IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

12.1.2 Evolution and articulation of the concept of sustainable development

Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there is general agreement that sustainable development requires the adoption of a comprehensive and integrated approach to economic, social and environmental processes (Munasinghe, 1992; Banuri et al., 1994; Najam et al., 2003). The environment-poverty nexus is now well recognized and the linkage between sustainable development and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been clearly articulated (Jahan and Umana, 2003). While the challenge of sustainable development is a common one, countries have to adopt different strategies to advance sustainable development goals – especially in the context of achieving the MDGs (Dalal-Clayton, 2003). The paths they adopt will have important implications for the mitigation of climate change (for a more extensive discussion of MDGs, see Section 2.1.6). As noted in Section and Section 6.6, consideration of clean energy services, even though not explicitly mentioned in the MDGs, will be a vital factor in achieving both sustainable development and climate mitigation goals.

However, discourses of sustainable development have historically focused primarily on the environmental and economic dimensions (Barnett, 2001), while overlooking the need for social, political and/or cultural change (Barnett, 2001; Lehtonen, 2004; Robinson, 2004). As Lehtonen (2004) explains, however, most models of sustainable development conceive of social, environmental (and economic) issues as ‘independent elements that can be treated, at least analytically, as separate from each-other’ (p. 201). The importance of social, political and cultural factors, for example, poverty, social equity, governance, is only now getting more recognition. In particular, there is a growing recognition of the importance of the institutional and governance dimensions (Banuri and Najam, 2002). From a climate change perspective, this integration is essential in order to define sustainable development paths. Moreover, as discussed in this chapter, understanding the institutional context in which policies are made and implemented is critical.

As noted in Chapter 2, the term ‘sustainable development,’ has given rise to considerable debate and concerns (Robinson, 2004). First, the variety of definitions of sustainable development (Meadowcroft, 1997; Pezzoli, 1997; Mebratu, 1998) has raised concerns about definitional ambiguity or vagueness. In response, it has been argued that this vagueness may constitute a form of constructive ambiguity that allows different interests to engage in the debate, and the concept to be further refined through implementation (Banuri and Najam, 2002; Robinson, 2004). The concept of sustainable development is not unique in this respect, since its conceptual vagueness bears similarities to other norm-based meta-objectives such as ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘justice’ (Lafferty, 1996; Meadowcroft, 2000).

Second, the term ‘sustainable development’ can be used to support cosmetic environmentalism, sometimes called greenwashing, or simply hypocrisy (Athanasiou, 1996; Najam, 1999). One response to such practices has been the development of greatly improved monitoring, analytical techniques, and standards, in order to verify claims about sustainable practices (Hardi and Zdan, 1997; OECD, 1998; Bell and Morse, 1999; Parris and Kates, 2003). See Section 12.1.3.

Finally, the most serious concern about sustainable development is that it is inherently delusory. Some critics have argued that because biophysical limits constrain the amount of future development that is sustainable, the term ‘sustainable development’ is itself an oxymoron (Dovers and Handmer, 1993; Mebratu, 1998; Sachs, 1999). This leads some to argue for a ‘strong sustainability’ approach in which natural capital must be preserved since it cannot be substituted by any other form of capital (Pearce et al., 1989; Cabeza Gutes, 1996). Others point out that the concept of sustainable development is anthropocentric, thereby avoiding reformulation of values that may be required to pursue true sustainability (Suzuki and McConnell, 1997). While very different in approach and focus, both these criticisms raise fundamental value questions that go to the heart of present debates about environmental and social issues.

Despite these criticisms, basic principles are emerging from the international sustainability discourse, which could help to establish commonly held principles of sustainable development. These include, for instance, the welfare of future generations, the maintenance of essential biophysical life support systems, ecosystem wellbeing, more universal participation in development processes and decision-making, and the achievement of an acceptable standard of human well-being (WCED, 1987; Meadowcroft, 1997; Swart et al., 2003; MA, 2005).

The principles of sustainable development have progressively been internalized in various national and international legal instruments (Boyle and Freestone, 1999; Decleris, 2000). Law contributes to the process of defining the concept of sustainable development through both international (treaty) law and national law. At a national level, principles of sustainable development are being implemented in various regions and countries, including New Zealand and the European Union. For example, New Zealand’s Resource Management Act 1991 requires all decisions under the Act to consider and provide for sustainable management of natural and physical resources (Furuseth and Cocklin, 1995). South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act provides for the development of assessment procedures that aim to ensure that environmental consequences of policies, plans and programmes are considered (RSA, 1998). India’s Planning Commission makes sustainability part of the approach to providing ‘Clean Water for All’, noting that this requires a shift from groundwater to surface water where possible, or groundwater recharge (Government of India, 2006). Similarly, the 2000 EC Water Framework Directive is seeking to operationalize principles of sustainable use in the management of EU waters (Rieu-Clarke, 2004).

International environmental treaties generally cite sustainable development as a fundamental principle by which they must be interpreted, but rarely provide any further specification of content. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, includes in its principles the right to promote sustainable development, but does not elaborate modalities for doing so. In response to the necessity to build a framework of equitable, strong, and effective laws needed to manage humanity’s interaction with the Earth and build a fair and sustainable society (Zaelke et al., 2005), the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) launched an initiative at the 2002 WSSD aimed at making a law work for environmental compliance and sustainable development.

Since the 1980s, sustainable development has moved from being an interesting but sometimes contested ideal, to now being the acknowledged goal of much of international policy, including climate change policy. It is no longer a question of whether climate change policy should be understood in the context of sustainable development goals; it is a question of how.