The concept of sustainable development was integral to Agenda 21, a programme adopted by world governments at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the “Earth Summit”.
Hopes that national development policies would be suitably modified proved premature. Outright vilification of Agenda 21 by vested interests in the US stoked resistance to sustainable development in the years following the Earth Summit. Elsewhere, the vision enjoyed greater traction but sloppy interpretation of the definition of sustainable development has often permitted the trumpeting of social and environmental rectitude where none was deserved.
In the corporate sector, the classic “greenwash” ploy sanitised one small part of a company’s operations before promoting the entire business as a paragon of sustainable development. This widespread practice has crowded out public awareness of the small but growing number of inspiring examples of companies which strive towards genuine sustainability rather than incremental green gestures.
Presenting green credentials as a veneer – hard to criticise but lacking in substance – extends beyond corporations into all corners of society, including individual households. This has been the curse of sustainable development, limiting its impact in government policymaking.
This constraint is most explicitly apparent in the faltering struggle to combat climate change. The precautionary principle has been tossed aside in the failure of national pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions to the degree advised by scientists. The polluter pays principle has been misrepresented as the rich polluting countries fail to substantiate their promises to mobilise climate finance.
This debasement of the currency of sustainable development may account for its troubled progress. Assessed by reference to its “three pillars” – economic growth, human development and environmental protection, the period since the Earth Summit presents a mixed report card.
Growth in the global economy continues to destroy the natural ecosystems on which it depends; improvement in human development indicators in many of the world’s poorest countries is compromised by widening social inequality on a global scale. Failure to achieve sustainable progress in social, economic and political contexts may contribute to the current febrile mood towards traditional values and institutions of democracy across the world.
The adoption of a structured set of Sustainable Development Goals by world leaders for the period 2016-2030 represents a real opportunity to invigorate the interpretation of sustainable development and its relevance to contemporary lives.