Sustainable Development – What It Really Means

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Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is a holistic approach to decision-making and considers not only the economics of an action but also the social and environmental effects. It can sometimes be misconstrued as just environmental sustainability but it seeks to balance these three pillars. To ensure present and future needs are met, sustainable development emphasises the consideration of a decision’s impact across geographical regions and throughout time. While the theory of sustainable development was well-received when it was first proposed many years ago, the challenge has proven to be the implementation with many competing interests and viewpoints across the globe.

2015 is expected to be a big year for sustainable development and we plan to further explore this area moving forward. The following article provides a point of reference of the theory of sustainable development as we analyze real-world implementations in the weeks to come.

Adopted Definition of Sustainable Development

The definition often cited by stakeholders defines sustainable development as:

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


Within that definition, there are two components that the International Institute for Sustainable Development elaborates on:

  • “concept of needs – the essential needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
  • “idea of limitations – imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

A Brief History

While global meetings discussing sustainable development began in 1972, the definition often cited originates from a 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development report called Our Common Future (the “Brundtland Report”). A positive response by the United Nations General Assembly led to widespread adoption of the term. The concept was later elaborated on at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (often referred to as the “Rio Summit” or the ”Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where principles of the practice were developed.

Principles of Sustainable Development

The 27 principles that were agreed upon at the Rio Summit are meant to guide sustainable development practice and are outlined below:

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.
2. States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.
3. The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.
4. In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.
5. All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world.
6. The special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority. International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries.
7. States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit to sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.
8. To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.
9. States should cooperate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies.
10. Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.
11. States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives and priorities should reflect the environmental and development context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular developing countries.
12. States should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation. Trade policy measures for environmental purposes should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade.
Unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country should be avoided. Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.
13. States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction.
14. States should effectively cooperate to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer to other States of any activities and substances that cause severe environmental degradation or are found to be harmful to human health.
15. In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
16. National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.
17. Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.
18. States shall immediately notify other States of any natural disasters or other emergencies that are likely to produce sudden harmful effects on the environment of those States. Every effort shall be made by the international community to help States so afflicted.
19. States shall provide prior and timely notification and relevant information to potentially affected States on activities that may have a significant adverse transboundary environmental effect and shall consult with those States at an early stage and in good faith.
20. Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.
21. The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all.
22. Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.
23. The environment and natural resources of people under oppression, domination and occupation shall be protected.
24. Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.
25. Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible.
26.States shall resolve all their environmental disputes peacefully and by appropriate means in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
27. States and people shall cooperate in good faith and in a spirit of partnership in the fulfilment of the principles embodied in this Declaration and in the further development of international law in the field of sustainable development. [Emphasis added with bolding]

Is 2015 going to truly be the year of sustainable development? What efforts have people done so far to balance economic, social and environmental interests? How will sustainable development influence policy and decision-making in the future? We will explore these topics in the weeks to come. If there’s a particular area you’d like us to look into, please comment below.


Picture Credit: Ian Sane, photo available at

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