Sustainable Development: What Does It Mean Nowadays?

5 June 2014, by Deborah Kirby

In the 1980s, when it was still new and trendy, sustainable development was defined as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Then, an economist might have argued that the needs of future generations would always be met with new, as-yet-unknown technologies, which would fill in any failings that might arise in natural ecosystems. Thus, we should not need to concern ourselves with anything other than economic development. After all, that’s how it had always been and look how advanced we were!

But, twenty-five years on, with a world population two thousand million greater than in 1990, and, more importantly, still growing at an ever-increasing rate, our assessment of sustainable development has taken on a different angle; we see that, under the veneer of economic growth, things are beginning to go awry.

Prosperity is being achieved at the expense of earth’s life support systems, and though technology may be able to fill in some of the gaps, this option is looking increasingly untenable. Already, more than a thousand million people are living in extreme poverty without access to basic requirements such as clean water and basic health care.

Global weather patterns are changing leading to hitherto unseen flooding in some regions and drought in others. Both lead to hunger and increased poverty.
Now we see that the basic needs of society are directly pegged to the coherent functioning of environmental systems. Now it is understood that the definition of sustainable development must incorporate not only economic measures, but also social and environmental ones.

The post-2015 agenda arising from Rio+20 committed UN member states to develop a set of comprehensive sustainable development goals (SDGs). Progress towards their attainment will be measured by various targets, and these targets, in turn, will be monitored using multiple indicators.

SDGs, their targets and their indicators are linked by three basic premises that can be used to assess their effectiveness:

  • Leave no one behind and provide a life of dignity for all.

The poor and marginalized need opportunities to have an assured minimum standard of living. Those affected by extreme poverty – and the raft of social ills that go with it – need to be at the centre of future SDGs.  

  • Economic growth needs to be decoupled from environmental degradation.

Future prosperity will require that economic growth no longer degrades the environment. We need to change the way we consume and produce; everything; everywhere. Development needs to be based on a green economy where improved human well-being is based on low carbon emissions, lack of wastage and social inclusiveness.

And that doesn’t mean that we need to consume less. We just need to consume it better. Less wastage, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and greater social equity will give all sorts of benefits: job creation, increased access to markets and food for the poorest sectors of society; and less pressure on the earth’s natural resources.

  • Investment needs to be made in natural, social and resource-efficient capital.

For example, waste management and cleaning of our waterways would expand our resources and opportunities for employment; investing in education and knowledge, particularly traditional knowledge, would expand our ability to find new, innovative solutions.

Incorporating these factors will help to effectively integrate environmental, social and economic elements into a post-2015 sustainable development agenda. We now realise that excluding any one of these three dimensions will not comprise sustainable development.

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