Sustainable development

So much for uncertainty in the science of global warming. But how does this uncertainty map on to the world of political decision-making? A key idea is that of sustainable development.

One of the remarkable movements of the last few years is the way in which problems of the global environment have moved up the political agenda. In her speech at the opening in 1990 of the Hadley Centre at the United Kingdom Meteorological Office, Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, explained our clear responsibility to the environment:

We have a full repairing lease on the Earth. With the work of the IPCC, we can now say we have the surveyor's report; and it shows there are faults and that the repair work needs to start without delay. The problems do not lie in the future, they are here and now: and it is our children and grandchildren, who are already growing up, who will be affected.

Many other politicians have similarly expressed their feelings of responsibility for the global environment. Without this deeply felt and widely held concern, the UNCED conference at Rio, with environment as the number one item on its agenda, could never have taken place.

But, despite its importance, even when concentrating on the long term, the environment is only one of many considerations politicians must take into account. For developed countries, the maintenance of living standards, full employment (or something close to it) and economic growth have become dominant issues. Many developing countries are facing acute problems in the short term: basic survival and large debt repayment; others, under the pressure of large

This multitemporal radar image, from ENVISAT's Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) instrument, is composed of two images - one acquired on 26 July 2007 and another on 12 April 2007 - and highlights the flooding in Bangladesh and parts of India brought on by two weeks of persistent rain. ASAR is able to peer through clouds, rain or local darkness, and is well suited for differentiating between waterlogged and dry land. Areas in black and white denote no change, while areas outlined in blue are potentially flooded spots. Areas in red may also indicate flooding, but could also be related to agricultural practices.

increases in population, are looking for rapid industrial development. However, an important characteristic of environmental problems, compared with many of the other issues faced by politicians, is that they are long term and potentially irreversible - which is why Tim Wirth, the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs in the United States Government during the Clinton Administration, said, 'The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.' More recently Gordon Brown, in a speech in 2005 when he was the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:10

Environmental issues - including climate change - have traditionally been placed in a category separate from the economy and economic policy. But this is not longer tenable. Across a range of environmental issues - from soil erosion to the depletion of marine stocks, from water scarcity to air pollution - it is clear now not just that economic activity is their cause, but that these problems in themselves threaten future economic activity and growth.

Sustainable development: how is it defined?

A number of definitions of sustainable development have been produced. The following two well capture the idea.

According to the Bruntland Commission Report Our Common Future presented in 1987, sustainable development is 'meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

A more detailed definition is contained in the White Paper This Common Inheritance, published by the United Kingdom Department of the Environment in 1990: 'sustainable development means living on the Earth's income rather than eroding its capital' and 'keeping the consumption of renewable natural resources within the limits of their replenishment'. It recognises the intrinsic value of the natural world explaining that sustainable development 'means handing down to successive generations not only man-made wealth (such as buildings, roads and railways) but also natural wealth, such as clean and adequate water supplies, good arable land, a wealth of wildlife and ample forests'.

Further discussion of sustainable development and its definition is in Chapter 12, page 393.

A balance, therefore, has to be struck between the provision of necessary resources for development and the long-term need to preserve the environment. That is why the Rio Conference was about Environment and Development. The formula that links the two is called sustainable development (see box below) -development that does not carry with it the overuse of irreplaceable resources or irreversible environmental degradation.

The idea of sustainable development echoes what was said in Chapter 8, when addressing more generally the relationship of humans to their environment and especially the need for balance and harmony. The Climate Convention signed at the Rio Conference also recognised the need for this balance. In the statement of its objective (see box on pages 291-2 in Chapter 10), it states the need for stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. It goes on to explain that this should be at a level and on a timescale such that ecosystems are allowed to adapt to climate change naturally, that food production is not threatened and that economic development can proceed in a sustainable manner.

It is also increasingly realised that the idea of sustainability not only applies to the environment but also to human communities - a theme addressed in Chapter 8. Sustainable development is often therefore assumed to include wider social factors as well as environmental and economic ones. The provision of social justice and equity are important components of a drive to sustainable communities. Considerations of equity include not only equity between nations but also equity between generations: we should not leave the world in a poorer state for the next generation. These and other aspects of sustainability are considered further in Chapter 12.

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  • LEEVI
    What is water, global warming in sustainable development?
    8 years ago

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