What is meant by sustainable development and ecologically sustainable development?

The concept of living sustainably within our environment is not new, in fact, it has been present throughout human history with some cultures practicing it better than others.

In recent history, the 1987 Bruntland Report Our Common Future popularised and defined the term ‘sustainable development’:

‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (commonly referred to as the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro produced Agenda 21, a major publication that sets out a blueprint for sustainable activity across all areas of human activity.

What is a Local Agenda 21?

Local Agenda 21 is drawn from Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 tabled at the Earth Summit in 1992. It was drafted by major Local Government Bodies from around the world. A Local Agenda 21 is a long term strategic program for achieving sustainability in the 21st Century, at the local level.

The Australian initiative

In the same year as the Earth Summit (1992), Australia developed our National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD). The NSESD de nes ecologically sustainable development (ESD) as:

‘using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased’.

The principles and concepts contained in Agenda 21 and Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development are very similar. Agenda 21, from where Local Agenda 21 was derived, speaks of ‘sustainable development’, whilst the National Strategy for ESD (also developed in 1992) has as its goal ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (defined above). These are compatible concepts. The definitions provided above and the many other definitions of sustainable development recognise that we need to link development and protection of the environment in order to protect and manage ecosystems and natural resources which are essential for fulfilling basic human needs and improving living standards for all.

Principles of ESD

A number of principles form the foundation of Ecologically Sustainable Development:

  • Precautionary Principle – where there are 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.
  • Intergenerational Equity – fairness and equal access to opportunities both in our lifetimes, as well as for future generations.
  • Protecting Biodiversity – to protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life-support systems.
  • Improved Valuation – improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms should be promoted to ensure the full costs, including the cost to environmental and social systems, are included in the finnal valuation of the product or service.