Sustainable development is a difficult subject to pin down since it encompasses so many different things. Due to the complexity of this subject, it's important to look at the importance of sustainable development in a holistic way that approaches the issue rationally.
What Is Sustainable Development?
Sustainable development is an approach to development that takes the finite resources of the Earth into consideration. This can mean a lot of different things to different people, but it most commonly refers to the use of renewable energy resources and sustainable agriculture or forestry practices. It also entails the use of sustainable mineral use along with many other things. The idea is to create a system that is "sustainable", meaning one that can keep going indefinitely into the future.
Renewable energy sources like wind power and solar power are excellent examples of development strategies that are sustainable. Their sustainability is defined by their reliance upon infinitely available resources that are naturally occurring, constant and free to access. These factors mean that these resources will be indefinitely accessible by humans, which makes them sustainable resources.
Sustainable development doesn't always refer to environmental sustainability or other green topics. Sustainable development also needs to take economic and social sustainability into account in order to fit within the parameters of sustainable development.
The Value of Sustainable Development
It's no secret that people are living longer and that the global population is on the rise. In fact, the United Nations projects that there will be more that 10 billion people living on the Earth by the year 2100. This explosion in population is perhaps one of the greatest reasons why sustainable development is so important.
Protect Technological Resources
The people coming into this world are coming into an increasingly technological age, where more people than ever are relying on technology for nearly every aspect of their lives. Of course, these technologies are not built out of thin air and good intentions. They require a significant array of minerals and other other inputs simply to be manufactured. This doesn't account for the amount of resources required to develop them in the first place.
Provide Basic Human Needs
A rising population will also make use of the bare essentials of life such as food, water, and shelter. The provision of these essentials is based almost entirely around having an infrastructure that can sustain them for the long-term. If energy is continually developed on finite fossil fuels instead of sustainable options, the cost and environmental toll of supplying even basic needs can become staggering.
Agriculture will have to catch up with that growing population as well, figuring out ways to feed around 3 billion more people than it currently does. If the same unsustainable tilling, seeding, watering, spraying and harvesting methods are used into the future, they can become very costly as fossil fuel resources run out.
Sustainable agriculture practices like crop rotation and effective seeding practices can help to promote high yields while protecting the integrity of the soil as it produces food for larger amounts of people.
Accommodate City Development
As populations rise, cities will need to become larger to accommodate the influx of new residents. If these cities are developed non-sustainably, they will become more and more expensive to build and maintain over time. This is because the resources being used to develop the cities will be finite fossil fuels that will only get more expensive as they run out over time. The higher volume of these fuels required to produce energy for this larger population will also negatively impact the air quality of cities. If cities use sustainable development practices, they can conceivably make way for new housing and business developments indefinitely.
Control Climate Change
Climate change is another issue that can be at least partially remedied through sustainable development. Sustainable development practices would mandate a lower use of fossil fuels, which are not sustainable and which produce greenhouse gases. As the population rises, more people will be requiring more energy and will be putting an even greater strain on the world climate.
Provide Financial Stability
Sustainable development can also produce more financially sustainable economies throughout the world. Resource-poor economies will gain access to free and accessible energy through renewables while also having the opportunity to train workers for jobs that won't be displaced by the basic reality of finite resources. Jobs built around the "old" model of unsustainable development simply have no place in economies of the future. This has nothing to do with politics or ethics, but rather the bare mechanics of how economies price out finite resources over time. Industries built around a reliance upon a resource that will not be accessible into the future will ultimately fail, leaving sustainable development as the only option moving forward.
Biodiversity suffers through overconsumption and unsustainable development practices. Beyond the basic ethical quandary presented by this fact, there is the further concern that these species are a part of a foodweb that humans rely on.
For example, if unsustainable agricultural practices are used in regard to pesticides, bees and other pollinators could be negatively impacted. Without bees, at least 19 major food crops would suffer and nearly 50% of the food in most grocery stores would be non-existent. Also, unsustainable development pollutes the oceans, which are home to a significant amount of algae species that humans rely on for a significant amount of the oxygen they breathe.
Speaking Plainly on Sustainable Development
In the end, there is no argument beyond a political one when it comes to sustainable development. Sustainable development is cleaner, has the potential to be more efficient, has long-term potential and is is the only way forward for a growing world economy. People already use a huge amount of the Earth's non-renewable resources to live their everyday lives. As more people join them, more of these resources are needed and the faster these resources are depleted. Over enough time, sustainable development will no longer be an option for people who want to feel good about their choices. It will be the only available option for cities and regional development. It's simply a matter of time until there is no option. The question is whether humans have the will to make the transition toward sustainability on their own terms or if they will simply be forced to make a rapid transition when all of the other options finally run out.
The term "sustainable development" emerged in the 1970s and 80s as awareness grew of the natural limits within which human development takes place. Despite near-universal recognition that it is a powerful unifying concept, bringing together social, economic and environmental factors, it has spent the 20 years since the first Rio Earth summit languishing in environment ministries.
But it now appears possible, even probable, that sustainable development will emerge as the main framework for development practice in the coming decades, replacing or rebalancing the poverty eradication focus of recent years. Instead of millennium development goals, we might have SDGs, or sustainable development goals.
What might such a transition to sustainable development mean for development co-operation? That was the subject of a recent paper I wrote for the UN's Development Co-operation Forum. Your thoughts would be welcome.
The most important change would be the involvement of rich countries as well as poor. Sustainable development tackles affluence and excess, not just poverty, and it is the high-income countries that most need to alter their resource use (with a gradually increasing burden of responsibility on middle-income countries, especially the largest ones). Financial transfers will therefore reduce in importance relative to other areas of action (such as trade and regulation). Aid agencies might develop new roles as whole-of-government enforcers of development policy coherence.
But finance will still play an important role. If extreme poverty declines significantly over the next 20 years, as economic growth continues in the south, the rationale for development co-operation under a poverty eradication paradigm might diminish. Yet the inclusion of other objectives under a sustainable development framework, such as greening growth and conservation of resources and ecosystems, could mean more funding to countries where the environmental impacts of growth are greatest. This would challenge the consensus that aid to middle-income countries should be reduced.
Physical science considerations such as geography and resource allocation will become more dominant in allocation calculations than they have been under the poverty eradication framework, which has relied predominantly on social scientific (economic and political) analysis.
Not all development finance needs to be transferred across borders. Technological advance, perhaps more than anything else, has led to rapid reductions in poverty. Investing more in public research could lead to technological solutions to poverty and sustainability problems becoming more rapidly and openly available.
The public justification for development co-operation will need to evolve. To engage the broad coalition of support required to maintain high levels of development co-operation, rich countries will have to appeal to mutual benefit, not just charity – an approach more in tune with shifting attitudes in poor countries tired of being seen only as recipients of largesse. Global sustainability could join global security as the basis of a frank appeal to national self-interest.
National governments may finally find a way to introduce international taxation. The beauty of taxing global public bads (like air travel, overfishing, oil exploration, currency speculation), and the reason it is so appropriate for a sustainable development framework, is that either a) the bad is diminished or b) the money raised can be spent on global public goods.
Some people say a focus on sustainable development will mean longer term horizons and objectives, but I disagree. Both sustainable development and poverty eradication are both long-term and urgent endeavours, requiring not only the gradual and substantial redirection of country policies, but rapid response to pressing problems. But it is true that politicians, who generally have short-term (four to six-year) mandates are better at making short-term decisions. Long-term global objectives will require decision making at a multilateral level, but the challenge is making such decisions legitimate and effective. One clue comes from the language of climate finance which emphasises entitlement rather than voluntarism. This sense of the historical responsibility of developed countries could be expanded to cover not just greenhouse gas emissions but also depletion of natural ecosystems and resources, transforming the balance of power between source and recipient of development finance.
Ideally, sustainable development could provide an overarching framework within which all sub-goals (eg poverty eradication, social equality, ecosystem maintenance, climate compatibility) are framed. Sustainable development is not a subset of development; it is development (in a modern world of resource limits). Environmental issues are not one factor among many (as in MDG7), but the meta-context within which poverty and other goals are sought.
And while we are at it, it may be time to redefine Official Development Assistance. The objectives of development co-operation (including climate finance) could be folded into a single definition such as: "the promotion of sustainable development, with particular concern for poverty eradication, equitable resource management, human rights, and global stability", rebranding it as sustainable development co-operation, or SDC.
A final point. There is a serious danger that poor countries may come under pressure to compromise on poverty reduction objectives for the sake of the planet – "green aid conditionalities" could emerge. It should be made explicit that the poorest countries should follow whatever path best brings them out of poverty, including engaging in dirty growth if that means eradicating poverty faster.