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Sustainable development

Sustainable development is a biotic systems.[1]


  • Sustainability and Sustainable Development 1
  • Definition 2
  • History 3
  • Domains 4
  • Ecology 5
    • Agriculture 5.1
    • Energy 5.2
    • Environment 5.3
    • Transportation 5.4
      • Improve public transit 5.4.1
      • Encourage walking and biking 5.4.2
      • Increase the cost of car ownership and gas taxes 5.4.3
  • Economics 6
    • Business 6.1
    • Architecture 6.2
  • Culture 7
  • Politics 8
  • Themes 9
    • Progress 9.1
    • Measurement 9.2
    • Natural capital 9.3
    • Business as usual 9.4
  • See also 10
  • Further reading 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Sustainability and Sustainable Development

As a working definition, sustainability can be defined as the practice of maintaining processes of productivity indefinitely—natural or human made—by replacing resources used with resources of equal or greater value without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems.[2] According to M. Hasna, sustainability is a function of social, economic, technological and ecological themes.[3] Sustainable development ties together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social, political, and economic challenges faced by humanity. As early as the 1970s, the concept of "sustainability" was employed to describe an economy "in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems."[4] Scientists in many fields have highlighted The Limits to Growth,[5][6] and economists have presented alternatives, for example a 'steady state economy';[7] to address concerns over the impacts of expanding human development on the planet.

The term sustainable development rose to significance after it was used by the Brundtland Commission in its 1987 report Our Common Future. In the report, the commission coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[8][9] The United Nations Millennium Declaration identified principles and treaties on sustainable development, including economic development, social development and environmental protection.


The natural resource of wind powers these 5MW wind turbines on this wind farm 28 km off the coast of Belgium.

The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report Our Common Future defines sustainable development: "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[8] Under the principles of the United Nations Charter the Millennium Declaration identified principles and treaties on sustainable development, including economic development, social development and environmental protection. Broadly defined, sustainable development is a systems approach to growth and development and to manage natural, produced, and social capital for the welfare of their own and future generations. The term sustainable development as used by the United Nations incorporates both issues associated with land development and broader issues of human development such as education, public health, and standard of living.

The concepts of sustainable development and sustainability derive from the older forestry term "sustained yield", which, in turn, is a translation of the German term "nachhaltiger Ertrag" dating from 1713.[10] Sustainability science is the study of the concepts of sustainable development and environmental science. There is an additional focus on the present generations' responsibility to regenerate, maintain and improve planetary resources for use by future generations.[11]


The concept of "sustainable development" has its roots in forest management as early as the 12th to 16th centuries.[12] However, over the last five decades the concept has significantly broadened. The first use of the term sustainable in the contemporary sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972 in its classic report on the "Limits to Growth", written by a group of scientists led by Dennis and Donella Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Describing the desirable "state of global equilibrium", the authors used the word "sustainable": "We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: (1) sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse and (2) capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people."[10][11]

  • In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development released the report Our Common Future, now commonly named the 'Brundtland Report' after the commission's chairperson, the then Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report included what is now one of the most widely recognised definitions: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." [15] The Brundtland Report goes on to say that sustainable development also contains within it two key concepts:
  1. The concept of "needs," in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  2. The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.[15]

In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development published in 1992 the Earth Charter, which outlines the building of a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. The action plan Agenda 21 for sustainable development identified information, integration, and participation as key building blocks to help countries achieve development that recognizes these interdependent pillars. It emphasises that in sustainable development everyone is a user and provider of information. It stresses the need to change from old sector-centered ways of doing business to new approaches that involve cross-sectoral co-ordination and the integration of environmental and social concerns into all development processes. Furthermore, Agenda 21 emphasises that broad public participation in decision making is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.[16]

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development integrated sustainable development into the UN System. Indigenous peoples have argued, through various international forums such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Convention on Biological Diversity, that there are four pillars of sustainable development, the fourth being cultural. The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity from 2001 states: "... cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”; it becomes “one of the roots of development understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means to achieve a more satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence".[17]

The proposed changes were supported by a study in 2013, which concluded that sustainability reporting should be reframed through the lens of four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.[18]


Different domains have been identified for research and analysis of sustainable development. Broadly defined, these include ecology, economics, politics and culture[19] — as used by the United Nations and a number of other international organizations.[20]


Graph comparing the Ecological Footprint of different nations with their Human Development Index
Ecological footprint for different nations compared to their Human Development Index (HDI)

The ecological sustainability of human settlements is part of the relationship between humans and their natural, social and built environments.[21] Also termed human ecology, this broadens the focus of sustainable development to include the domain of human health. Fundamental human needs such as the availability and quality of air, water, food and shelter are also the ecological foundations for sustainable development;[22] addressing public health risk through investments in ecosystem services can be a powerful and transformative force for sustainable development which, in this sense, extends to all species.[23]


Sustainable agriculture may be defined as consisting of environmentally-friendly methods of farming that allow the production of crops or livestock without damage to human or natural systems. More specifically, it might be said to include preventing adverse effects to soil, water, biodiversity, surrounding or downstream resources—as well as to those working or living on the farm or in neighboring areas. Furthermore, the concept of sustainable agriculture extends intergenerationally, relating to passing on a conserved or improved natural resource, biotic, and economic base instead of one which has been depleted or polluted.[24] Some important elements of sustainable agriculture are permaculture, agroforestry, mixed farming, multiple cropping, and crop rotation.[25]

Numerous Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, UTZ Certified, Bird Friendly, and the Common Code for the Coffee Community(4C).[26][27]


Sustainable energy is the sustainable provision of energy that is clean and lasts for a long period of time. Unlike the fossil fuel that most of the countries are using, renewable energy only produces little or even no pollution.[28] The most common types of renewable energy in US are solar and wind energy, solar energy are commonly used on public parking meter, street lights and the roof of buildings.[29] On the other hand, wind energy is expanding quickly in recent years, which generated 12,000 MW in 2013. The largest wind power station is in Texas and followed up by California.[30][31] Household energy consumption can also be improved in a sustainable way, like using electronic with energy star <https://articles/Energy_Star> logo, conserving water and energy. Most of California’s fossil fuel infrastructures are sited in or near low-income communities, and have traditionally suffered the most from California’s fossil fuel energy system. These communities are historically left out during the decision- making process, and often end up with dirty power plants and other dirty energy projects that poison the air and harm the area. These toxins are major contributors to significant health problems in the communities. While renewable energy becomes more common, the government begins to shut down some of the fossil fuel infrastructures in order to consume renewable energy and provide a better social equity to the specific community.[32]


Only 2.5% of the Earth's water is freshwater, and 98.8% of that water is in ice and groundwater. Image: Apollo 17.

Beyond ecology as the intersection of humans in the environment, environmental sustainability concerns the natural environment and how it endures and remains diverse and productive. Since Natural resources are derived from the environment, the state of air, water, and the climate are of particular concern. The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report outlines current knowledge about scientific, technical and socio-economic information concerning climate change, and lists options for adaptation and mitigation.[33] Environmental sustainability requires society to design activities to meet human needs while preserving the life support systems of the planet. This, for example, entails using water sustainably, utilizing renewable energy, and sustainable material supplies (e.g. harvesting wood from forests at a rate that maintains the biomass and biodiversity).

An "unsustainable situation" occurs when natural capital (the sum total of nature's resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity only uses nature's resources at a rate at which they can be replenished naturally. Inherently the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale should imply an increase in human death rate until population falls to what the degraded environment can support. If the degradation continues beyond a certain tipping point or critical threshold it would lead to eventual extinction for humanity.
Consumption of renewable resources State of environment Sustainability
More than nature's ability to replenish Environmental degradation Not sustainable
Equal to nature's ability to replenish Environmental equilibrium Steady state economy
Less than nature's ability to replenish Environmental renewal Environmentally sustainable


Transportation is a large contributor to greenhouse gases. It is said that one-third of all gasses produced are due to transportation.[34] Some western countries and United States are making transportation more sustainable in both long-term and short-term implementations.[35] One great example of this is the transportation changes done in the city of Freiburg, Germany. The city has implemented extensive methods of public transportation, cycling, and walking, along with large areas where cars are not allowed.[34]

Since many western countries are highly automobile-orientated area, the main transit that people use is personal vehicles. About 80% of their trips use cars.[34] Therefore, California is one of the highest greenhouse gases emission in the country. The federal government has to come up with some plans to reduce the total number of vehicle trips in order to lower greenhouse gases emission. Such as:

Improve public transit

- Larger coverage area in order to provide more mobility and accessibility, use new technology to provide a more reliable and responsive public transportation network, company providing ECO pass to employees.[36]

Encourage walking and biking

-Wider pedestrian pathway, bike share station in commercial downtown, locate parking lot far from the shopping center, limit on street parking, slower traffic lane in downtown area.

Increase the cost of car ownership and gas taxes

-Increase parking fees/ toll fees, encourage people to drive more fuel efficient vehicles. -Social equity problem, poor people usually drive old cars that have low fuel efficiency. However, government can use the extra revenue collected from taxes and tolls to improve the public transportation and benefit the poor community.[37]


A sewage treatment plant that uses environmentally friendly solar energy, located at Santuari de Lluc monastery.

It has been suggested that because of rural poverty and overexploitation, environmental resources should be treated as important economic assets, called natural capital.[38] Economic development has traditionally required a growth in the gross domestic product. This model of unlimited personal and GDP growth may be over.[39] Sustainable development may involve improvements in the quality of life for many but may necessitate a decrease in resource consumption.[40] According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation.[41]

In 1987 the economist Edward Barbier published the study The Concept of Sustainable Economic Development, where he recognized that goals of environmental conservation and economic development are not conflicting and can be reinforcing each other.[42]

A World Bank study from 1999 concluded that based on the theory of genuine savings, policymakers have many possible interventions to increase sustainability, in macroeconomics or purely environmental.[43] A study from 2001 noted that efficient policies for renewable energy and pollution are compatible with increasing human welfare, eventually reaching a golden-rule steady state.[44] The study, Interpreting Sustainability in Economic Terms, found three pillars of sustainable development, interlinkage, intergenerational equity, and dynamic efficiency.[45]

A meta review in 2002 looked at environmental and economic valuations and found a lack of “sustainability policies”.[46] A study in 2004 asked if we consume too much.[47] A study concluded in 2007 that knowledge, manufactured and human capital(health and education) has not compensated for the degradation of natural capital in many parts of the world.[48] It has been suggested that intergenerational equity can be incorporated into a sustainable development and decision making, as has become common in economic valuations of climate economics.[49] A meta review in 2009 identified conditions for a strong case to act on climate change, and called for more work to fully account of the relevant economics and how it affects human welfare.[50] According to John Baden[51] “the improvement of environment quality depends on the market economy and the existence of legitimate and protected property rights.” They enable the effective practice of personal responsibility and the development of mechanisms to protect the environment. The State can in this context “create conditions which encourage the people to save the environment.”[52]


The most broadly accepted criterion for corporate sustainability constitutes a firm’s efficient use of natural capital. This eco-efficiency is usually calculated as the economic value added by a firm in relation to its aggregated ecological impact.[53] This idea has been popularised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) under the following definition: "Eco-efficiency is achieved by the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life, while progressively reducing ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life-cycle to a level at least in line with the earth’s carrying capacity." (DeSimone and Popoff, 1997: 47)[54]

Similar to the eco-efficiency concept but so far less explored is the second criterion for corporate sustainability. Socio-efficiency[55] describes the relation between a firm's value added and its social impact. Whereas, it can be assumed that most corporate impacts on the environment are negative (apart from rare exceptions such as the planting of trees) this is not true for social impacts. These can be either positive (e.g. corporate giving, creation of employment) or negative (e.g. work accidents, mobbing of employees, human rights abuses). Depending on the type of impact socio-efficiency thus either tries to minimize negative social impacts (i.e. accidents per value added) or maximise positive social impacts (i.e. donations per value added) in relation to the value added.

Both eco-efficiency and socio-efficiency are concerned primarily with increasing economic sustainability. In this process they instrumentalize both natural and social capital aiming to benefit from win-win situations. However, as Dyllick and Hockerts[55] point out the business case alone will not be sufficient to realise sustainable development. They point towards eco-effectiveness, socio-effectiveness, sufficiency, and eco-equity as four criteria that need to be met if sustainable development is to be reached.


In sustainable architecture the recent movements of New Urbanism and New Classical Architecture promote a sustainable approach towards construction, that appreciates and develops smart growth, architectural tradition and classical design.[56][57] This in contrast to modernist and globally uniform architecture, as well as opposing to solitary housing estates and suburban sprawl, with long commuting distances and large ecological footprints.[58] Both trends started in the 1980s. (It should be noted that sustainable architecture is predominantly relevant to the economics domain while architectural landscaping pertains more to the ecological domain.)


Framing of sustainable development progress according to the Circles of Sustainability, used by the United Nations.

Working with a different emphasis, some researchers and institutions have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainable development, since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society. In this context, the Agenda 23 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) Executive Bureau lead the preparation of the policy statement “Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development”, passed on 17 November 2010, in the framework of the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders – 3rd World Congress of UCLG, held in Mexico City. although some which still argue that economics is primary, and culture and politics should be included in 'the social'. This document inaugurates a new perspective and points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through a dual approach: developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. The Circles of Sustainability approach distinguishes the four domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability.[59][60]

Other organizations have also supported the idea of a fourth domain of sustainable development. The Network of Excellence "Sustainable Development in a Diverse World",[61] sponsored by the European Union, integrates multidisciplinary capacities and interprets cultural diversity as a key element of a new strategy for sustainable development. The Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development Theory has been referenced by executive director of IMI Institute at UNESCO Vito Di Bari[62] in his manifesto of art and architectural movement Neo-Futurism, whose name was inspired by the 1987 United Nations’ report Our Common Future. The Circles of Sustainability approach used by Metropolis defines the (fourth) cultural domain as practices, discourses, and material expressions, which, over time, express continuities and discontinuities of social meaning.[63]


A study concluded that social indicators and, therefore, sustainable development indicators, are scientific constructs whose principal objective is to inform public policy-making.[64] The International Institute for Sustainable Development has similarly developed a political policy framework, linked to a sustainability index for establishing measurable entities and metrics. The framework consists of six core areas, international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change and energy, measurement and assessment, natural resource management, and the role of communication technologies in sustainable development.


  • Circles of Sustainability - website for the Circles of Sustainability approach
  • List of Global Development Indexes and Rankings
  • Principles of Sustainability - University of Idaho-Washington State University Open Course
  • Sustainable Development: Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois
  • Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform - United Nations platform on Sustainable Development
  • Sustainable Development Law & Policy
  • UK Sustainable Development Commission
  • United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network
  • United Nations Division for Sustainable Development
  • Vrinda Project Channel - videos on MDGs connected to the Wikibook WikibooksDevelopment Cooperation Handbook
  • World Bank website on sustainable development.

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  • Van der Straaten, J., and J.C van den Bergh (1994). Towards Sustainable Development: Concepts, Methods, and Policy. Island Press, ISBN 1559633492.
  • Wallace, Bill (2005). Becoming part of the solution : the engineer’s guide to sustainable development. Washington, DC:  

Further reading

See also

If the degradation of natural and social capital has such important consequence the question arises why action is not taken more systematically to alleviate it. Cohen and Winn (2007)[75] point to four types of market failure as possible explanations: First, while the benefits of natural or social capital depletion can usually be privatized, the costs are often externalized (i.e. they are borne not by the party responsible but by society in general). Second, natural capital is often undervalued by society since we are not fully aware of the real cost of the depletion of natural capital. Information asymmetry is a third reason—often the link between cause and effect is obscured, making it difficult for actors to make informed choices. Cohen and Winn close with the realization that contrary to economic theory many firms are not perfect optimizers. They postulate that firms often do not optimize resource allocation because they are caught in a "business as usual" mentality.

Before flue-gas desulfurization was installed, the air-polluting emissions from this power plant in New Mexico contained excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide.

Business as usual

Another problem of natural and social capital deterioration lies in their partial irreversibility. The loss in biodiversity, for example, is often definite. The same can be true for cultural diversity. For example with globalisation advancing quickly the number of indigenous languages is dropping at alarming rates. Moreover, the depletion of natural and social capital may have non-linear consequences. Consumption of natural and social capital may have no observable impact until a certain threshold is reached. A lake can, for example, absorb nutrients for a long time while actually increasing its productivity. However, once a certain level of algae is reached lack of oxygen causes the lake’s ecosystem to break down suddenly.

The sustainable development debate is based on the assumption that societies need to manage three types of capital (economic, social, and natural), which may be non-substitutable and whose consumption might be irreversible.[73] Daly (1991),[74] for example, points to the fact that natural capital can not necessarily be substituted by economic capital. While it is possible that we can find ways to replace some natural resources, it is much more unlikely that they will ever be able to replace eco-system services, such as the protection provided by the ozone layer, or the climate stabilizing function of the Amazonian forest. In fact natural capital, social capital and economic capital are often complementarities. A further obstacle to substitutability lies also in the multi-functionality of many natural resources. Forests, for example, not only provide the raw material for paper (which can be substituted quite easily), but they also maintain biodiversity, regulate water flow, and absorb CO2.

Deforastation of native rain forest in Rio de Janeiro City for extraction of clay for civil construction
Deforestation of native rain forest in Rio de Janeiro City for extraction of clay for civil engineering (2009 picture).

Natural capital

Reasonable qualifications of sustainability are seen U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). This design incorporates some ecological, economic, and social elements. The goals presented by LEED design goals are sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmospheric emission reduction, material and resources efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. Although amount of structures for sustainability development is many, these qualification has become a standard for sustainable building.

The Cuban-born researcher and entrepreneur Sonia Bueno suggests an alternative approach that is based upon the integral, long-term cost-benefit relationship as a measure and monitoring tool for the sustainability of every project, activity or enterprise.[71][72] Furthermore this concept aims to be a practical guideline towards sustainable development following the principle of conservation and increment of value rather than restricting the consumption of resources.

The most common critiques are related to issues like data quality, comparability, objective function and the necessary resources.[68] However a more general criticism is coming from the project management community: How can a sustainable development be achieved at global level if we cannot monitor it in any single project?[69][70]

In 2007 a report for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated: “While much discussion and effort has gone into sustainability indicators, none of the resulting systems clearly tells us whether our society is sustainable. At best, they can tell us that we are heading in the wrong direction, or that our current activities are not sustainable. More often, they simply draw our attention to the existence of problems, doing little to tell us the origin of those problems and nothing to tell us how to solve them.”[66] Nevertheless a majority of authors assume that a set of well defined and harmonised indicators is the only way to make sustainability tangible. Those indicators are expected to be identified and adjusted through empirical observations (trial and error).[67]

Deforestation and increased road-building in the Amazon Rainforest are a significant concern because of increased human encroachment upon wilderness areas, increased resource extraction and further threats to biodiversity.


The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), also known as Rio 2012, Rio+20, or Earth Summit 2012, was the third international conference on sustainable development, which aimed at reconciling the economic and environmental goals of the global community. Few nations met the World Wide Fund for Nature's definition of sustainable development criteria established in 2006.[65]



This accords with the Brundtland Commission emphasis on development that is guided by human rights principles (see above).

  1. Organization and governance
  2. Law and justice
  3. Communication and critique
  4. Representation and negotiation
  5. Security and accord
  6. Dialogue and reconciliation
  7. Ethics and accountability


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