Sustainable Development


Sustainable development has become the El Dorado of modern times, a vaguely charted dream of everlasting prosperity which inspires discourse rather than deeds. Exploration resumes at the Rio+20 Conference in June when world leaders will be reminded that their domestic difficulties have no lasting remedy unless they are aligned with stewardship of our planetary home and provision for all members of the human family. In the words of UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon: “sustainable development is the imperative of the twenty-first century.”

Bottom trawling for orange roughly

A Landmark Definition

The concept of sustainable development emerged from anxieties that accompanied the triumphant rise in living standards enjoyed in developed countries during the second half of the 20th century.


Encapsulated in the Club of Rome’s 1972 publication of The Limits to Growth, this unease sprang from two painful realities. It had become clear that the life-sustaining role of the biosphere was at risk from open-ended consumption of natural resources. And yet the urgent cause of environmental protection could not be isolated from the right of poorer countries to develop.

The interconnection of these two issues was thoroughly examined in the 1987 landmark report, Our Common Future, produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development. The Commission's Chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, wrote in the foreword: “the ‘environment’ is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable."

In championing a new global mission of “sustainable development,” the report grasped the nettle of a definition:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Political action followed with the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Popularly known as the “Earth Summit”, the Conference approved Agenda 21, an action programme for sustainable development in the 21st century.

World leaders also approved the Rio Declaration, a set of principles to guide future multilateral environmental agreements. These include the “polluter pays” principle, the precautionary principle, the right to development, and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities between rich and poor countries.

In an outpouring of global political commitment that would be inconceivable in today’s stonewalling UN conferences, the 1992 Earth Summit additionally put signatures to far-reaching Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. This was a fleeting moment of faith in multilateralism, of belief that nations could unite under the banner of sustainable development to create a better world.

The most famous speech delivered at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was by a 12 year-old Canadian schoolgirl, Severn Suzuki, expressing young people’s passionate concerns about people and the planet, then as now.

Progress since 1992

Sustainable development is normally assessed by reference to parallel progress in its “three pillars” - economic growth, human development and environmental protection. These can be examined at local, national, regional or global levels.

World Economy

The global economy is in a fragile and unsustainable condition. Success stories are often compromised by widening social inequality or, in the case of China, by the heavy price paid in terms of pollution and the suppression of human freedoms.


Since its collapse in 2008, much of the banking system in Europe and the US survives only by virtue of state guarantees of liquidity. Global food and fuel prices have run out of control in two separate periods in the last four years, delivering shocks to a system which is poorly equipped to withstand them.

The global economy has become suffused with government subsidies which directly undermine the cause of sustainable development. Support for fossil fuel consumption and production is the most extreme example, amounting worldwide to $470 billion in 2010. Subsidies to develop renewable sources of energy were under $70 billion.

Beijing traffic jam

Human Development

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) offer a quantifiable basis of post-1992 assessment as they embrace an almost identical period. There has been significant poverty reduction in South America and Southeast Asia. The threat of HIV and AIDS has been brought under control and the incidence of malaria greatly reduced. Although the rate of population growth remains too high for comfort, it has fallen significantly.

The picture is less rosy in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty continue to inflict hardship on approximately one billion people. Over 500 million small farmers remain too poor to deliver the environmental services for which they are well qualified – soil conservation, maintenance of the water cycle and protection of forests and natural habitat.


Developed countries have taken great strides towards the environmental exhortations of Agenda 21. Swathes of national legislation are in place, cleaning up the combustion of fossil fuels in power generation, the use of chemicals in industrial production and the quality of air and freshwater.


Where international cooperation is a necessary component of conservation, the record is largely dismal. The architects of Agenda 21 would be dismayed by the crisis language that scientists now adopt when examining the prospective security of food, water and energy resources under the combined pressure of population and economic growth.

An influential 2009 scientific study published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre suggests that three out of nine environmental boundaries critical to a sustainable planet have already been crossed. Two of these – the loss of biodiversity and the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide – were supposed to be brought under control by international conventions signed at the Earth Summit.

Eurasian hoopoe - biodiversity matters © Piet van der Poel


This bleak report card reflects the degree of abuse, rather than rejection, of sustainable development. Sloppy interpretation of its definition has permitted the trumpeting of social and environmental rectitude where none is deserved.


The classic “greenwash” ploy is to sanitise one small part of a company’s operations before promoting the entire business as a paragon of sustainable development. This widespread practice has crowded out public awareness of the small but growing number of inspiring examples of companies which strive towards genuine sustainability rather than marginal green gestures.

Presenting green credentials as a veneer – hard to criticise but lacking in substance - extends beyond corporations into all corners of society, including individual households. This is the  curse of sustainable development, isolating it from government and organizational  policymaking.

BP Solar - greenwash? © Corporate Watch

There are countless UN-backed initiatives to foster corporate sustainability and disclosure, ranging from the Equator Principles for project finance to the Global Reporting Initiative.

These well-intended schemes have one thing in common – they are voluntary both in affiliation and detailed implementation. The reporting of social and environmental impact by global corporations is therefore inconsistent or inconsequential.

The debasement of the currency of sustainable development has led to the abandonment of many of the 1992 Rio Principles. This is most explicitly apparent in the faltering struggle to combat climate change.

The precautionary principle has been tossed aside in the failure of national pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions to the degree advised by scientists. The polluter pays principle has been minimised as the rich polluting countries fail to substantiate their promises to mobilise climate finance.

And in the final hours of the Durban climate conference in December 2011, reference to “common but differentiated responsibilities” was deleted from the agreement, largely on the insistence of the US negotiators. The Rio Principles lie in disarray.

Earth Day sponsorship is fertile ground for corporate greenwashing, exposed by Rainforest Action Network.

GDP Unfit for Purpose

Of all the Rio Principles that have been shamefully neglected since 1992, the most damaging from the perspective of sustainable development is Principle 16:
National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs
“Environmental costs” refer to the depletion of the earth’s natural capital - ecosystems, biodiversity and mineral resources - and the damage caused by waste pollution

6Gross domestic product (GDP) is calculated as the value of goods and services produced within a country without adjustment for any change in environmental assets or citizens’ well-being.

The more damaging the economic activity, the more perverse are the results. For example, the construction of a new airport has a positive effect on GDP. Climate change, noise pollution, loss of habitat and the increase in inequality (airports benefit richer rather than poorer families) are all excluded from the calculations.

Yet GDP is universally regarded as the most important of all economic indicators. The phrase “economic growth” has unequivocally positive connotations, elevating policies which favour  the present at the expense of the future.

Forest and sub-alpine pastures in Bhutan - natural capital © Piet van der Poel

The same forces are at play within individual corporations. Like national accounts, their balance sheets do not present the “true and fair view” so prized by accountants because they do not internalize environmental costs. Shareholders too opt for short term strategies because there is no accounting for the long term damage to the planet.

7The cumulative effect of this inverse relationship between economic growth and sustainability   is alarming. Towards a Green Economy, a major report for policymakers published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011, concludes: “over the last quarter of a century, the world economy has quadrupled….in contrast 60% of the world’s major ecosystem goods and services that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or used unsustainably.”

This uncontrolled lurch towards our planetary boundaries is often branded as the failure of capitalism, deregulated open markets or our obsession with growth. These economic mechanisms do have much to answer for but the root dysfunction is the externalization of   social and environmental costs.

Ship stranded in Aral sea - the price of progress © IRIN News

Going beyond GDP – the deficiencies of economic growth as a measure of progress inspire new questions, from eutube.

Rio+20 Conference

The 20th annual conference of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development has been elevated to a format which aims to reignite the commitment of world leaders to the cause. It will take place in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, in recognition of the significance of the 1992 Earth Summit.

Unfortunately, the prospects of “Rio+20” recapturing the visionary mood of its predecessor are very poor. The experience of UN climate change negotiations suggests that the political classes are content to shelve even the most apocalyptic scientific research. And the multilateral appetite for action on global poverty and food insecurity has been overwhelmed by domestic economic difficulties.

The mood of negotiators therefore favours a text for Rio+20 which limits the scope of agreement to voluntary national commitments rather than a binding global political action plan.

This is indeed the approach of the first “zero draft” of the outcome document, The Future We Want, published in January 2012. Reliance on non-binding clauses may not satisfy the negotiating group known as G77 (comprising 77 developing countries plus China). They feel that The Future We Want focuses on environmental issues at the expense of development.

Potential areas of disagreement seem likely to focus on efforts to correct this imbalance. Developing countries may demand that the text reiterates the human right to a basic standard of living and also the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. They will seek greater fairness in access to limited natural resources.

The UN will want to see attention focused on its chosen central themes of the green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Green Economy

The UN’s focus on the concept of a green economy represents a determined effort to tackle the damaging obsession with GDP as a measure of progress. There is no consensual definition but the perfect green economy would deliver equitable improvement in living standards without eroding environmental assets.

8To support the vision of integrating environmental costs into pricing regimes, UNEP has sponsored The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a series of reports which estimate a monetary value for each of about 30 ecosystem services, including air quality, pollination and carbon sequestration.

Such valuations could inform tax and subsidy policies to strengthen rather than destroy nature, improve decision-making on the impact of infrastructure projects, and calibrate “payment for ecosystem services,” an increasingly popular method for compensating owners or custodians  who preserve environmental assets.

A price on coral life? © Jack Noble / Greenpeace International

There is consensus that the transition to this form of green economy requires significant up-front investment in renewable energy production, efficient use of natural resources and innovative technologies. The UNEP report, Towards a Green Economy, suggests 2% of global GDP.

Advocates of green economics argue the investment would be rewarded with net gains in employment and a lower risk of the economic shocks caused by short termism.

However, it is the radical nature of the proposition which perhaps deters politicians as much as the cost. Even when the world’s economic system was on its knees in the 2008 banking crisis, leaders disdained the opportunity to grasp an alternative model.

It is unlikely that the Rio+20 conference will succeed in shaking up the dominant GDP paradigm. Nevertheless, there is real interest in supplementing GDP figures with new indicators of social and environmental well-being. A long-established example is the Gross National Happiness index pioneered in Bhutan.

A film from the UN Environment Programme supporting the ideas developed in its 2011 report, Towards a Green Economy.

Safe and Just Space for Humanity

Green economics enjoys widespread support amongst influential world bodies, including the OECD, World Bank and UN agencies. However, there are deep concerns from opposite ends of the spectrum of advocates for sustainable development.

Many scientists are sceptical that it can ever be possible to decouple economic growth from depletion of environmental resources. “Green growth” is therefore unsustainable. They also point out that valuation of ecosystem services cannot take account of the risks of species extinction or collapse of the system.

Opposition also comes from the world’s poorest countries. They are being encouraged to leapfrog traditional industrialization and become role models for green economics.

These countries fear that, as with past economic prescriptions, the rules of the green economy will be imposed on them by the tools of globalisation – unfair regulations and conditions for aid, trade, foreign investment and intellectual property rights. Above all, green economics is too vague on the central purpose of development - how to bridge the global divide between the rich and poor countries.

9An Oxfam discussion paper helpfully conceptualises how a green economy might be framed to satisfy all stakeholders. It proposes that any demonstration of planetary boundaries should be counterpointed with social boundaries.

For example, a coherent response to excessive global carbon dioxide emissions is impossible without addressing the needs of those who live beneath the socially unacceptable boundaries of hunger and poverty.

The “doughnut” between planetary and social boundaries delineates “a safe and just space for humanity” within which a green economy must operate. Reassurances that social boundaries will be factored into green economics may persuade developing countries to support the concept.

A safe and just space for humanity © Oxfam International

Institutional Framework

The lack of rigour in implementing the principles of sustainable development since 1992 may be attributed in part to the fragmented responsibilities of UN environment agencies and the flimsy resources of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).

The CSD was established in the aftermath of the 1992 Earth Summit but has struggled to impose itself within the UN structure, amongst national governments, or in the wider public domain.

Various options are under negotiation to deliver higher status within the UN hierarchy for sustainable development. The CSD could be replaced with a high-level Sustainable Development Council reporting to the General Assembly. The UN Environment Programme could be upgraded to a World Environment Agency.

The earth science community is particularly frustrated with the political failure to connect with its research results. There are calls for an intergovernmental panel on sustainability, along the lines of the existing UN panels for climate change and biodiversity.
Goals and Finance

A late inclusion in the zero draft is the proposal for a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be negotiated over the next three years. This move has been inspired by the existing MDGs which address global poverty issues and which are due to expire in 2015.

Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs might present the greatest challenges in the developed world. And the prospect of quantifiable goals and targets for sustainable development would fill an important gap.

10The Rio+20 text is very tentative as to the topics to be addressed in the SDGs, let alone any targets. A strong candidate for inclusion will be the UN Secretary-General’s initiative for Sustainable Energy for All, for which preparatory work is well advanced and goals for 2030 already defined.

On the evidence of discussions to date, it seems likely that governments will repeat a key failing of the MDG programme – that their appetite for compiling goals is not matched by that for calculating the cost or furnishing the finance.

Can solar lanterns bridge the global divide? © Practical Action

Estimates of the costs of sustainable development in the poorer countries, over and above existing international commitments, are currently embryonic but they will exceed the scope of foreign aid budgets by a very wide margin.

Private sector finance could in theory be mobilised by taxation. More palatable for the sector is the concept of “market mechanisms” in which tradable credits are awarded for conservation projects.

This approach has struggled to win the approval of developing countries in the context of the UN Conventions on climate change and biological diversity. Any breakthrough on finance is very unlikely at Rio+20.