Updated 4 March, 2004

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Sustainable Development: Concepts and Approaches

Sustainable Development is:

"Economic and social development that meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Indicators of Sustainable Development

Related Initiatives and Approaches

A Global Committment - Meeting the Goals - Balancing Objectives - Trade-Offs - Participation

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The Concept of Sustainable Development

Many of the ideas that are now embedded in the concept of sustainable development have been around for a long time Ė from as long ago as the work of Malthus on population growth in the late 1700s. But the concept really only emerged during debate in the early 1970s following of a range of key publications drawing attention to manís over-exploitation of the environment, focusing on economic development and the growing global concern about development objectives and environmental constraints, and examining the inextricable links between environment and development.

While many of the environmental management principles embodied in the concept of sustainable development are derived from this ecological perspective, the social aspects are now also accepted to be of equal concern alongside economic issues. In 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission (after its Chairperson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway) gave this definition:

"Economic and social development that meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

The goal of sustainable development, while implicit in many national policies, gained global recognition and committment following the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), otherwise known as the Earth Summit, held 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

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A Global Commitment

The 1992 Earth Summit approved a set of five agreements, and although they all deal with the sustainable use of the environment, Agenda 21 focuses in it's first principle on social aspects, and lays out a global plan of action.

Agenda 21 - Principle 1

Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. 
They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

The five agreements covered at the Earth Summit are:

  • Agenda 21: a global plan of action for sustainable development, containing over 100 programme areas, ranging from trade and environment, through agriculture and desertification to capacity building and technology transfer.

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development - a statement of 27 key principles to guide the integration of environment and development policies (including the polluter pays, prevention, precautionary and participation principles).

  • The Statement of Principles on Forests - the first global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of the world's forests.

  • The Framework Convention on Climate Change - a legally-binding agreement to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at levels that will not upset the global climate system.

  • The Convention on Biological Diversity - a legally-binding agreement to conserve the world's genetic, species and ecosystem diversity and share the benefits of its use in a fair and equitable way.

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Meeting the Goals of Sustainable Development

A commitment to meet the needs of present and future generations has various implications. "Meeting the needs of the present" means satisfying:

  • Economic needs - including access to an adequate livelihood or productive assets; also economic security when unemployed, ill, disabled or otherwise unable to secure a livelihood.

  • Social, cultural and health needs - including a shelter which is healthy, safe, affordable and secure, within a neighbourhood with provision for piped water, drainage, transport, health care, education and child development, and protection from environmental hazards. Services must meet the specific needs of children and of adults responsible for children (mostly women). Achieving this implies a more equitable distribution of income between nations and, in most cases, within nations.

  • Political needs - including freedom to participate in national and local politics and in decisions regarding management and development of one's home and neighbourhood, within a broader framework which ensures respect for civil and political rights and the implementation of environmental legislation.

Meeting such needs "without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" means:

  • Minimising use or waste of non-renewable resources - including minimising the consumption of fossil fuels and substituting with renewable sources where feasible. Also, minimising the waste of scarce mineral resources (reduce use, re-use, recycle, reclaim).

  • Sustainable use of renewable resources - including using freshwater, soils and forests in ways that ensure a natural rate of recharge.

  • Keeping within the absorptive capacity of local and global sinks for wastes - including the capacity of rivers to break down biodegradable wastes as well as the capacity of global environmental systems, such as climate, to absorb greenhouse gases.

Balancing Objectives

Sustainable development includes social, economic and ecological objectives:

  • socially desirable, fulfilling people's cultural, material and spiritual needs in equitable ways.

  • economically viable, paying for itself, with costs not exceeding income, and

  • ecologically sustainable, maintaining the long-term viability of supporting ecosystems.

Sustainable development will entail integration of these three objectives where possible, and making hard choices and negotiating trade-offs between objectives where integration is not possible. These negotiations will be greatly influenced by factors such as peace and security,  prevailing economic interests, political systems, institutional arrangements and cultural norms.

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Making Trade-Offs

The aim of sustainable development is thus to optimise the realisation of a society's many and different social, environmental and economic objectives at one and the same time. Preferably, this should be achieved through an adaptive process of integration, but more usually it will require bargains (trade-offs) struck amongst the different interest groups concerned. Critical to this process is the recognition that different perspectives on environment and development are both inevitable and legitimate. There could be, for example, very different environmental priorities between aid donors, recipient governments and the poor of developing countries.

One way of looking at these trade-offs is to take an economic approach and identify the human and natural capital stocks that are needed for development. Explicit policies are required to maintain and enhance our natural capital and the services it provides for development, such as raw materials, freshwater and a stable climate. Within natural capital, distinctions will need to be made between critical stocks, which are irreplaceable and which should not be traded-off against social and economic goals, and those which can be exchanged in return for building up technological capital, thus maintaining constant levels of overall capital stocks.


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The Principle of Participation

The question then arises: who should make the decisions on trade-offs ?  Agenda 21 calls for the widest possible participation in international negotiations, such as UNCED, in national and local sustainable development strategy-making exercises and in project design and implementation.

National governments are responsible for providing the conditions which both permit and facilitate the necessary dialogue and negotiation between all sectors and interest groups in society. The development of national strategies for sustainable development, called for in Agenda 21, could lead to greater democracy, encourage an overhaul of institutional arrangements, administrative procedures and legislative frameworks, as well as fostering consensus among different strata and groupings in society.

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