Keeping the sustainable development flame alive

Development Policy25 Jun 2011Sander Happaerts, Sofie Bouteligier, Karoline van den Brande

The concept of sustainable development has been rearing its head in international, national and local policy debates for almost 25 years. And yet the precise meaning of the concept is still elusive. It is vague and difficult to actually put into practice. That’s why policy makers, civil society activists and scholars use it with reserve. But what is the history of the concept, and what does its future look like?

The rise of sustainable development

Sustainable development first appeared on the international agenda in 1987 after the World Commission on Environment and Development published its report, Our Common Future. Convened by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1983 to formulate ‘a global agenda for change’, the commission was chaired by the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and comprised 22 members from 21 different countries worldwide.

The Brundtland Commission, as it was also known, provided a tangible definition of sustainable development in its report: ‘sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ It also raised a number of other concerns. The environment, it suggested, lies at the heart of social and economic development. It therefore advocated integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of human development. It also outlined the common challenges facing countries in the North and the South. The report’s key merit is that it increased awareness for sustainable development among policy makers, civil society activists and scholars.

Major milestone

The UN Conference on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Earth Summit, was prompted by the Brundtland Commission and convened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It was a major milestone for sustainable development as it firmly placed the issue on the agenda of policy makers around the globe. It mobilized a large number of representatives from a variety of sectors. More than 170 national governments attended the conference, and about 1,400 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were present at peripheral events.

The Earth Summit created a wave of momentum for sustainable development. From then on, output documents generated by Rio (including a political declaration) guided thinking about sustainable development. Most importantly, a global action plan called ‘Agenda 21’ presented detailed guidelines and instruments for working towards sustainable development in targeted issue areas (such as poverty, health, forests, agriculture and waste). Some concrete actions prompted by Agenda 21 were the adoption of national strategies for sustainable development and the preparation of national reports by countries worldwide. Particular attention was also given to involving international and regional organizations in the process, as well as initiatives developed by local authorities.

Earth Summit aftermath

Governments negotiated three important, legally binding international agreements at the Earth Summit. Two of them were subsequently opened for signature: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. A political impulse at the summit set in motion negotiations for a third agreement in the years following the summit, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. In addition, the governments present at the Earth Summit signed a so-called Statement of Forest Principles. Governments from all over the world have gathered each year since then to deliberate on these different global issues. The public is already familiar with the annual UN meetings on climate change (such as the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009), which receive broad media attention.

Another direct outcome of the Earth Summit was the establishment of the new UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in 1993. The CSD is principally responsible for following up on the implementation of the Rio commitments and providing policy guidance to UN member states. From 1993 on, the CSD’s work programme determined the international agenda on sustainable development, and the CSD has been the main global focal point for annual discussions related to sustainable development issues. So the CSD has been keeping the international debate on sustainable development alive after the Earth Summit, although its annual sessions generally receive little attention (for more information on the CSD, see box 3 on sustainable development in the UN).

A Rio+5 Summit took place in 1997, five years after the original Earth Summit. As a Special Session of the UN General Assembly, it adopted a resolution called Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, and it set 2002 as the deadline for the formulation and elaboration of national strategies for sustainable development.

The Earth Summit and Rio+5 also influenced sustainable development politics in international organizations other than the UN. Two good examples of international organizations that set up decision-making processes on sustainable development are the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) (for more information on sustainable development in the OECD and the EU, see boxes 1 and 2).

Sustainable development in the EU

The Rio and Johannesburg Summits also had a major impact on policy making in the EU. The EU has always promoted global sustainable development, and it plays an active role in CSD and AMSDE discussions. Moreover, it has its own sustainable development policy.

In the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, the EU adopted sustainable development as one of its core goals. That was followed by the formulation in 2001 of an EU Sustainable Development Strategy. The strategy was renewed in 2006 and will be revised again this year. It defines seven key challenges for sustainable development in the EU: 1) climate change and clean energy; 2) sustainable transport; 3) sustainable consumption and production; 4) conservation and management of natural resources; 5) public health; 6) social inclusion, demography and migration; 7) and global poverty.

About 10 years after the development of its first Sustainable Development Strategy, the EU’s discussions on the topic seem to have reached a standstill. After the strategy was revised in 2006, the EU has limited its internal sustainable development agenda to a two-yearly progress report by the European Commission. A new progress report, and possibly also a new revision of the strategy, are expected in 2011. An important issue remains the relationship between the socioeconomic post-Lisbon strategy (Europe 2020) and the EU’s Sustainable Development Strategy. Both provide general objectives for the EU, the Sustainable Development Strategy being focused especially on a long-term vision. Voices for embedding the Sustainable Development Strategy in the new Europe 2020-strategy so that there is one overarching framework for EU policy are getting louder.

Rio revisited

There was little reason for optimism ten years after the Rio Summit, Many national governments still lacked a national strategy for sustainable development. Indeed, many did not live up to their promises. The need to improve progress towards implementing Agenda 21 was the impulse behind the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Although the enthusiasm for sustainable development was remarkably lower than in 1992, the Johannesburg Summit resulted in a comprehensive Plan of Implementation together with a political declaration endorsed by 191 UN member states. The Plan of Implementation stressed that all levels of governance need to achieve results and that partnerships can be created between various actors in order to implement sustainable development. Moreover, national governments pledged to complete their strategies for sustainable development and implement them by 2005.

After Johannesburg

Approximately 100 national governments are implementing their sustainable development strategy today. Governments have also established sustainable development advisory councils to institutionalize consultation with non-governmental stakeholders. The European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils network consists of 30 of these advisory councils from 15 EU member states.

Subnational governments have set up transnational networks to exchange best practices and increase their voice at the international level (for example, the Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development, created in 2003). Furthermore, according to ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, about 6,000 local governments in 113 countries worldwide have initiated Local Agenda 21 processes.

In addition, more than 300 Partnerships for Sustainable Development have been set up since Johannesburg. These are voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives (bringing together governmental and non-governmental actors) meant to increase the implementation of sustainable development. Since February 2004, information on those Partnerships has been compiled in a UN Partnerships Database.

The Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia) is an example. CAI-Asia has been registered as a partnership since 2007. It aims to increase the quality of air and life in Asian cities. Various stakeholders can become members, such as local governments, national governments, civil society, academics, business and development organizations.

Finally, various institutions dealing with sustainable development have emerged in the private and non-governmental sphere. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future are two examples.

Sustainable development in the OECD

The OECD put sustainable development on its agenda in 1997, a belated response to the momentum generated by the Earth Summit. The organization’s members, 34 industrialized countries, now discuss issues related to sustainable development at the two-day Annual Meeting of Sustainable Development Experts (AMSDE). The AMSDE mainly aims to monitor how sustainable development is integrated in the work of the OECD and share best practices among the member states. It also indicates which sustainable development areas should take priority in the OECD’s work, for example sustainable development statistics, sustainable consumption and production, education for sustainable development and corporate social responsibility.

The OECD faces difficulties similar to those of the CSD. Since Rio, three different bodies have subsequently been mandated to discuss sustainable development issues. The current situation, involving the AMSDE, is a meeting at expert level. It is in stark contrast to the situation following the Johannesburg summit, when sustainable development was a high-level issue in the OECD.

The AMSDE’s functioning was severely criticized during the last meeting in October 2010. As a result, its usefulness was questioned. Many member states (including the Czech Republic, the United States, Japan and Italy) advocated an extension of this specialized body’s mandate for no longer than one year and specified that the mandate should focus exclusively on the AMSDE’s future. The members of AMSDE ultimately agreed on a two-year extension, but the OECD Council decided to extend AMSDE’s mandate for only one.

Sustainable development is rapidly giving way to green growth in the OECD. Some are afraid it will altogether replace the OECD’s work on sustainable development. Indeed, green growth is a more attractive concept for discussion in the economic context of the OECD – especially in a period of economic crisis and in light of a leaner OECD budget. One can only conclude that sustainable development has a bleak future at the OECD.

Second wind?

Overall enthusiasm for the concept of sustainable development among governmental, civil society and private organizations is tainted by doubt. Almost 25 years after the Brundtland Commission, the meaning of the concept is still unclear. Indeed, the very concept is interpreted in a variety of ways by different actors. Moreover, many governments are hesitant or uncertain about how to integrate sustainable development into their policies.

Could a new Earth Summit create new momentum and give sustainable development a second wind? Only time will tell what the future looks like. One thing is certain though. A new Earth Summit is due to take place in 2012, when the UN holds the Rio+20 Summit, or the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). The biggest challenge is to figure out a way for the upcoming Earth Summit to gain ground, while progress towards achieving sustainable development is faltering.

It was former Brazilian president Lula da Silva who launched the idea of a new summit at the 2007 UN General Assembly. Most of those supporting the proposal were developing countries and NGOs. The G-77 – a group of 130 developing countries that voices its members’ collective interests and advocates strengthening their joint negotiating capacity within the UN – and China supported the idea of holding a summit immediately and put it on the agenda of the 2008 UN General Assembly. The international NGO Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, meanwhile, hosted several multi-stakeholder events to promote the summit. Developing countries and NGOs are motivated by the need for reviewing the progress made since 1992 and for renewing political momentum. They want to increase real action for sustainable development, produce better results and reverse the increasing implementation gap with regard to the commitments made in Rio and Johannesburg. Action is urgent, certainly in light of the newly arisen challenges and crises (financial, food and energy, to name a few) the world is currently facing.

However, not all parties – especially some industrialized countries – were convinced by the idea of a new summit. One of their main fears was that a new summit would disrupt the agenda of other important global governance processes. To name a few: the climate negotiations in the framework of the UNFCCC, the Millennium Development Goals and the discussions on sustainable consumption and production (by the CSD, for example). The international community was also experiencing a kind of ‘summit fatigue’. And the cost (in terms of the time, staff and money governments must invest) of organizing such a summit was further cause for reticence.

It was clear in 2009 that Rio+20 would take place, when many governments felt they had reached the point of no return. In preparation, they started to conceive the summit’s potential agenda. After most governments expressed their approval, in December 2009 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to hold a UNCSD in May 2012 in Rio. The UNCSD has identified the following three objectives: secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development; assess the progress and implementation gaps regarding previously agreed commitments; and address new and emerging challenges. The discussions will be structured around two themes: a green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The preparatory process was formally set in motion after the adoption of the General Assembly’s resolution. Three Preparatory Committee Meetings have been scheduled, two of which took place in May 2010 and March 2011, and one is scheduled to be held in 2012 immediately before the summit. Three informal Intersessional Meetings are set to complement the official meetings in January and November 2011, and in 2012.

It’s not easy being green

The green economy and its relationship with sustainable development is a point of discussion that has popped up before Rio+20 and which still causes friction. Southern countries, for example, are concerned about the meaning of the concept and about what it might imply for their economies. Will industrialized countries use it as yet another excuse to protect their markets? Will the social dimension of sustainable development, which principally entails poverty reduction in the South, still be incorporated?

It’s not easy being green. The word is used in various ways and in various contexts. The OECD speaks of ‘green growth’, for example, while the various UN bodies speak of ‘green economy’. Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched its ‘Green Economy Report’ in February 2011. However you interpret its meaning, it has definitely become a new global ‘hot topic’, especially now that many governments are attempting to reinvigorate their economies after a period of crisis.

It is by now widely accepted that economic growth must be accompanied by ‘green’ concerns. Yet discussions about what a green economy means for our society are still in their infancy. We will have to wait for the result of the ongoing discussions to understand its relationship with sustainable development. For the time being, proponents of the Brundtland interpretation of the concept of sustainable development hope that it will not be usurped by green economy. They fear that this would distort the balance between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of human development, which is exactly what sustainable development is striving for.

Wait and see

It is highly likely that the political momentum created by Rio+20 will up sustainable development’s ante again. Nevertheless, nobody can predict to what extent and in which form. In January 2011, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon already proclaimed sustainable development as one of this year’s eight priorities for the UN. Let’s wait and see what happens.

Sustainable development in the UN

The Earth Summit resulted in the establishment of a new UN commission in 1993, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The Commission has 53 members, each of which has one vote and is elected for a three-year term out of the total group of UN member states. However, other UN member states, UN organizations, accredited inter-governmental organizations and NGOs are also invited to speak (not vote) at the CSD.

The CSD process is unique in its close involvement of civil society. Representatives of the nine so-called major groups can actively participate at its discussions: women; children and youth; indigenous people; NGOs; local authorities; workers and trade unions; business and industry; scientific and technological communities; and farmers. The Commission meets annually in New York for two weeks around May, and over the years it has discussed a variety of issues related to Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. Topics being discussed at the CSD in 2010 and 2011 at the CSD are transport, chemicals, waste management, mining, and sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The CSD is often referred to as a talk shop. It is a forum where many issues are discussed, but few actual decisions are made. Controversial political issues such as trade, illegal settlements or occupied territories are often points of discussion in the CSD. They tend to create a stalemate between developed and developing countries. This kind of stalemate prevented a positive outcome of the most recent CSD meeting in May 2011, for example.

Another contentious issue is climate change, which is negotiated under the auspices of the UNFCCC. Climate change is clearly related to sustainable development, but the United States, for example, refuses to discuss issues at the CSD that are already dealt with in other forums. The negotiating group of the G-77 and China, meanwhile, is often accused of using the CSD to persuade Northern countries to increase their development aid and facilitate technology transfer.

Even after an organizational reform in 2003, many are still critical about the way the CSD functions. The 2007 session ended without having produced an agreement. The EU and Switzerland considered a compromise document weak and so rejected it. The difficulty reaching consensus in 2007 continues to overshadow negotiations. Moreover, the CSD’s ineffectiveness remains a crucial point of discussion for many participants of the process. Not surprisingly, the institutional framework for sustainable development will be one of the main topics of the Earth Summit in 2012.


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For more reading

  1. On the new Earth Summit (UNCSD): and
  2. Earth Negotiations Bulletin – coverage of sustainable development meetings:
  3. On national sustainable development strategies:
  4. On the European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils network:
  5. On the ICLEI Local Agenda 21 Survey:
  6. On UN Partnerships for Sustainable Development:
  7. On the UN Partnership: Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia):
  8. On sustainable development in the UN (Commission on Sustainable Development):
  9. On sustainable development in the OECD:,3699,en_2649_37425_1_1_1_1_37425,00.html
  10. On sustainable development in the EU: and