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: