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 a 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 1980’s a major initiative was established under the aegis of the United Nations to address issues of environmental sustainability.  Its Agenda 21[1] 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 (MDG)[2] eight anti-poverty targets that the world committed to achieving by 2015, adopted in 2000, aimed at an array of issues that included slashing poverty, hunger, disease, gender inequality, and access to water and sanitation.  These were updated to the UN Sustainable Development Goals[3]. Otherwise known as the Global Goals, they build on the MDG, showing the value of a unifying agenda underpinned by goals and targets.


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 organisations 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 Sustainable Development Goals

United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

Build upon the MDG to target sustainable development, especially democratic governance and peacebuilding, climate and disaster resilience. SDGs Number 1 on poverty, Number 10 on inequality and Number 16 on governance are particularly central to UNDP’s current work and long-term plans.


Unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources

Unsustainable effects on the environment

In the last quarter of the 20th century there was growing realisation that human activity was 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 per year 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

Environmental sustainability and principles for action were enshrined in Agenda 21 in the 1980s and 90’s,  which promoted global, national and local coordinated action.  The core principle was 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'[4]), 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.
UN sustainable Development Goals As the MDGs era comes to a conclusion, 2016 ushered in the official launch of the transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in 2015 at the United Nations.[5] The UN Sustainable Development Goals[6] otherwise known as the Global Goals, build on the MDG, showing the value of a unifying agenda underpinned by goals and targets.


Key references


Useful websites



                                    © Dr Paul Wilkinson 2009, Rebecca Close and Helen Crabbe 2016