Sustainable development 20 years on

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission first popularised the concept of sustainable development. Twenty years on, what progress has been made – and what challenges do we face? Steve Bass surveys the road ahead.

It is 20 years since the World Commission on Environment and Development – the 1987 Brundtland Commission – released its influential report and introduced the concept of sustainable development to the political mainstream, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Global summits in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and Johannesburg in 2002 led to multiple governmental commitments on sustainable development, and helped to extend the concept’s reach into the worlds of business, local government and civil society.

All of this international summitry has driven the development of an impressive sustainable development “toolkit”, nine key components of which are listed below:

1. The “three pillars” concept of integrating environmental, economic, and social objectives.

This idea has been adopted by many governments in their sustainability appraisal of new policies, and businesses in “triple bottom line” planning. The public is increasingly aware of how the issues are interconnected e.g. “sustainable consumption”.

2. Legal principles.

Among the more impressive developments is the articulation and use of legal principles such as “polluter pays”, precaution and prior informed consent to balance the three pillars. Brundtland’s report identified 22 such principles. Many are now widely used in multilateral environmental agreements and national laws. Along with the three pillars concept, they offer an international lingua franca for sustainable development.

3. International agreements.

The Rio Declaration expresses global aspirations, while the three UN conventions on biodiversity, desertification, and climate change offer shared objectives for global public goods – even if they lack adequate teeth to be effective.

4. Many plans and strategies.

International plans such as Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation were vague, as they had to accommodate various national positions. But they have inspired progressive responses from many governments. There are many national sustainable development strategies, and sustainability components in development plans, but these tend to be idealistic. They lack clear priorities, and have little influence on budgeting, investment and public administration.

5. Political fora and councils.

From the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, through national councils for sustainable development, to local or sectoral initiatives, these serve mainly to identify and debate issues. Few have high status, or are adequately linked to the key processes of legislation and government.

6. Tools for sustainability assessment, and for market, project and fiscal intervention.

There has been considerable innovation in information, analytical, planning, management and deliberative tools – particularly for internalising environmental issues and for enabling stakeholders to express views. But approaches that enable the machinery of government and business to routinely address all three pillars of sustainable development, and especially to set priorities, are in short supply.

7. Voluntary codes and standards.

Many resource-intensive sectors – notably food, forestry, energy and latterly mining – have been driven to develop these codes for varied reasons of reputation, cost, and resource security. So far, they have tended to mark out existing good players rather than transform whole sectors.

8. “Triad” partnerships.

After initial excessive faith that governments would lead the way to sustainable development, the notion of the “sustainable development triad” of government, civil society, and business actors has taken root. Some partnerships have led to “soft policy” change in several sectors; e.g. the Forest and Marine Stewardship Councils were deliberately articulated around sustainable development principles.

9. Considerable debate and research.

The discourse has been wide, reflecting many academic and professional perspectives – from the technical (rooted in ecology, economics and sociology), to the applied (management and planning) and the political (assertions and criticism of values and structures). This pluralistic approach is critical. Whilst strides have been made in multi-stakeholder debate and policy processes, setting impressive precedents, we do not yet have truly integrated research approaches – “sustainability science” for today’s complex problems.

So has development become more sustainable?

We cannot make a full “report card” of sustainable development since Brundtland. But we can make three major observations: first, the pace, scale and depth of progress towards sustainable development has been inadequate; second, the root causes of unsustainability remain firmly in place even if some symptoms have been tackled; and third, most people do not yet “feel the burn” to act, whether in government, business or as individuals.

In 2005, three landmark reports commissioned by the UN emphasised the scale of the problem. The Millennium Project confirmed that progress in reducing poverty was too slow. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 16 out of 25 services that ecosystems provide to humanity were being critically degraded. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly demonstrated one major impact of unsustainable development paths. The fact that these reports were not treated together is itself a sign that an integrated, sustainable-development approach is not being pursued globally. Thus the underlying causes of unsustainable development remain – in brief:

Economic growth is considered an inviolable principle, rather than people’s rights and welfare, or environmental processes and thresholds;

* Environmental benefits and costs are externalised;

* Poor people are marginalised, and inequities entrenched;

* Governance regimes are not designed to internalise environmental factors, to iron out social inequities, or to develop better economic models;

* Therefore unsustainable behaviour has not been substantially challenged.

There are three paradoxes here. First, the economic paradigm that has caused poverty and environmental problems to persist is the very thing that we are relying on to solve those problems. Second, this unsatisfactory state of affairs co-exists with a policy climate that espouses sustainable development. Third, action is being neglected just when it is most urgently needed: sustainable development remains at best a “virtual” world, a planners’ dream.

Why is this? If pushed, it is not very difficult for any government, company or individual to define what they are doing as “sustainable” using the current vague terms associated with the concept: they have considered the “three pillars” and balanced them in a way that makes apparent good sense, selecting the boundaries of analysis (global or local, short or long term) so as to avoid the need to make any difficult trade-offs. Environmental interests are guilty of this, too. Many conservation organisations are still unwilling to address trade-off questions such as “how much biodiversity is really needed?”

The concept of sustainable development has caught on quickly in recent years, especially in larger corporations. Such a wide adoption contrasts sharply with the continuing lack of meaningful targets, action and accountability associated with it. Thus what was once seen as revolutionary is now just as likely to be seen as regressive. It has become neglected.

Indeed, the sustainable development “toolkit” has barely influenced the recent raft of debates, policies and action relating to two major global issues that demand sustainable solutions – climate change and poverty elimination. This is a real problem. On the one hand, this presents risks e.g. that poverty reduction will be at substantial environmental cost, or that climate change mitigation will lead to economic stagnation. On the other hand, those promoting sustainable development can learn from the tactics that poverty and climate change initiatives have used to achieve such high political, business and public profiles. In both, a clear focus on three things – human values, economics and drivers of future change – has helped to give these agendas traction beyond narrow “climate” or “poverty” communities.

New challenges

Powerful drivers of change that have been emerging over the past 20 years may further entrench the root causes of unsustainability or offer real opportunities to address them:

The rapid emergence of the “BRICS(Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, etc) countries as major economic powers – and potentially also as the new “gatekeepers” of sustainability. With enormous reach as both producers and consumers, they could either establish sustainable paths or exacerbate asset-stripping approaches and inequities.

The shift from rural to urban settlement and investment, and consequent changes in demands and scarcities, as well as in dominant value systems. How urban governments are organised, and how they work with stakeholders, will be significant in shaping debates, rules and investments for sustainable development.

Globalisation’s dramatic reshaping of economies,whether based on subsidised capital for rapid investment as in China, or on the supply of under-priced raw materials as in Africa. The democratic governance of consumerist societies is increasingly “taking from the future” rather than creating resilience for the future. We need positive visions of, for example, a sustainable Chinese trade strategy or a sustainable African economy.

The increased frequency and severity of non-linear events.This trend is already evident in climate systems and some ecosystems, with increased floods, droughts and storms. Other potential risks, often linked to globalisation, include global disease epidemics and economic collapse. The ticking clocks or sudden shocks associated with such events may spur practical action.

The multiplication of ways for communities of interest to interact.Globalisation and the internet open up many possibilities to redirect sustainable development efforts through trade, learning, lobbying, communication and coalitions for action.

The dramatic improvements in surveillance, mapping and information technology.These offer efficient, effective and potentially highly transparent means to clarify just what is going on with resource use and abuse, and how this correlates spatially with other problems.

The increasing risk of clashes between “haves” and “have-nots”. The possibility that some people are able to adopt what today are considered to be “sustainable lifestyles”, and others are not, will threaten many people’s current ideas of sustainable development. It will also open the debate up to key discussions on security and society.

Decreasing public appetite for “big ideas”.The end of the Cold War and the emergence of various forms of terrorism and fundamentalism have limited the political and public attractiveness of concepts unless they can be brought home and given a human face. This presents a big challenge where sustainable development is still seen as an external, distant aspiration.

The erosion of multilateralism by powerful unilateralists,and the fragile path towards improving multilateralism being trod by others. Sustainable development offers an approach that values global public goods and demands an equitable multilateral regime. UN reform offers one opportunity for sustainable development to be constructed globally as a common, unifying goal.

But where should we focus our energies now?

Efforts over the next 20 years should now be directed at the entrenched structural problems that distort both developmental and environmental prospects – focusing on key injustices and environmental tipping points, notably climate change.They will have to get to grips with fast-changing dynamics, and anticipate futures more keenly. Systems that link information on human and ecosystem well-being will be a key part of this. They will focus on making hard decisions on real priorities – and less on refining the grand plans of the past, with their overly comprehensive agendas and long wish-lists of win-wins. Ways of “wiring together” public administrations to support sustainable development will be a key part of this.

These efforts require greater engagement with local, traditional and non-western actors, with poor people and environmentally dependent stakeholders – as well as with diverse scientific traditions. Many local institutions have evolved precisely to integrate changing social, environmental and economic objectives in people’s daily lives, to make clear trade-offs where integration is not possible, and to foster equity within and between generations – in other words, sustainable development. This contrasts with governments, corporations and even many interest groups, which tend to treat issues such as poverty and environment separately. We need to bring on board discourses and traditions that have been missing from the sustainable development debate, asking “what is desirable to improve the quality of life?” and “what has already improved this, from whatever source?” We have less need to ask “what is the impact of formal policies to date?”: a question that will dominate this year’s twentieth anniversary of the Brundtland Commission. We have more need to ask “What changes lie ahead, and how can we be resilient to them?” – a question that also demands greater engagement with scientists. In the past 20 years, scientists have proven to be key in identifying and exploring issues such as ozone layer depletion and acid rain. For the next 20 years, nothing less than a joint scientific endeavour – “sustainability science” – will be required to investigate complex syndromes, such as climate change and biodiversity, which shape our future wellbeing.


Steve Bass is a senior fellow of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), an independent, nonprofit research institute working in the field of sustainable development. IIED aims to provide expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development at local, national, regional and global levels.

The full report can be accessed here