The United Nations Conference, which is gathering in Rio for the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, will certainly lead to a series of general recommendations.

These formulas will allow agreement to be reached on a few core objectives, without going into details on the operating method. This event is nevertheless essential and the spirit of Rio must continue to help us collectively meet the challenges that are ahead of us all.

Although this conference is taking place in a very different context than in 1992, it remains marked by the same fundamental question: how to reconcile the preservation of our planet with economic and social development, particularly in Southern countries?

The concept of sustainable development aims to create common ground among all countries in terms of the threats to the environment. It is complicated to handle and difficult to objectify and measure. However, a whole host of examples from the field show that action can contribute to both economic development and environmental preservation. And wanting to do one without the other leads to a dead-end.

The idea that will be discussed in Rio of reaching agreement on sustainable development targets will reflect the ability of governments around the world, of global governance, to identify a handful of universal objectives that are emblematic of this new paradigm, as they did in 2000 for the fight against poverty with the Millennium Development Goals.

What does sustainable development mean for an institution like Agence Française de Développement? It is first and foremost to minimize and offset the negative impacts that the projects we finance have on the environment. This requires a systematic and rigorous policy to evaluate these impacts and, when they are deemed excessively negative or poorly controlled, abstaining from taking action. We must also be responsive to the expectations of civil society and its different stakeholders, both large and small.

It also means giving priority to activities which have positive environmental and social consequences. This can be multifaceted: promote water-saving agriculture around the Senegal River, scale up access to electricity in Morocco’s rural areas, increase the use of geothermal energy in Kenya and Indonesia, promote the use of biogas in Sichuan in China, implement tilling practices that restore the richness of soils in Madagascar, support low-carbon growth in Vietnam or support the City of Medellin in Colombia for urbanization based on opening up poor neighborhoods… In 2011, AFD committed a total of nearly €3.8bn to finance sustainable development.

A differentiated approach that takes account of the wealth of countries is required. In the poorest countries, in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, the sustainable development of natural resources is an essential driving force. There is a need to develop the continent’s tremendous hydropower potential and to strengthen its rail infrastructure. In middle-income countries, in the Maghreb region for example, the focus will be more on reducing dependence on fossil fuels and on a more balanced development of the region. This specifically involves strengthening solar and wind power generation facilities. In emerging countries, the priority is to support public policies by mobilizing French expertise, particularly for climate change. On this topic, AFD has adopted an ambitious strategy which aims for 50% of its financing to have a positive impact on climate change in order to mitigate its causes and better adapt to it.

We should not be discouraged by the slowness of international negotiations: sustainable development is a major challenge for our planet. Southern countries play an increasingly important role in these discussions with every day that passes. By helping them and supporting them, we can contribute to reaching a common position and giving real substance to the principle of “common responsibility” adopted in Rio 20 years ago.

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