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Critically examine if the concept of sustainable development provides a strong basis for addressing the most pressing environmental issues
Sustainable development is most notably defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in the 1987 Brundtland Report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987:41). This report has such a lasting impact as it brought together two of the most pressing global concerns emerging at the time: development and environment. In the decades since the WCED attempted to define sustainable development there have been many attempts to refine and redefine the concept.
For example, following the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development the definition was expanded, leading to the introduction of the three pillars model of environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability (Zaccai, 2012). This model attempts to recognise the interdependent nature of the three dimensions, and that to achieve sustainable development a balance must be struck between environment, society and economy. A further adaption to this is the nested model of sustainability which illustrates that society functions within the bounds of the environment and that the economy is just a function of society (Thatcher, 2014). An additional model is the ‘doughnut’ model of sustainability, with a social foundation (floor) and an environmental ceiling; with sustainable development lying in the space between the two (Raworth, 2012). All highlight the aspect that there are three dimensions to sustainable development: social, economic and environmental. In order to address environmental issues, one must also tackle social and economic issues simultaneously. Furthermore, that we cannot exceed the carrying capacity of the planet without dire consequences.
In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly further attempted to expand sustainable development with the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals as a successor to the Millennium Development Goals. Seventeen goals were established to be achieved by the year 2030, seven of which could be attributed to tackling environmental issues. These are: “SDG 6. Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 7. Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 12. Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG 13. Climate Action, SDG 14. Life Below Water and SDG 15. Life on Land” (CSD, 2018).
The most pressing environmental issues the world faces presently can be determined from the aforementioned SDGs. These can be summarised into two broad categories: climate change and environmental degradation. To determine whether the concept provides a strong basis for addressing these issues the strengths and weaknesses of the concept must first be analysed.
The Brundtland Report brought sustainability into the mainstream for the first time, highlighting awareness among the general public and businesses, and providing a rally point for various groups with often differing viewpoints to unite around one common goal. However, there are many underlying issues with the Brundtland definition of sustainable development. Firstly, the deliberate ambiguity and malleability of the report, in an attempt to appease the various stakeholder groups, has resulted in a definition which allows each individual to mould and interpret sustainable development to satisfy their own agenda (Lélé, 1991). On the contrary, some may say that this is actually the definition’s greatest strength; its ability to appeal and be adapted by a wide range of stakeholders.
Secondly, the Brundtland Report very much focused on the needs and interests of humanity; securing both intra-generational and inter-generational equity, with what could be perceived as a rather anthropocentric view. It appears to suggest that to prevent ecological disasters, eradication of poverty and inequity via economic growth must first take place (Du Pisani, 2006). There is also the issue of what we define as ‘needs’, humanities needs are constantly changing and so the needs of future generations may be drastically different to our current needs.
Sustainable development involves the linking of both what is to be sustained and what is to be developed. “Nature, life support systems and community” are listed as among the things that should be sustained (Kates et al.,2005). Whereas: “people, economy and society” are the things that should be developed. However, there is differing opinions on the extent at which something should be sustained. Should we only sustain, develop mostly or a hybrid of the two? Wilderness or nature in general can be seen as just a social construct, humanity is inherently part of the environment not a separate entity, so why should development not be allowed to take place? Preservation of the environment is a subjective action by humanity; the environment is constantly changing and evolving, thus to keep an area of land in a steady state is to deny the very intrinsic value of nature. That is not to say that full development of the land should take place, only that development can take place alongside conservation efforts. Not every square kilometre of land can be preserved from development and some may say, nor should it be.
Although the definition states “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, there is no clear indication as to the timescale in which this should be met. ‘Future generations’ could be interpreted as anywhere from a generation to in perpetuity. The latter of which would surely be untenable, therefore more clarity is needed in order to adequately plan action to move toward sustainable development.
One difficulty of sustainable development is how to measure it and what can be used as indicators. One method that can be used is the Environmental Sustainability Index (Schmiedeknecht, 2013). However, the chosen indicators can be skewed to make countries with higher GDPs look good. Additionally, richer countries could be outsourcing pollution to less developed countries by importing goods rather than manufacturing goods in their own countries. Therefore, not all the environmental stresses of a country may be accounted for.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe released a report containing case studies on the progress of European countries achieving the SDGs (UNECE, 2018). This highlights the progress of countries such as Portugal, Romania, Finland and Switzerland in achieving SDGs 6, 7, 11, 12 and 15. Whilst many countries have managed to implement policies to achieve certain SDGs, many are choosing to cherry pick more easily achievable goals. To address environmental issues all the SDGs need to be met. There appears to have been more success on a smaller scale, with businesses such as Unilever attempting to incorporate all the SDGs into their corporate strategy (Unilever, 2012).
An alternative concept to sustainable development is ‘sustainable de-growth’, a transition towards a smaller economy with reduced productivity and consumption (Martínez-Alier et al., 2010). As opposed to sustainable development which seeks to address environmental issues whilst advocating economic growth, the concept of sustainable de-growth highlights that economic growth, even hidden under the mantra of ‘sustainable development’, will lead to social and ecological collapse. Instead it states the only way to prevent depletion of resources is to reduce the size of resource flows, alongside social and environmental values. Whilst this concept would likely to result in rapid change, it is much harder to implement in practice. It would require a prompt transformation of society; de-growth cannot be simply ‘switched on’. Additionally, economic growth and GDP are inherently linked thus any move towards de-growth would likely result in increased rates of unemployment and lower income (Martínez-Alier et al., 2010). Furthermore, any such concept would likely receive backlash from governments and wealthy private sector executives. In this respect, sustainable development could be seen as a stronger concept in which all parties can work towards addressing the most pressing environmental issues the globe is facing presently.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the ideology of Freidman and the pure economic gain (Friedman, 1970). That the only responsibility of business is to generate profit for its shareholders, which can be expanded onto a national scale as a continued focus on GDP growth at all costs. This certainly does not provide a strong basis for addressing environmental issues; in fact, it shifts the responsibility on to the individuals in the form of philanthropy.
Sustainable development allows a compromise whereby development does not have to be sacrificed for the sake of social equity and environmental protection. It provides a basis on which numerous groups can unite to address environmental issues. It also promotes the idea of intergenerational equity and how we should consider our impact on future generations. However, there are many underlying issues with the concept which dilute its strength, including its heavy reliance on the economic dimension. Additionally, its ambiguity means that each person can interpret the definition in a different way, thus how can sustainable development be achievable if each person has a different goal? Some countries and businesses appear to have managed to implement the SDGs, yet it is hard to measure this success. However, it is much less divisive than the alternative concepts of sustainable de-growth or unlimited growth. But, given the IPCCs latest warning on securing a maximum rise of 1.5oC in global temperatures, can sustainable development realistically achieve this or are more radical solutions needed?
- Commission on Sustainable Development (2018). The Sustainable Development Goals 2018. United Nations New York.
- Du Pisani, J. (2006). Sustainable development – historical roots of the concept. Environmental Sciences, 3(2), pp.83-96.
- Friedman, M. (1970). The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. The New York Times Magazine.
- Kates, R., Parris, T. and Leiserowitz, A. (2005). What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 47(3), pp.8-21.
- Lélé, S.M. (1991). Sustainable Development: A Critical Review. World Development, 19(6), pp.607-621.
- Martínez-Alier, J., Pascual, U., Vivien, F. and Zaccai, E. (2010). Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future prospects of an emergent paradigm. Ecological Economics, 69(9), pp.1741-1747.
- Raworth, K. (2012). A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can we live within the doughnut. Oxfam Policy and Practice: Climate Change and Resiliance, 8(1), pp.1-26.
- Schmiedeknecht, M. (2013). Environmental Sustainability Index. Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility, pp.1017-1024.
- Thatcher, A. (2014). “Theoretical Definitions and Models of Sustainable Development that Apply to Human Factors and Ergonomics.” In Proceedings of the 11th International Symposium on Human Factors in Organisational Design and Management and the 46th Annual Nordic Ergonomics Society Conference, edited by O. Broberg, N. Fallentin, P. Hasle, P. L. Jensen, A. Kabel, M. E. Larsen, and T. Weller. Vol. 1(2), pp.747–752.
- Unilever (2012). Unilever Sustainable Living Plan: Progress Report 2012. Unilever.
- United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (2018). Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for The UNECE Region: Case Studies. United Nations.
- World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford University Press.
- Zaccai, E. (2012). Over two decades in pursuit of sustainable development: Influence, transformations, limits. Environmental Development, 1(1), pp.79-90.
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