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What is sustainable development?

Mark Diesendorf

Watering seedlings at a husbandry, Indonesia; “Husbandry” by CIFOR is licenced by CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED

Sustainable development definition
Sustainable development is a 20th century term describing a concept that has evolved over centuries. Living in harmony with the natural environment is central to Taoism, which goes back to at least the 4th century BCE. The concept of sustainable development also has been a minority theme of Christianity from St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century to Pope Francis in the 21st century (Francis 2015).

The best-known definition of sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED 1987). While offering the important perspective of intergenerational equity, this definition raises several questions: Does development necessarily entail economic growth? What are genuine needs as opposed to desires? What about intragenerational (social) equity? Would an ecocentric concept be preferable to an anthropocentric one? Nowadays there are hundreds of different definitions that emphasize different aspects of the concept of sustainable development.

The term ‘sustainable development’ is sometimes conflated with ‘sustainability’, although a more precise approach is to regard sustainability as the goal of a process called ‘sustainable development’. Sustainability is the distant mountain we wish to climb and sustainable development is a pathway to the mountain and its summit.

Many authors consider that sustainable development, like sustainability, has three components, ecological or environmental, social (equity or justice) and economic. Most Green political parties do not have economic sustainability among their basic goals, but rather choose participatory democracy as well as peace/nonviolence, environmental protection and social justice as their pillars. A few authors, recognising the continuing destruction of indigenous cultures, add cultural sustainability.

Definitions by neoliberal economists and many business people allow trade-offs between ‘natural capital’ (the natural environment) and human capital: e.g. they consider that a forest can be sacrificed to build a mine; a species can be sacrificed for a housing development. They generally give nominal equal weight to the three main aspects (see Fig. 1), e.g. triple bottom line in business. Scientists and ecological economists describe this approach as ‘weak’ sustainable development, because continuing trade-offs will lead to the eventual destruction of the environment that sustains all life on Earth, including human society. It’s the death of a thousand cuts. Ecologists and other scientists recognise that we humans are totally dependent upon the natural environment for the air that we breathe, freshwater, soils, food and nutrients, and a stable climate with a range of temperatures suitable for human societies. We depend on the natural biogeochemical cycles – e.g. carbon, oxygen, water, phosphorus and nitrogen cycles – to survive and thrive. (Washington 2013)

Scientists and ecological economists generally choose ‘strong’ definitions of sustainable development that give priority to environmental protection. An example is: ‘Sustainable development comprises types of economic and social development that protect and enhance (or restore) the natural environmental and social justice’ (Diesendorf 2000). ‘Development’, as used in ‘strong’ definitions, covers social and economic improvements in a broad sense it may or may not involve economic growth. ‘Strong’ sustainable development assigns priorities to the three basic aspects by illustrating them as three concentric circles, the outer being ecological, the middle one being social and the innermost one being economic (Fig. 2). This conception illustrates the understanding that human society is contained within the environment, that the economy is just one part of society, and there does not have to be a trade-off between the environment and the economy. For the high-income countries, which have been using up the vast majority of natural resources and producing most of the environmental damage, Daly (1977, p.17) argues that development should consist of qualitative improvement in human well-being and unfolding of human potential, instead of continuing economic growth.

Some approaches to sustainable development set out principles and goals, such as intergenerational and intragenerational (social) equity, conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, the Precautionary Principle, community participation in decision-making and the improvement of individual and community well-being (Diesendorf 1997). The Precautionary Principle states that, ‘where there exist threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.’ The approach via principles and goals was a characteristic of the Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) process instituted by the Australian Government in 1990. The process had nine Working Groups, each for a specific industry sector, that comprised representatives of industry, state and federal governments, environmental non-government organisations, trade unions and science (Hamilton and Throsby 1998). Over a period of 13 months, the Working Groups reached agreement on around 500 recommendations, but the federal and state governments failed to implement many of them.

The lack of precision in the definitions of sustainable development and the use of the concept by vested interests to justify continuing environmental damaging activities have led to some critiques of the concept (e.g. Beder 1993). Other authors see sustainable development as an important contestable concept that, by its very nature, cannot be defined in a manner that is precise, like justice and freedom. The meaning of such concepts emerges with continuing discussion and debate.

For low-income countries, the same sustainable development concepts, principles and goals apply, but there are differences in priorities and emphasis. Per capita economic growth may be necessary for development in some countries, but considering the vast disparities in wealth and income that often exist, social equity is equally if not more important. Corruption is endemic in many low-income countries, allowing vested interests to influence government policies, but these practices also exist, albeit in more covert forms, in high-income countries such as the USA (Leonhardt & Philbrick 2018) and Australia (Lucas 2018).

High rates of population growth have large adverse environmental and social impacts in low income countries, but the solutions – including education of women, access to contraceptives and improved social security – face religious and political barriers.

Strong debate exists between conventional (neoliberal economics) and alternative sustainable development strategies (Sandbrook 2000). Critics of the former approach argue that investment by large corporations (e.g. mining, forestry, agribusiness, fisheries) often causes immense environmental destruction and extracts wealth as well as physical resources from the low income countries. They propose an alternative sustainable development strategy that focuses on meeting basic needs, decentralisation and appropriate technology. Intermediate technologies (Schumacher 1974) are accessible and empowering to low income-earners, as witness the rapid spread of small solar electric systems for lighting, radio and charging mobile phones. Microcredit has been valuable in helping people to rise out of poverty (Bornstein 1996).

Before discussing future sustainable development strategies, a concise historical sketch is given of the evolution of the concept in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The rise of the sustainable development movement

Source: which is licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

In the 20th century, growing awareness of global and regional environmental damage, together with the failure of conventional economics to protect the environment and remove poverty, stimulated approaches to sustainable development from different perspectives. The concept of the Conserver Society appeared in Canada in 1973 and spread to several other countries. This concept included ‘doing more with less’ and ‘living within the limits to growth’.

Meanwhile, the transdisciplinary field of ecological economics, including its key concept, the steady-state economy, was created under the leadership of Herman Daly (1977). Different schools of thought developed in ecological economics: in North America the emphasis is on environmental protection (Costanza et al. 1997); in Europe on social justice (Langhelle

2000); and in South America on ‘barefoot economics’ (Max-Neef 1992). The first Green political parties were the United Tasmania Group in Australia and the Values Party in New Zealand, both created in 1972. Nowadays there are dozens of Green parties in countries and states/provinces around the world.

The term ‘sustainable development’ was defined and popularised by the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987), and became a major theme of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Key outcomes were the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and an action plan, Agenda 21. However, subsequent implementation by governments has been slow and piece-meal. Earth system science identifies nine planetary boundaries within which humanity could possibly operate safely (Rockström et al. 2009). A recent study finds that humanity has already transgressed six of the nine planetary boundaries – including in particular climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, land use changes and changes to the global nitrogen cycle – and is close to crossing a seventh, changes to the phosphorus cycle (WangErlandsson et al. 2022).

In 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit (UN undated A) as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN undated B).

Degrowth and sustainable prosperity in high-income economies
During the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘green growth’ scenarios were proposed, for example, the Green New Deal in the USA (Ocasio-Cortez 2019) and the Green Deal in the European Union (Simon 2019). But these scenarios do not address the problem that SDG Goal 8, to promote ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable [i.e. ‘green’] economic growth’, may be a contradiction in terms, especially in high-income economies with high consumption rates and in rapidly growing economies that aspire to similar levels of per capita GDP as the high-income economies. Green growth entails decoupling between GDP and environmental impact, which is very rare in practice and, even when it does appear, is limited geographically and temporally (Parrique et al. 2019; Haberl et al. 2020). Therefore, SDG Goal 8, could make SDG Goal 12, ‘to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’, impossible to achieve.

As an example of the problematics of green growth, consider the current challenge of phasing out greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector by technological means alone, i.e. by transitioning to renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

According to data from the International Energy Agency, the total quantity of renewable energy (excluding biofuels and wastes) used for global electricity generation, transport and heating increased by an average 14 megatonnes of oil equivalent per year (Mtoe/yr) over 2010-2018 almost all came from the rapid growth of renewable electricity. But, total primary energy supply (TPES), which comprises the energy used to provide transport and heat as well as electricity, increased by an average of 180 Mtoe/yr and almost all transport and heat were fossil fuelled. As a result, the fraction of TPES produced from fossil fuels was approximately the same in 2018 (81%) as in 2000 (80%). If TPES continues to grow from 2021 onwards at the same approximately linear rate as in 20102018, then a simple calculation shows that renewable energy would have to increase its linear growth rate by a factor of 13 in order to substitute for all fossil fuels by 2050. Alternatively, if renewable energy could be grown exponentially, it would have to double every 5.9 years to catch up with growing TPES by 2050. Other energy technologies, such as nuclear or coal with carbon capture and storage, are expensive and take much longer to build than wind and solar, so they wouldn’t help, even if they became affordable. Clearly, global growth in energy consumption must end so that technological change can remove energy emissions in time to avoid catastrophic climate change. Energy efficiency can reduce the growth rate of consumption, but is unlikely to be able to stop and reverse it. Therefore, consumption of ‘goods’ and services must be reduced substantially in high-income countries so that the very low-income countries can develop.

The empirical observations of strong correlations between economic growth and energy growth, and between economic growth or affluence and environmental impact (Wiedmann et al. 2020), has motivated the strand of the sustainable development movement that proposes degrowth to a steadystate economy (D’Alessandro et al. 2020), that is, an economy with a level of throughput that’s compatible with ecological sustainability. Degrowth can be defined in biophysical terms as ‘equitable downscaling of throughput (i.e. use of energy, materials and landuse) and stabilization of population numbers, while increasing social equity and wellbeing’. This definition rejects the notion that planned degrowth to a steady-state economy necessarily implies a lifestyle of deprivation and unhappiness; instead it envisages a society with ‘sustainable prosperity’ (Dietz & O’Neill, 2013; D’Alisa et al., 2014; Jackson, 2017; Victor, 2019; D’Alessandro et al., 2020; Hickel, 2020).

In the 21st century, the need for carefully planned sustainable development has become acute. Climate change and biodiversity loss have exceeded planetary boundaries and threaten irreversible global change. Extreme weather events are escalating. The land, atmosphere, oceans and freshwaters are polluted. Poverty and social injustice are still with us. A small but growing body of academics and activists is building the case that degrowth to a steady-state economy is an essential part of achieving a sustainable society in high-income countries; that ‘the rich must live more simply so that the poor can simply live’ (quotation attributed to Gandhi). But the neoliberal economic system and its political power are formidable barriers to change (Klein 2004).

Note: This is a draft of a book chapter that was revised and published as Mark Diesendorf (2023) ‘Sustainable development’, in: Clarke M & Zhao X (eds) Elgar Encyclopedia of Development. Chapter 122, pp. 577–581. Edward Elgar. The reference list and figures are available within the book chapter.

My article on sustainable development was written several years before it was published in 2023 as a book chapter in The Elgar Encyclopedia of Development. The calculations were valid given the assumptions. It is correct to say that the use of total primary energy supply (TPES) does not take into account the energy losses in converting primary energy to electricity delivered to consumers. For that reason, I re-did the calculations more recently using global total final energy consumption (TFEC) instead of global TPES see Mark Diesendorf & Steven Hail S (2022) Energies 15: 5908. (copies supplied upon request). TFEC is the energy delivered to consumers, whether it’s in the form of electricity or combustion heating or refined motor vehicle fuels.

The principal result is unchanged. Despite the rapid growth in renewable energy (RE), global TFEC in 2019 was 80%, the same as in 2009. The same percentage result, 80% in both 2019 and 2009, holds for global TPES. RE is chasing increasing consumption. Although RE is growing more rapidly in percentage terms than TFEC or TPES, it has started from a small base and so has grown more slowly in absolute terms (joules per year).

When we use TFEC instead of TPES, the calculated increased growth rates needed for RE to substitute for all fossil fuels by 2050 change, but the task is still impossible unless global energy consumption is reduced. Assuming that pre-COVID linear growth in global TFEC continues from 2022 to 2050 and RE grows linearly, then RE must grow at 29 times its 2000–2019 growth rate. Alternatively, if RE grows exponentially from 2022, then it must have a doubling time of 6.2 years with about 4.5 consecutive doublings. One doubling of 6.2 years has been achieved by several countries, and two doublings may be possible for them, but multiple doublings of 6.2 years for the whole world are unbelievable.

The challenge of chasing growing consumption is not simply to increase greatly the growth rate of manufacturing and installing RE generation technologies. RE supply cannot increase more rapidly than does demand. Growth in RE demand depends on how rapidly the electrification of transportation and combustion heating can be achieved.

The sometimes-expressed belief that planned degrowth to a steady-state economy is tantamount to recession and chaos is refuted in Chapter 7 of our new book, The Path to a Sustainable Civilisation: Technological, socioeconomic and political change (for further information, see

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