Sustainable development: An overview

Philaso G Kaping

Development was, for the first time, linked to environment in the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the human environment, which emphasized the need for an international effort at fostering a strategy of development that is environmentally sound and sustainable. While economic development or economic growth in the narrower sense, can serve as a solution to poverty alleviation and enhance welfare by enabling people to purchase a better standard of living, the rate at which we are utilizing our natural resources and the path of development that we have chosen over the years has led to serious environmental consequences which often have been seen as the price we have to pay.

Sustainable development, as a new concept, was first introduced in 1987 in the Brundtland Commission Report or the World Commission on Environment and Development which was a United Nations’ initiative to pursue justifiable economic development in light of the rapid deterioration of human environment and natural resources. The commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." In this reckoning, the challenge then is to find ways that meet the needs of the present generation while keeping in view the needs of future generations.

Development, if it is to be sustainable, should be environmentally safe, socially and economically equitable.

Economic sustainability: Economic sustainability can be defined as that development strategy which takes into account not only increase in the GDP or GDP per capita but also a conscious effort to minimise the harmful effects of economic activities on the natural resource base. In line with the concept of sustainable development, this would mean that sustainable development in the economic sense is one that does not reduce the productive base or the productive ability of the future generation as well. Therefore, it encourages the use of resources efficiently so as to ensure profitability and ethical management of the ecology.

Environmental sustainability: Environmental sustainability can be seen as one in which our interactions with nature and its resources are in tune with the idea of keeping the environment as unspoiled as possible. That is to say that the nature in which, as well as the rate at which, we exploit our natural resources are consistent with how the environment can be replenished. Therefore, very related to the idea of economic sustainability, environmental sustainability requires that the carrying capacity of the earth is not adversely affected due to human activities.

Social sustainability: Social sustainability can be gauged from the idea of social equity. Our endeavour should be such that the welfare of all human beings, irrespective of one’s social standing in terms of wealth endowment or geographical location, is maximized and the ability of any individual to meet his needs should not be hampered by the activities of others. This again is in tune with the idea of sustainable development. It also implies that our decision today should not have adverse effects on the decision space of the future generation. This term therefore focuses on the idea of social well-being of people around the world and covers human rights, labour rights, and corporate governance.

Ever increasing population has led to over intensive use of resources, particularly natural resources, to satisfy human wants and needs. During the 20th century, world population has been said to have increased by a factor of 4 to more than 6 billion, industrial output by a multiple of 40, and use of energy by 16. Added to these are the adverse impacts of methane-producing cattle population which has grown in tandem with human population, carbon and sulphur dioxide emission which has grown by a multiple of 10, use of nitrogenous fertilizers, etc. All these point to the fact that the rate and the manner in which we are exploiting our environment and its resources have created an unprecedented disturbance in nature in a brief period of about a century. The most telling proof of this could be seen in the most contentious and the most talked about issue of climate change.

International efforts on sustainable development

The first international event on the issue of sustainable development was the Stockholm Conference on the human environment, 1972. This was followed by the setting up of World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983, also known as the Brundtland Commission, which proposed a global agenda to address the world’s environmental problems and peoples’ concerns related to living conditions, resources, population pressures, international trade, education, and health.

The issue of sustainable development picked up in the 1980s and through the 1990s. The year 1992 marked a significant beginning in setting a new global agenda in international relations and economic development with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil between June 3 and 14. The Summit endeavoured to ensure a sound relationship between environment and development on a global partnership level. The summit adopted what is known as the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 (an action plan) to tackle the problems arising out of human interaction with the environment and pursue sustainable development.

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was set up in 1992 to supervise the execution of programmes on sustainable development at local, national, regional and international levels. It is also the functional Commission of the ECOSOC.

Post-Rio 1992

Since the Rio Declaration, a five-year review of the progress of the Earth Summit was held in 1997 by the UN General Assembly in a special session followed by a 10-year review in 2002 by the World Summit on Sustainable development. It was observed that there had been little progress in constructing a unified institutional framework to achieve the objectives set out in the Earth Summit 1992 as a result of deep division among developed and developing countries in their objectives and the Commission became a stagnant body which failed to unite them.

While the problem of climate change is all too real to be ignored and a concerted effort from the world as a whole is needed without delay, it is indeed unfortunate that some governments still insist on valid scientific proofs before taking earnest actions. Subverting threats to their present domestic economy has taken precedence over countering the effects of climate change on the present and future generations. A just and equitable consensus needs to be evolved before it is too late.