Sustainable development: an elusive concept

Jul 31, 2015 | News

By <a href="" target="_self">George Catchpole</a>

By George Catchpole

Marketing Manager

Written by Guest Blogger YuXin Yang, Undergraduate at UCL.

YuXin Yang undergraduate at UCL

The recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has once again brought the interrelated issues of climate change, sustainable development and sustainability definitions to the fore. In his keynote speech in the plenary session Tackling Climate, Development and Growth, UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon asserted that “climate change and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin”: they are inextricably linked.

Any proposed solutions to a warming planet need to ensure that economic advancement does not occur at the expense of the environment. Much of the discourse surrounding climate change is centered on the idea of “sustainable development”, and a number of sustainable development goals (SDGs) have been introduced in keeping with this theme.

Sustainable development is a concept that has been frequently cited in the media and by politicians and world leaders alike, but its exact meaning is not well understood and may even have been maligned in the past – a paper by Defra found that in the early 2000s, some of the public found this concept “off-putting” (Jones 2006). So what exactly is the definition of sustainability, what does sustainable development entail, and how has it evolved as an ideology over the years, both at an international and local scale?

A Brief History of Sustainable Development

Perhaps the most widely-known definition of sustainable development is the one that was first posited by the Brundtland Commission in 1987: “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Over this years, this definition has evolved slightly, with the concept of intra-generational (“within generations”) equity increasingly being emphasised. At the Earth Summit, held in 2002, government representatives as well as NGOs congregated in Johannesburg to discuss global cooperation in solving pressing environmental issues, with broad participation and inclusiveness being mentioned as “key to the success of sustainable development” . This in part reflects growing concern over social and environmental justice issues, as well as the impacts of globalisation, both in creating environmental problems and helping to solve them.

The introduction of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and its corresponding Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) similarly heralds a shift in thinking for the international community. The 17 SDGs were introduced in the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio 20) and are intended as the successor to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. These goals have increased in their number and scope – no longer do they focus purely on improving the human condition, but also on protecting our “ocean, seas and marine resources” (SDG 14) as well as our “terrestrial ecosystems” (SDG 15). Take a look here to read more about the Sustainable Development Goals 2015 .

Simultaneously, economic advancement has always been closely written into the narrative of sustainable development, with a particular focus on improving the efficiency of economic policies. Thus the European Commission has proposed “[stimulating] trade to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development” . Within the UK, the government has revised its policy on sustainable development in several stages.

A paper by Bronwen Jones (2006) , of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), outlines the five key principles of the UK government’s sustainable development strategy, as seen in the diagram below:

Sustainable development : “Achieving a Sustainable Economy” is listed as one of the key tenets of the UK’s sustainable development strategy – Jones, B. (2006)

“Achieving a Sustainable Economy” is listed as one of the key tenets of the UK’s sustainable development strategy – Jones, B. (2006)

Contemporary Debates

However, in certain academic circles, the principle of sustainable development remains highly contentious as does the definition of sustainability. Far too often, the existing discourse on sustainable development, which strongly emphasises a policy of economic growth that takes into account environmental limits, is seen as being anthropocentric.

Four key oppositions of such a policy of “weak sustainability” have been outlined (Williams & Millington 2004) . Firstly, it is human-centric; there is too much emphasis on a growth-oriented approach to economic development; more consideration needs to be given to the need for radical changes in the demands people place on the Earth, and finally, existing definitions of sustainable development merely perpetuate the view that nature is a cornucopian collection of natural resources that can be subdued by the human race.

These criticisms are certainly valid and food for thought – while emphasising the tangible and monetary benefits of pursuing a policy of sustainable development would be helpful in incentivising businesses and individuals to do what is right for the environment, we need to be aware that blindly focusing on economic benefits alone would be detrimental. Conservation of the environment for the intrinsic benefits of nature should always be prioritised.