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Principles of sustainability

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:
  • an unprecedented rate of loss of whole species and many local populations (bio-diversity loss);
  • changes to the composition of the atmosphere;
  • over-exploiting many of the great aquifers upon which irrigated agriculture depends;
  • reduction of productive soils on all continents;
  • depletion of ocean fisheries;
  • a growing demand for energy based on exploitation of fossil energy sources;
  • an increasing problem of waste disposal.
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:
  • Lack of secure access to clean energy for the poorest people:

         - 1.6 billion without electricity;

         - 2.4 billion use solid fuels in household.
  • Current public health burdens from power generation/energy use

         - 1.6 million deaths p.a. from household exposure;

         - 0.8 million from urban air pollution.
  • Climate change: the global environmental challenge of the 21st century, with potentially major adverse consequences for population health.
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.

Sustainability agenda

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:
  • Principle 1.  Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.  They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.
  • Principle 2.  States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental
    policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.
  • Principle 3.  The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations
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:
  • Integration of the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in policy-making at international, regional and national levels;
  • Wide-spread adoption of an integrated, cross-sectoral and broadly participatory approach to sustainable development;
  • Measurable progress in the implementation of the goals and targets of sustainable development;
  • The commitments to the Rio principles were strongly affirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg in August/September 2002.

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:

  • to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • to achieve universal primary education
  • to promote gender equality and empower women
  • to reduce child mortality
  • to improve maternal health
  • to combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases
  • to ensure environmental sustainability
  • to develop a global partnership for development

Goal 7 is about sustainable environmental development, and includes the following targets:

  • (MDG target 9) To integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources.  Corresponding indicators include:

    -    Proportion of land area covered by forest;

    -    Ratio of area protected to maintain biological diversity to surface area;

    -    Energy use (kg oil equivalent) per $1 gross domestic product GDP;

    -    Carbon dioxide emissions per capita and consumption of ozone-depleting CFCs;

    -    Proportion of population using solid fuels.   
  • (MDG target 10) To halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.  Corresponding indicators:

    -    Proportion of population with sustainable access to an improved water source, urban and rural;

    -    Proportion of population with access to improved sanitation, urban and rural.

  • (MDG target 11). Have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. Indicator:

    -    Proportion of households with access to secure tenure.

Key references

  • 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.

Useful websites

© Dr Paul Wilkinson 2009