South-South Blog

Sustainable development: Not simply environmental protection
By: on Monday, 07 September 2009
Comments(0)  |  Views(5467)

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." 1 But, has it always existed? What are its implications? Although nowadays sustainable development is a very usual term, it has not always been like that.

It can be seen that from the environmental agenda's point of view there have been some important events in the evolution of that term, the most important ones being the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (usually known as the Stockholm Conference) in 1972, the Brundtland Report publication in 1987 and the Rio Conference in 1992. The beginning of the idea of ecologically sustainable development was discussed for the first time at the Biosphere Conference in 1968. However, it was after the Stockholm Conference that environmental issues were definitely set in the international agenda, that issues such as environmental pollution and species conservation started to be analyzed and that environment and development, which so far seemed to oppose each other, began to be treated as interrelated, and actually complementary, areas. Moreover, the link between trade and environment was explicitly brought up at the Conference, with the recommendation that States should not"(...) invoke environmental concerns as a pretext for discriminatory trade policies or for reduced access to markets (...)" 2 .

Then, in 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development 3 -- also known as the Brundtland Commission-- presented a report entitled Our Common Future, which defines and further explores the term "sustainable development". It states that pursuing a sustainable development strategy means that political, social, economic, technological and production systems should work towards harmony between humanity and nature. Consequently, sustainable development matters were reinforced in the international agenda through Agenda 21, an integral plan of action to foster sustainable development at the international, national and local levels resulting from the 1992 Rio Conference.

Meanwhile, other international organizations started studying the linkages between economics and environment, highlighting the need for mutual support and greater integration of the two. Indeed, the term was also recognized in the multilateral trade system at the Marrakesh Agreement that created the World Trade Organization in 1995. Consequently, sustainable development started having its own space in commercial negotiations, particularly after the launch of the Doha Round, which has set development as its main objective.

To sum up, while the initial idea was to find ways to limit economic growth rather than try to find tools for sustainable production, when the Brundtland Report was published, the resulting approach was to seek for a mutually reinforcing relationship between economic growth, social development and environmental protection. Thus, one of the main features that should be taken into account when referring to sustainable development is that it has not only an environmental dimension but two other equally important pillars as well. This is the main reason why it is so complex and challenging to translate it into actual policies.

1 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: "Our Common Future", Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development. The full report is available at

2 Action Plan for the Human Development, Recommendation 103, 1972.

Available at

3 The Commission had been created to make environmental perspectives to the year 2000 and elaborate some strategies to have control over the environmental problems up to that year and beyond.