economy, the cooperation of cities in special networks and the acquisition of funding for sustainable development (UNCED 1992: para 7.20.). Aspects of sustainable land management and land use are in consideration (UNCED 1992: para 7.27.) as well as the provision "[...] of sustainable environmental infrastructure through adequate pricing policies, educational programmes and equitable access mechanisms that are economically and environmentally sound." (UNCED 1992: para 7.35.). Issues of energy-consumption for housing and for transportation are addressed (UNCED 1992: para 7.46.ff.) and the sustainable construction of buildings is promoted (UNCED 1992: para 7.68).

Chapter eight is targeted to integrate environmental and socio-economical aspects in political (institutional) decision-making (UNCED 1992: para 8.3). Again, the intention is to make the topic of sustainable development and the holistic understanding of the concept cross-sectoral: "Ensuring the integration of economic, social and environmental considerations in decision-making at all levels and in all ministries" (UNCED 1992: para 8.4.a.). Subsidiarity in implementing reforms is advised (UNCED 1992: para 8.5.g.), just as the assessment of a national strategy for sustainable development (UNCED 1992: para 8.7.). In general the chapter tries to promote dialogues with relevant stakeholders (UNCED 1992: para 8.2.) or their direct participation (UNCED 1992: para 8.5.). The participation of non-state actors plays a central role throughout the Agenda 21 (Masberg 1998: 92), which has normative and functional reasons. While the promotion of elements of direct democracy has to be seen as a normative motivation, an increased legitimacy and quality of the decision-making process and its outcome and the diffusion of democratic skills - the empowerment of the citizens - are the functional reasons (Coenen 2009: 167f.).

The central aspect for this assignment has to be seen in the intention to design and implement Local Agendas in communities or regions until 1996. This aim is another commitment to the principle of subsidiarity, as the comprehension of the local authorities and the local civil society organizations are perceived as promising for improvements on the ground. The authors of the agenda acknowledge the competences of these agents in environmental, economical, and social issues. Moreover, " [...] they play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development." (UNCED 1992: para 28.1.). The formulation of the Local Agendas is intended to stimulate the cooperation between cities (UNCED 1992: para 28.2.c.). The process should be conducted consultatively and therefore aims at the empowerment of civic organizations, local enterprises and professional organizations (UNCED 1992: para 28.3.).

The above mentioned points are surely not sufficient to describe the whole Agenda 21, and even if this historical document seems to treat the issue of sustainable development in an integral manner, there is criticism[2]. Municipal administrations are often structured by their specialization, which implies an administrative reform in order to make sustainable development a cross-sectoral issue. The work of these administrations is shaped by financial constraints and the Agenda 21 can be seen as complex (Masberg 1998: 94ff.). Another point might be the openness of the concept or approach of the Local Agenda 21 - which is determined by the variance of political systems and the myriad of differing geographic, economic and social conditions (Coenen 2009: 165). The mentioned openness or vagueness can be further explained by the differing challenges for the cities, when it comes to targets like the reduction of poverty, the reasonable treatment of solid waste or the facilitation of education (Masberg 1998: 91).

3. Sustainable Development in Multi-Level Political Systems

With my reference to the above mentioned historical documents I tried to demonstrate the complexity of a holistic approach. The institutional or political sphere of the model is as important as the other three dimensions, but indeed has a coordinating and norm-setting function. Issues of environmental protection and sustainable development are still a contested political topic - progresses need political leadership and the commitment of the citizens (Drexhage / Murphy 2010: 6f.). The Brundtland-Report and the Agenda 21 sometimes are substantially vague. This aspect, among other reasons, depends on globally differing political systems. The target of making sustainable development a cross-sectoral topic has to be seen as an attempt to reach a certain level of binding nature - a legal status that the Agenda 21 doesn't have - unless states or the supranational European Union commit itself to it.

Over the years since the Brundtland-Report it can't be denied, that sustainable development became a cross-sectoral issue - as environmental politics did (Jänicke 2006: 405). Present strategic approaches like the German national strategy for sustainability, to which I yet have to turn my attention, have to be seen in the light of and in continuity with the presented historical documents - demanding for national approaches.


[1] http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?page=view&type=400&nr=23&menu=35 (20.03.2013)

[2] Actually, there are a lot of critical aspects - especially those dealing with development aid. So, from the present perspective, it seems to be clear, that e.g. the claimed liberalization of the global trade (UNCED 1992: para 2.3.a.) did not necessarily contribute neither to end global poverty, nor to reduce emissions of GHG. Moreover, the whole document is inspired by contested tools and promises of New Public Management (e.g. UNCED 1992: para 8.5.). However, as the focus of the assignment is on urban sustainable development, I mostly have to exclude aspects like the above mentioned.

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Holistic Sustainable Development in the European Multi-Level Political System
The Case of Berlin
University of Potsdam  (Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät)
Governing Sustainable Cities
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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525 KB
Organisation und Verwaltung / Politikwissenschaft
holistic, sustainable, development, european, multi-level, political, system, case, berlin
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2013, Holistic Sustainable Development in the European Multi-Level Political System, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/214652


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