Sustainable Development in Quebec and Flanders: Institutionalizing Symbolic Politics?

By Happaerts, Sander | Canadian Public Administration, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Development in Quebec and Flanders: Institutionalizing Symbolic Politics?


Happaerts, Sander, Canadian Public Administration


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Twenty-five years have passed since the concept of sustainable development was put on the global political agenda with the publication of the Brundtland Report, the outcome document of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The WCED had been convened to address the deterioration of the environment and its consequences on human development, and to reconcile the concerns of the global North and the global South. It advanced the view that environmental concerns lie at the heart of economic development, social problems and even international peace and security, and it linked together humanity's most serious challenges, which had traditionally been treated separately. Since the publication of the report, governments at all levels have struggled with the concept of sustainable development, which was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987: 43). Because of the specific policy principles that sustainable development entails, such as participation, horizontal policy integration or the need for a long-term perspective, sustainable development is in some respects hard to reconcile with policy making in traditional policy areas. It involves layers of complexity and poses several challenges to policy makers who want to institutionalize the policy concept (Dovers 1997; Farrell et al. 2005). Nevertheless, many governments have attempted over the past decades to incorporate sustainable development into their policies. Those efforts, however, are often characterized as symbolic commitments (Rabe 1997; Meadowcroft 2007). In June 2012, world leaders gathered in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, UNCSD), where they discussed the institutional framework for sustainable development and new concepts such as the "green economy," and where the renewal of political commitment to sustainable development was a major goal (Van den Brande, Happaerts and Bouteligier 2011).

In Canada, the province of Quebec is increasingly promoting itself as a leader in sustainable development and related issues such as climate change, especially in the absence of clear commitments at the federal level. Since 2004, the government of Quebec has designed a set of instruments to anchor sustainable development within its public administration. Across the Atlantic, the Belgian region of Flanders has engaged in a very similar approach. The Flemish government wants to make Flanders one of the five "top regions" in Europe, including on sustainability questions. While few authors have systematically studied subnational sustainable development policies, this article offers an empirical description and critical analysis of two self-reported subnational leaders in sustainable development. After a first section which outlines some conceptual and theoretical notions of (subnational) sustainable development governance, the methodology of the analysis is presented. Subsequently, the sustainable development policies of Quebec and Flanders are described and critically assessed. The final section offers a comparison of both cases in order to draw lessons for sustainable development governance.

Sustainable development policies and subnational governments

After the publication of the Brundtland Report, political guidelines for sustainable development were crafted at the international level. A first important milestone was the Rio Summit in 1992 (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED). It produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which contained twenty-seven principles to be integrated into policy and decision making (UNCED 1992b). Rio also delivered the action plan entitled Agenda 21, which formulated specific recommendations on a wide range of mechanisms to implement sustainable development (UNCED 1992a). For instance, it urged United Nations (UN) member states to develop national sustainable development strategies (SDSs) in order to harmonize their existing policies and direct them towards the attainment of sustainable development. …

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Sustainable Development in Quebec and Flanders: Institutionalizing Symbolic Politics?
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