The concept of sustainable development first emerged on the international stage in 1972, when the United Nations sponsored the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This conference was, in part, an outgrowth of the global environmental movement. It was the first global conference to focus on the growing impact of humanity on the environment and the need to protect and preserve biospheric integrity to produce sustained improvement in living conditions for all. Although the term was not stated explicitly, the Stockholm Declaration laid the foundation for global environmental governance and brought the concept of sustainable development to the international lexicon.
The term sustainable development was popularized in 1987, when the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, released the report Our Common Future. This report provides the most frequently cited definition of sustainable development. It defines the term as “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition contains three core elements: (1) it recognizes that human beings affect and are affected by the environment; (2) it acknowledges that human interactions with the environment must be sustainable in the long term; and (3) it implicitly accepts the interconnections among the environment, social development, and economic development.
More broadly, this definition highlights two fundamental themes inherent in the concept of sustainable development. First, sustainable development emphasizes the integration of social, economic, and environmental policy. As action in one policy area affects other policy areas, sustainable development requires a holistic approach to economic, environmental, and social policy development and implementation. For example, environmental policies must protect natural resources and ecological systems yet still promote economic and social development. Social policies should address issues such as health and education, so that the economy and environment remain fit. Economic policies should address social issues such as poverty and inequality and promote trade and industry that encourages social and environmental health.
Second, sustainable development requires intergovernmental and intersectoral cooperation that traverses traditional geopolitical boundaries. The full range of environmental, economic, social, and other issues that impact sustainable development cannot be addressed by a single organization but rather depend upon the engagement of numerous organizations at all levels of government and in all sectors of society working in concert with each other. Thus, to achieve sustainable development, international, national, subnational, and regional governments must work in partnership, as well as with private and nongovernmental organizations.
In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio Earth Summit, renewed the world’s interest in sustainable development. Although the conference had several notable achievements, it is perhaps best known for the creation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.
Agenda 21 emphasizes the need to foster cooperation, coordination, and collaboration among the numerous agencies and actors involved in sustainable development and to develop strategic links and integration among major sustainable development initiatives. To do so, it calls for the establishment of National Councils for Sustainable Development to operate as focal points or mechanisms to oversee the coordination and implementation of the Earth Summit agreements at the national level. Agenda 21 also calls for broad public participation in decision making and implementation as a prerequisite of sustainable development. It recognizes nine major groups of civil society from whom participation is needed: women, children and youth, indigenous people, nongovernmental organizations, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, scientific and technological communities, and farmers.
The Rio Declaration puts forth 27 general principles agreed upon through a series of difficult and significant compromises among industrialized and developing countries. Although the principles are general, many have become core elements in international law. For example, principle 2 recognizes a nation’s sovereign right to exploit its own resources in accordance with its own policies as long as it does not harm the environment elsewhere. Likewise, principle 3 recognizes the right to development, while principle 4 requires environmental protection as an integral part of development. To support this, principle 16 promotes the “polluter pays” principle and principle 15 endorses the “precautionary” principle. Each of these efforts is further supported by principle 27, which calls for nations to cooperate to develop further the international law in the field of sustainable development.
In 2002, the United Nations hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Participants of this conference reaffirmed their commitment to the Stockholm and Rio Declarations and to full implementation of Agenda 21. The conference produced a political declaration, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and a range of partnership initiatives.
Today, sustainable development is a major component of international law, affecting environmental, trade, renewable and nonrenewable resources, human rights, social, and other international agreements. Numerous areas fall within the scope of sustainable development, including but not limited to agriculture, atmosphere, biodiversity, climate change and ozone depletion, consumption and production patterns, debt service and restructuring, demographics, disaster reduction and management, education, energy, finance, forests, hazardous waste, health, human settlements, industry, land management, oceans and seas, poverty, sanitation, solid waste, technology, toxic chemicals and waste, trade, transportation, and water. With such breadth, sustainable development is intrinsically complex and complicated. Nevertheless, many leaders, scholars, scientists, activists, and everyday people see sustainable development not only as a sound public policy but also as an important concept necessary for humanity’s survival.
- Cooper, Phillip J. and Claudia Maria Vargas. 2004. Implementing Sustainable Development: From Global Policy to Local Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- United Nations. 2002. Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August-4 September 2002. New York: United Nations.
- United Nations Division of Sustainable Development. (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/about/dsd).
- United Nations Environment Programme. (http://web.unep.org/).
- World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press.
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