Progressing Towards the Next Phase of Sustainable Development

By Leah Hausman

As concerns grow regarding human developmental impact upon the environment and its future, the international community has been searching for a way in which to allow the continuation of development while preserving the environment. Despite the difficulties that the concept of sustainable development has faced during the infancy of its global application, I believe that it offers the best principles and methods to achieve such results. The most common definition of sustainable development was coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission Report as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. However, it was not until the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Earth Summit, that sustainable development truly began to come to the forefront of global ecopolicy. While difficulties in both the theory and practice of sustainable development have arisen since its inception, the refined strategies and technologies exist today that are necessary to make it a more effective as well as socially and economically acceptable approach.

The 1992 UN Earth Summit produced what has become the theoretical blueprint for sustainable development, Agenda 21. The preamble to Agenda 21 states:

Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can ?in a global partnership for sustainable development.2

The Earth Summit produced four other major agreements regarding either sustainable development or the environment: the Rio Declaration, the Biodiversity Treaty, the Statement of Forest Principles, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. These agreements, including Agenda 21, are the result of the deliberation of delegations from 178 countries, heads of state of more than 100 countries, and representatives from more than 1000 NGO’s who attended the conference. There was a follow-up summit in 1997 called the Rio +5 Summit, and there will be a ten-year summit in 2002 to further examine international progress towards sustainable development. While there needs to exist a strong and supportive international community in order for sustainable development policies to become more widespread, the actual implementation of such policies center on the involvement of peoples and organizations from all the different levels of civil and governmental society ?local, national, regional and international. Indeed, one reason why sustainable development offers such hope and promise is the vital inclusion of local, grass-roots and indigenous peoples within each stage of the decision-making and policy implementation process.

Since the 1992 Earth Summit, numerous organizations of virtually every type, international, national, local and non-governmental, have been founded to assist in the creation, implementation and monitoring of sustainable development projects around the world. One such organization is the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), an inter-governmental body composed of members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). One of the CSD’s main functions is to review progress made at the international, regional and national levels towards the implementation of Agenda 21. The CSD meets every year, and with over 50 ministers and 1000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attending, it provides the UN with an excellent means by which to promote dialogue and the building of relationships between the various organizations and groups identified in Agenda 21 as key actors in the success of sustainable development.3 The CSD also encourages governments and international organizations to host workshops and conferences on various issues pertaining to the environment and other related topics. Through these events, the CSD is able to work more effectively with national governments and NGOs in the implementation of sustainable development policies.4 One type of organization that the CSD works closely with are the National Councils for Sustainable Development.

One of the most practically important structures that Agenda 21 laid the groundwork for were the National Councils for Sustainable Development (NCSDs). NCSDs are mechanisms which were agreed upon by the national governments at the 1992 Earth Summit to assist in the application of sustainable development policies. Since then more than 70 NCSDs have been created, and most countries without NCSDs have some other national means by which to implement Agenda 21. NCSDs are non-political, non-partisan and operate in an advisory capacity to the government. The main role of the NCSD is that of integration, with four main facets including:

economic, social and ecological aspects of sustainability;
local and national activities for sustainability;
national, regional and global activities for sustainability; and
the theory of sustainability with sustainable practice.5

A main objective for NCSDs is the building of public interest and consensus towards agreements which will help persuade others to act. NCSDs should be representative of all the different levels and groups involved with and concerned about the environment and development. Thus they require the participation of the president or his representative; ministers of planning and other aspects of the government; civil society including NGOs, labor groups, academia, and people from all aspects of social life; and the economic society.6 Beginning with the 1999-2000 term, the NCSDs will put together a sustainable development report every two years to assess each individual nation’s progress towards meeting the guidelines illustrated in Agenda 21. The report comments upon that nation’s major issues and concerns, difficulties that have risen regarding implementing sustainable development programs, lessons learned, how well the NCSD itself is functioning and its current activities.7 As part of their basic structure as outlined in Agenda 21, NCSDs are to interact with other sustainable development organizations, especially non-governmental organizations.

While the role of organizations outlined and created by the UN for the implementation and monitoring of sustainable development policies is very important, without the contribution of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, many of the past and future successes of sustainable development policies would not be attainable. The number of NGOs involved in sustainable development is quite substantial, and thus any examination of them in general is far beyond the scope of this paper. However, one fair generalization to make is that many of these NGOs came into existence after the 1992 Earth Summit and are greatly concerned with the guidelines set forth in Agenda 21. Two such NGOs are the Citizens Network for Sustainable Development, or CitNet, and The Earth Council. Both organizations were founded in the wake of the Earth Summit and focus their attention on building bridges and creating stronger links across cultural and political boundaries of various groups involved in issues of sustainability.8 The Earth Council in particular interacts with NCSDs by assisting developing countries with the creation and implementation of their own NCSDs and by participating in the production of the NCSD progress reports. NGOs are essential to the success of sustainable development because they possess a greater ability than organizations like the CSD or NCSDs to become actively involved at the local levels while retaining their capacity to function at the national and international levels. CitNet and the Earth Council, as well as thousands of other NGOs, are helping to create the type of international community necessary for the effectual and full implementation of the ideals espoused in Agenda 21.

Sustainable development is first and foremost an economic policy designed to provide continued human development into the future while ensuring the preservation and perhaps even the eventual improvement of the state of the environment. Agenda 21 identifies measures that need to be taken by the international and national communities and governments in order for the necessary conditions to exist that would enable sustainable development to truly thrive. For example, a supportive international climate would involve economies:

(a)   Promoting sustainable development through trade liberalization;

(b) ?/span>Making trade and environment mutually supportive;

(c)   Providing adequate financial resources to developing countries and dealing with international debt;

(d) ?/span>Encouraging macroeconomic policies conducive to environment and development.9

Agenda 21’s suggested economic strategies continually stress the need for reforms such as the increased transparency of commodity markets, which would expose their real costs as reflected by

non-subsidized prices, and the need to create a supportive international and domestic environment in which governments could feel secure in their ventures into new types of development, trade, implementation of new technologies, etc. Furthermore, Agenda 21 recognizes the need for changes not only in the way in which the national and international communities interact economically to support sustainable development, but at the very core of economic and social planning and decision-making processes.

The incorporation of economic and environmental considerations into the everyday decision-making process is one of the most crucial factors influencing the effectiveness of sustainable development programs and policies. Chapter 8 of Agenda 21 is dedicated to examining the current decision-making process and proposing ways in which socio-economic and environmental issues could become more fully integrated within them. In order for individual countries to improve their decision-making processes, Agenda 21 proposes four main objectives:

(a)   To conduct a national review of economic, sectoral, and environmental policies, strategies and plans to ensure the progressive integration of environmental and developmental issues;

(b) ?/span>To strengthen institutional structures to allow the full integration of environmental and developmental issues, at all levels of decision-making;

(c)   To develop or improve mechanisms to facilitate the involvement of concerned individuals, groups and organizations in decision-making at all levels;

(d) ?/span>To establish domestically determined procedures to integrate environment and development issues in decision-making.10

Essentially, all these measures are intended to help set up an international economic climate in which countries can feel secure about implementing sustainable development programs. One reason why sustainable development offers such hope for achieving its goals is its intrinsic awareness of and respect for the importance of involvement from peoples at all different levels of

society. Sustainable development is not a policy that offers only one possible method of implementation, and indeed, no such policy could ever be effective in today’s complex global society. Effective policies must be able to take a basic philosophical strategy and customize its application to each individual area, something at which sustainable development excels. Agenda 21 provides a very thorough, initial framework for the application and implementation of sustainable development.

The current debate regarding how sustainable development should progress centers around the issues of domestic and international economic policies and the use of technological innovation. One economic inhibitor to sustainable development is governmental subsidies which can harm both the environment and the economy.11 A subsidy is any measure that reduces costs for both consumers and producers through either direct or indirect support. Subsidies can adversely affect sustainable development because they conceal the full costs and benefits of production and consumption, leading to unsustainable practices. In his article, Andre de Moor examined four areas of government subsidy policies: energy, road transport, water and agriculture. The two areas which receive the largest overall amounts of governmental subsidies are energy, with an estimated $220 to $280 billion being spent worldwide, and agriculture, with nearly $335 billion in OECD countries alone.12 Moor strongly advocates subsidy reform and

offers many ways in which to help ease the transition off governmental subsidies. His strategies include increasing the transparency of subsidy policies in regards to their real motives, costs and impacts; formulating an alternative policy to accomplish the original objective of the subsidy; initiating a comprehensive, long-term strategy for economic reform; and the creation of educational and retraining programs.13 One strategy which Moor reiterates numerous times is the need for sound pricing policies which accurately reflect the real and full costs for both consumers and producers. When neither party has to pay full price for a commodity, there is less of an incentive to conserve the commodity or to seek out alternatives. Indeed, there are alternatives currently available for a great deal of these economically and environmentally unsound policies. The introduction of these technological alternatives needs to become more intimately involved with the application of sustainable development programs around the world.

Technological innovation is perhaps the best means by which to improve the actual strategies for and implementation of sustainable development around the world. The new technologies being developed are far more environmentally sensitive and economically sound than the systems for development being utilized now. These technologies “offer the promise of becoming less dependent on the consumption of physical materials and less reliant on polluting activities.?a style='mso-endnote-id: edn14' href="#_edn14" name="_ednref14" title="">14 However, there are many reasons why such innovations have not become commonplace throughout the world including governmental subsidies, the existence of a gap in the funding of innovative technologies, and the perceived risks and uncertainties associated with an unstable environmental technology market.15 The importance of removing subsidies when they fail to effectively achieve their objectives is clear, for until traditional technologies are forced to be seen for their full costs and implications, new technologies will remain hidden and unattractive to the economic community. Furthermore, by successfully addressing the issue of the funding gap, which occurs between the most critical stages of research and small-scale demonstrations of the technology, technologies would receive better and more consistent funding, thus making them more marketable to potential investors and decreasing the fundamental instability associated with its market. Without increased development, funding and implementation of these new environmentally and economically friendly technologies, the future of sustainable development as an effective and relevant policy is highly uncertain.

The main challenges facing sustainable development today are how to effectively integrate environmental and economic concerns in the decision-making process and how to introduce the new technological innovations. I believe that the blueprint for sustainable development, Agenda 21, laid an original foundation that is still applicable and relevant to these issues. Integration within the decision making process requires discussion, and thus the vehicles and a forum in which all levels of government, organizations and other people concerned with the success of sustainable development may come together in such a fashion. The UN and Agenda 21 called for the creation of the NCSDs, the CSD and the annual CSD meeting which brings together UN members, NGOs and other key groups and individuals. Strong international, regional, national and local communities are needed for both effectual discussion on how to create and implement sustainable development programs and for securing an economic climate in which new technologies can be funded and developed more securely and widespread. I strongly believe that improved technology is the way forward. However, until the old technologies are shown for what they are, outdated, outmoded, environmentally and economically wasteful and unsound, the new technologies will not have a chance to come to a forefront of public attention. This is why economic reforms such as increasing the transparency of commodity and subsidy markets and forcing consumers and producers to understand the real costs of the commodities and utilities are so crucial; people must fully comprehend the current situation before they will truly consider alternatives.

The global community’s growing realization of how interdependent upon each other we really are, coupled with a heightened awareness of the social, economic and environmental conditions around the world, is fueling the fire beneath the concept of sustainable development. It is part of human nature to develop and create. Our environment is starting to show signs that it cannot continue to accommodate such development if it proceeds in the same manner and at the same rate. Thus we are left with the question of how do we, the human race, find a way in which we can continue to push forward economically and developmentally without destroying the environment. Sustainability is the answer and sustainable development is the process and means by which we can accomplish this. Although the concept of sustainable development pre-existed the 1992 Earth Summit, it was with Agenda 21 that a true framework was developed that specified the goals of sustainable development and the economic strategies that could achieve them. Since 1992, the implementation of sustainable development policies have met with difficulties and criticisms advocating various ways in which it can be improved and restructured. This readjustment involves the introduction of new technologies and creating a stronger social and economic climate at all levels of policy and decision-making, from the smallest local, grass-roots organization to large international NGOs and the UN. Such achievements are assuredly within our reach and the boundaries of sustainable development. The basic philosophies and strategies of sustainable development make it the best approach currently available to actualize humanity’s hope for the future of both the environment and continued economic growth and development.

1 WCED Report. Our Common Future. 43.

2 UN Agenda 21. Preamble. Chapter 1.1.

3 UN Sustainable Development and CSD webpage:

4 ibid.

5 NCSD homepage, Frequently Asked Questions:

6 ibid.

7 NCSD Sustainable Development Report:

8 Citizens Network for Sustainable Development homepage:

The Earth Council homepage:

9 UN Agenda 21. Introduction. Chapter 2.3.

10 UN Agenda 21. Integrating Environment and Development in Decision-Making. Chapter 8.3

11 Andre de Moor. Perverse Incentives: Subsidies and Sustainable Development.???


12 ibid. Summary, p.2.

13 ibid. Chapter 7.4

14 John T. Preston. Technological Innovation and Environmental Progress. In Chertow M.R. 1997. p.136.

15 ibid. p. 140-145.


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