The essence of sustainable development lies in three core principles: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. But after nearly four decades since the first world climate conference, has sustainability remained an esoteric concept or we can truly make a difference to our planet and our future generation? In this article Dr. Dennis explores the complexities of meeting sustainability goals and explores roles of various stakeholders. What do we do when we know that our house is on fire?

“Sustainability” is an idea that academics and activists globally have advocated in the last three decades with crusading zeal. As a concept, sustainability implies a balanced approach to development, considering interests of not only the present generation but also future generation. Central to this lie is the suggestion that the earth inherited by present generation should not be their sole entitlement; rather, future generation too has the same entitlement. This cannot be given effect to without making a trade-off between present needs and future needs. However, lack of popular enthusiasm to preserve the earth for future generation has reduced interest in the subject amongst policy makers across the globe, though facts glare on their faces. Nevertheless, the relentless global activism has facilitated negotiations amongst several stakeholders, although considerable success is yet to be achieved in arriving at complete international cooperation in this regard.

Responsibilities bestowed by the idea of sustainability

A concerted beginning of global activism on sustainability was made when the participants of the First World Climate Change Conference, held in Geneva in February 1979, declared “World Climate Conference”. Under this, a series of meetings were to be facilitated amongst political leadership with an aim to protect the climate and reduce global warming. As the carbon dioxide was found to be the major cause for climate change, the subsequent negotiations were centred around reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide.

Probably, the movement of sustainability got a shot in the arm with World Commission on Environment and Development, under the then chairmanship of Gro Harlem Brundtland, submitting its final report on “Our Common Future” in March 1987. The Commission took cognizance of the environment degradation resulting from production: global warming, ozone layer depletion, agricultural land degradation and so on. It was of the view that environmental issues could not be separate from ‘human actions, ambitions, and needs’. Since development basically is what human do to improve their lots within the environment, development and environment were inseparable. In this line of reasoning, the Commission noted:

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Thus, the idea of sustainable development was given a formal shape. Following this, the United Nations came out with an action plan, popularly known as Agenda 21, which was framed based on the Earth Summit held at Rio de Janerio, Brazil in 1992 (widely known as Rio submit). These ideas were imbibed further in all major conventions on climate change, and more importantly, in the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and now in Sustainable Development Goals.

The essence of sustainable development lies in three core principles: environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. Several obligations ensue from these principles. For instance, environmental sustainability seeks to ensure that the ecology is kept in balance and the rate of exploitation of natural resources should have reference to the rate of replenishment in case of renewable resources or inter-generational distribution in case of non-renewable resources. Arising from here are the checks and balances on the use of natural resources and the need to preserve the ecosystem.

The three sustainable principles are not mutually exclusive, rather they reinforce each other in many ways. For instance, endemic poverty could have catastrophic effects on ecology or livelihood of poor will be affected if they are denied fair access to resources and so on. However, the trade-off arising from concerns for environmental sustainability has attracted far more attention than the others, which arguably have been addressed in the economic and welfare policies of government over the years. In fact, global activism has risen manifold during the last three decades and staunch supporters of environmental sustainability are growing day-by-day. Despite this, headway made in implementing several norms in this regard appears to be less satisfactory. That is so because of inadequate political will exhibited during the negotiation’s rounds.

Negotiations and progress remain tardy

The ideas underlying sustainability are novel paving way for betterment of lives of all forms on earth. In the ultimate analysis, the responsibility of implementing several action plans lies with the community. Consider the emission of carbon dioxide, which is the greenhouse gases from burning of fossil fuels and their excess emission is considered as the principal reason for global warming, which in turn has been attributed to the disturbance in the ecosystem such as rise in sea-levels, water system, floods and so on. Statistics available show that the total emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) varies from country to country. China emitted 901 million tons of CO2 in 2015, followed by United States at 500 million tons and India at 2 million tons. One way of understanding country-wise emission is by relating to their population size, that is, in terms of their per capita emission. Countries like United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Australia have a very high level of per capita emission of CO2, more than 15 million tons. Per capita emission of CO2 in China was about 6.5 million tons, whereas India had 1.6 million tons in 2015. Thus, countries that top the list in terms of absolute size of CO2 emission need not be the same once per capita emissions of CO2 is considered. If we consider the rate of increase over the years, countries like China and India would rank very high given their increased thrust on growth.  This leads to a confused state of affairs in the international arena.

Many action plans can be negotiated to reduce emission of carbon dioxide. Some of these may require compromises with the standard of living that present generation is used to. The question is whether they will be willing to compromise? If they do not want to compromise, their political leadership will then become champion of their cause in stead of participating in the negotiations, no matter how valuable their participation would become in the interest of social justice and world. Often such uncompromising stance has smeared the idea of sustainability.

An important hurdle to implementing international agenda for achieving sustainable development is that countries around the world are in different stages of economic and social development. While captains of industry in developing countries sense enormous business opportunities due to rising income, they find themselves arm-twisted by several norms of environmental consideration. For instance, getting clearance from government agencies to commence manufacturing facilities would require compliances with environment norms, which they may find difficult to obtain. Moreover, the product they produce should also satisfy norms, for instance, passenger cars should have fulfilled Euro norms. Given the fact that these local entrepreneurs lack capital (and so technology) and information, there will be a tendency on their part to ignore or by-pass the environment norms.

Sometimes, their deliberate behaviour is justified by advancing argument that developed countries at their initial stage of development had used technology or products that did not meet the modern days standards.  Moreover, the compulsion of local polity in many of these countries would place growth ahead of development and hence political leadership would not be willingly participating in any meaningful dialogue with activists and remain hard with their priorities and agenda in the negotiation tables. Thus, global consensus on sustainability remains mostly on paper and very little of it is being practiced.

Role of business community

Business community have a large role to play in this context. The pursuit of profit in order to maximise shareholders’ wealth should not push them to consider investment choices, which militate against sustainability principles. Their choices of production methods and product standards should not undermine the sustainability considerations. Tastes and preferences of consumers will constantly change, and their purchasing power will also increase, so much so that business opportunities are limitless. In the long run, sticking to business model that has no respect for sustainability will do no good to the business and society at large. It is vitally important that they need to gather information about technology and product standards and adapt the best that meet with environment norms.

In their own interest of continuity, business community should help activisms towards sustainability. There are several non-governmental agencies who champion the cause of sustainability, but they lack funds. One way that business community can participate in this movement is by providing funds to these activists, who have been toiling with the task of coordinating with several stakeholders. Their activities of undertaking impact studies and advocacy and outreach programmes to stop climate change can be funded As part of their corporate social responsibility, they can focus on activities which help in achieving the goal of sustainability.

Public cannot remain a silent spectator

While activism is gaining momentum, they will be of no use if public fail to take sustainability goal seriously. Political will is lacking because of the fear of backlash by their constituencies if made to compromise with their lifestyle and, similarly, business managers are worried because shareholders may not be happy with their performance.  In such circumstances, one cannot help but point fingers at the public for the tardy progress in the international negotiations. Once people all over the world demonstrate convincingly that the pursuit of sustainability goal is not a destination but their destiny, then one would witness a change in the attitude of political and business leadership, paving way for sustainable development.

Moving forward

The solutions to achieving sustainable development requires well-coordinated efforts of international community, particularly at the government level. No doubt, some progress has been made in this regard, but a balanced consideration would suggest that much is desired. Several proposals embedded in the sustainable development are of the nature of one size fits all approach. This would not elicit interests of everyone at the same time for the simple reason that, as noted above, each society is at different stages of development. However, one cannot remain mute on achieving goal of sustainable development. To the extent possible, the issue must be addressed befitting the local aspirations and needs, with certain internationally accepted mandates. It is a long journey but must be undertaken if we need to remain responsible not only for the earth we live in, but also for the future generation to whom we will be bequeathing this beautiful planet. To echo the words of Gro Harlem Brundtland, “Since the answers to fundamental and serious concerns are not at hand, there is no alternative but to keep on trying to find them” (In his Foreword in Our Common Future). 

About the author

Dr. J. Dennis Rajakumar
Dr. J. Dennis Rajakumar

Dr. J. Dennis Rajakumar is the Director of Economic and Political Weekly Research Foundation, Mumbai. He received his Ph.D (Economics) and M. Phil (Applied Economics) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi through Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. He was Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Research Fellow at The Management School, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK (February – April 2005). His research interests include applied macro economics, applied financial economics and studies of corporate sector in India. He has published several research papers.