Principles of sustainability
The concept of (environmental) sustainability arose out of the growing recognition that human activity is affecting many of the Earth’s critical resources not only locally but now also at global scale, and with potential effects on human as well
as ecological health. Among the many problems, there has been depletion of ocean fisheries, over-exploitation of the great aquifers, an unprecedented rate of species loss, increasing problems of waste disposal, and changes to the gaseous
composition of the lower and middle atmosphere. Recognition of such problems led to the notion of sustainability, which implies development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
own needs. In the 1980s a major initiative was established under the aegis of the United Nations to address issues of environmental sustainability. Its Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally
and locally. Principles of sustainable development are now intrinsic to several of the Millennium Development Goals.
Key definitions and terms
|Agenda 21||A United Nations programme on sustainable development that sets out a 'comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the UN, governments and major
groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment'. The number 21 refers to the 21st century.
|Sustainable development||Development of resources that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs in a similar manner|
|UN CSD||United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development|
Unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources
|Unsustainable effects on the environment||In the last quarter of the 20th century there was growing realization human activity is having major and potentially long-term adverse effects on the environment at global scale,
particularly the disruption of the biosphere's life-support systems. Among the effects of most concern are:
|Implications for health||Many of these changes pose long-term risks to human health, though scientific understanding of the connections is limited. Global climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion are obvious
examples (see section 3). Threats to water, food and energy resources also present clear challenges.
|Energy and health||In relation to energy there are tensions between the needs of the world's poor, and the imperative for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Three major public health challenges relate to:
|International tensions||Some environmental stresses are likely to cause tensions between human communities. For example, many river systems and thus scarce water resources (e.g. the Nile, Ganges, Mekong, Jordan, and
the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) are shared uneasily between neighbours in unstable regions. This raises the prospect of international conflict born of environmental decline, dwindling resources and ecological disruption.
|Agenda 21||In the 1980s a major initiative was established under the aegis of the United Nations to address issues of environmental sustainability.
Its principles for action were enshrined in Agenda 21, which is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally. The core principle is to promote 'development of resources that meets the needs of
the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own'.
|Rio Earth Summit (1992)||The full text of Agenda 21 was revealed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, the 'Earth Summit'), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, where 179
governments voted to adopt the programme.
|Rio Declaration||The conference included the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 27 principles for sustainable development and a Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of
Forests. The first three principles of the Rio Declaration are:
|Commission on Sustainable Development||The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the Rio Earth Summit, to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at the
local, national, regional and international levels. Its goals are:
Millennium Development Goals
|UN Millennium Declaration||In September 2000, at the Millennium Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders in history adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to
reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015. These targets have become known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The eight MDGs form a blueprint to meet the needs of the world’s poorest. They are:
Goal 7 is about sustainable environmental development, and includes the following targets:
- Wilkinson P, Smith KR, Joffe M, Haines A. A global perspective on energy: health effects and injustices. Lancet. 2007 Sep 15;370(9591):965-78.
- World Summit on Sustainable Development
- UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/index.html
- Millennium Project, goal 7
© Dr Paul Wilkinson 2009