The Swiss State Secretary for economic affairs, David Syz, has warned at a conference in Montreux against high hopes for next year's environmental summit in Johannesburg.
Speaking to consulting engineers from around the world at their annual meeting, Syz said that although "sustainable development" is high on the international agenda once again, progress over the past decade has been limited.
Sustainable development is considered more environmentally friendly -- development that is not carried out at the expense of future generations.
The Johannesburg conference follows up on the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, and participants will assess the state of environmental and developmental progress.
"Judged against the overall achievements since Rio 92 and the despondent spirit prevailing in official international fora concerned with sustainable development, it is far from certain that Johannesburg will in effect be the landmark event widely expected and indeed required for showing new ways forward," Syz said.
Levels of cooperation
Although some progress had been made, he said, the overall picture was far from positive.
"Against this background, there is clearly a need for new levels of cooperation and for better integrating environmental and sustainable considerations into long-term planning," he added
Syz said there was mounting evidence that innovation for sustainability was also an economic opportunity.
"Considerations of sustainable development help firms to launch new products, to improve productivity and to increase competitiveness," he said.
"Standard" environmental protection
"In Europe at least, the environment and sustainable development are no longer a simple trend but are now incorporated as a standard issue in business negotiations," he said.
Citing the case of Switzerland, Syz said that the demand for clean technology had to a large extent been encouraged by a progressive and consistent environmental policy.
He told the engineers that the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries was a "key issue" for sustainable development.
"That is why the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, in the framework of its cooperation with developing and transition countries, supports a comprehensive Cleaner Production Programme which, by the way, relies heavily on the services of consulting engineers.
Problem of corruption
Although much discussion at the conference will be devoted to consulting engineers as partners in sustainability, the fight against corruption is another major topic. There are estimates that up to 40 per cent of project funds are siphoned off in some countries.
The Lausanne-based International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), which is sponsoring the conference, has issued a set of business guidelines for its members to follow.
"In all our work, we will endeavour to adopt practices and procedures that will limit the possible impact of corruption," FIDIC president Wayne Bowes.
"We as engineers are partnering with the World Bank and others to show what we can do to lessen the effect of corruption in the delivery of projects," he added.
The guidelines illustrate how a consulting firm can deal with bribery, extortion, fraud and collusion.
"At this conference, we'll be giving major presentations on what it means for firms to adopt these standards and we hope to see widespread application in the years to come," Bowes told swissinfo.
by Robert Brookes