Is sustainable development about the environment?

Environmental policy

Steffen Bauer

To person

Steffen Bauer, M.A., works in the Department of Environmental Policy and Resource Management at the German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn.

Contact: [email protected]

Sustainability is an important principle of national and international politics. It aims to enable economic prosperity, to ensure social equilibrium and to preserve the natural foundations of life for future generations.

These tree trunks come from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests, which corresponds to a kind of organic seal for wood. (& copy AP)


The principle of sustainability and the concept of sustainable development have been the model of international environmental and development policy since the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the "United Nations Conference on Environment and Development" (UNCED). The principle of sustainability describes the endeavors of the global community to open up equal opportunities for development to all countries and peoples, while expressly taking into account the interests of future generations.

These interests include in particular the preservation of the natural foundations of life, so that sustainable development as a global political goal calls for a trend reversal in the use of the environment and resources in the world economy and in general consumer behavior. Under the umbrella of the United Nations, 178 countries have committed themselves to this in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and in Agenda 21. The latter is an action program with specific recommendations for action for the implementation of sustainability on a local, national and global level. The price for worldwide approval of the concept of sustainability is a high degree of conceptual fuzziness, which allows for a wide range of possible interpretations and enables almost any use of the term sustainability as an omnipresent political catchphrase.

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The Agenda 21

Alongside the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21 is the central international document that emerged from the United Nations' 1992 "Earth Summit". In contrast to the declaration in which the governments of the world commit themselves to the generally binding principles of sustainable development, Agenda 21 contains a detailed program of action. It contains recommendations and instructions for action that show concrete measures to be taken by states, international organizations and economic and social actors in order to put the principle of sustainability into practice. Action based on Agenda 21 should make it possible to reconcile economic development with the protection of the natural foundations of life and to bring together environmental and development policy goals worldwide. Long-term strategic planning plays a central role in this. The development of so-called sustainability strategies envisages that the governments at local and national level formulate and implement political measures with the participation of private actors from business and society that are based on the model of sustainable development. Successful implementation of Agenda 21 therefore requires that the interactions between environmental and development goals be taken into account in policy planning in a foresighted manner.

The 400-page Agenda 21 was signed by 178 states in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Since then, sustainability plans and strategies have been adopted or initiated almost worldwide. In order to promote the implementation of sustainability strategies, the international community of states adopted an additional action plan at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, which focuses on the core areas of water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity and provides for greater participation by private sector actors.

Steffen Bauer



Sustainability as a political idea

The starting point of the worldwide discussions about the concept of sustainable development was the final report of the World Commission on Environment and Development presented in 1987 under the title "Our Common Future", which became known as the "Brundtland Commission" after the name of its chairman, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Sustainable development was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without risking that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs".

The core elements of this understanding of sustainable development are a needs-oriented, anthropocentric view of the world and an ethic that aims at equity both between and within generations. Anthropocentrism is understood to mean a worldview that focuses on the essence and needs of people. Nature forms the human environment. There is an ethical obligation towards it only insofar as this corresponds to the immediate will of the people. In contrast, worldviews such as ecocentrism and holism emphasize the fundamental equality of all life and understand nature as the unity of man and the environment.

Different translations of the English term sustainable development already give an idea of ​​the variety of possible interpretations. In German, for example, there is talk of permanent, sustainable or future-oriented development.

The work of the Brundtland Commission is recognized internationally to this day, because it formulated a groundbreaking concept that enabled broad approval worldwide. Since this concept was already accessible to a broad public in the run-up to the Rio Conference, it was able to decisively advance the international discussions and negotiations on the interrelationships between environmental and development policy. Regardless of this, however, the arbitrary interpretation with which everyone can adopt the concept of sustainability offers critics of the Brundtland definition a broad target.

Concept history

The conceptual history of sustainability and the associated development concept can be traced back to at least the 18th century. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) already discussed the management of so-called common goods and the public benefits of social justice. The concept of sustainability itself was coined - also in the 18th century - in German forestry, in which a balanced relationship between logging and afforestation was prescribed by law.

In the contemporary historical context of international environmental and development policy, the concept of ecodevelopment (literally: eco-development) adopted in 1974 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Cocoyoc, Mexico, and the 1980 report by United Nations North-South Commission important milestones on the way to today's understanding of sustainability.
  • The Cocoyoc Declaration defined the ecodevelopment approach as "ecologically sound socio-economic development". It gives the ecological dimension of growth-oriented development policy a central position. The declaration is considered to be the first intergovernmental document of an alternative understanding of development that is oriented towards the satisfaction of basic human needs and the fight against poverty.
  • This approach was taken up and pursued by the North-South Commission, which met under the chairmanship of the former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. The title of the so-called Brandt Report, "Ensuring survival", already indicated the principle of a cross-generational understanding of development, which was important for the later work of the Brundtland Commission.
With the adoption of Agenda 21 at the World Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio and the associated establishment of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development, the discussion finally reached a preliminary political climax in 1992, which turned out to be more effective Provided the impetus for the spread of national sustainability strategies. To this day, Agenda 21 remains the central point of reference for global political efforts for the environment and development at local, national and intergovernmental level.