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Sustainable development: Definition, objectives and examples

sustainable development

Sustainable development represents the transition from today's society to a more environmentally friendly one. With the world facing a potential climate crisis - water shortages, drought, hunger, extreme weather - sustainable development goals are to ensure a commitment and balance between economic growth, preservation of the environment and social well-being.


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What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development is a necessity today. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, defines it as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" - Our Common Future (Report World Commission on the Environment and Development report, 1987). In other words, it is about exploiting the planet's resources in moderation, without exceeding its capacity for natural renewal.

3 pillars of sustainable development

There are 3 pillars of sustainable development:

  1. Economic sustainability: which aims to reduce extreme poverty and guarantee fair paid employment for all.
  2. Environmental sustainability: which aims to protect the natural balance of the planet, while limiting the impact of human activities on the environment.
  3. Social sustainability: which aims to guarantee access to basic resources and services for all.

The sustainable development definition is, therefore, a development that is economically efficient, ecologically sustainable and socially equitable.

The Brundtland report and sustainable development

The concept of sustainable development is very recent. It first appeared in the Brundtland Report established within the framework of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Brundtland report highlighted the negative environmental consequences of economic development and proposed possible solutions to problems arising from globalisation and population growth.

Thanks to the Brundtland report, sustainable development as a concept was born. A few years later, in 1997, it was at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where the concept of sustainable development became official.

The 2030 agenda for sustainable development

As a new roadmap to achieve sustainable development, in September 2015, the United Nations approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that sets out the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of common goals to protect the planet and guarantee social well-being. By adopting this new strategy, the states committed themselves, over the next fifteen years, to mobilise all the necessary means for its implementation.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) aims to help implement the Goals.

Then Prime Minister, Theresa May, represented the UK in signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals. She told business leaders in the country that the UK had played a key role in defining the goals and would lead the way in ensuring they are met at home and abroad.

The Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, seek to reconcile economic growth, environmental balance and social progress, ensuring that all people have the same opportunities and can lead a better life without compromising the planet.

What are the 17 UN sustainable development goals?

  1. End poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals
17 sustainable development goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight Millennium Goals, established in 2000, made significant progress in many areas such as poverty reduction, the fight against AIDS, access to water, and maternal health.

Sustainable development and the environment

The human population continues to grow and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2100. Such an increase entails an increase in needs and, as a result, more individual consumption.

carbon footprint

The influence of human activities on the climate to meet these needs is undeniable. If we do not take climate change into account, it will set back the development gains of recent years and prevent further progress. Investing in sustainable development helps to tackle climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, initiatives to combat climate change will drive sustainable development.

The contribution to sustainable development begins with an awareness process through the calculation of our personal carbon footprint. This allows us to assess the areas of our lives and consumption habits that are having a negative impact on the environment. When we can see how our habits impact the environment, we can put into place some of the principles of sustainable development in our personal lives and help reduce the carbon footprint.

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Promoting sustainable development: examples

Human beings face various challenges, such as climate change, respect for human rights, hunger, water scarcity, etc. These challenges can only be solved from a global perspective and promoting sustainable development through various initiatives. In order to promote sustainable development and mobilise citizens, many organisations and entities are hosting events or launching new initiatives.

European Sustainable Development Week (ESDW)

The European Sustainable Development Week (ESDW) is an annual Europe-wide event. The week aims to promote sustainable development goals through awareness-raising actions, and present the 2030 Agenda and its 17 goals.

This year, ESDW takes place between 18th September and 8th October, with the core of the Week taking place 20th September and 26th September.

European Week for Waste Reduction (EWWR)

European Week for Waste Reduction (EWWR) is an annual initiative to raise awareness about sustainable resource management and waste reduction through awareness actions.

The actions implemented during the week are based on the 3R strategy:

  1. Reduce waste
  2. Reuse the products
  3. Recycle materials.

It takes place this year between 20th and 28th November. You can check on the website to see events taking place across the UK - so take a look and find one near you!

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Business Certification

The objective of the SDG Business Certification is to raise awareness of the sustainability efforts being carried out by a company, and promoting the incorporation of the 17 ODS in its business strategy.

Many companies across the UK have adopted schemes to promote sustainabilty. The BBC, PwC, ASDA and GlaxoSmithKline have adopted cycle to work programmes in a bid to reduce dependency on cars and switch to cleaner modes of transport. Other examples of companies making efforts to help meet the SDGs include cutting single-use plastics from their cafes and restaurants, launching social and educational enterprises, and organising events to increase awareness of sustainable food.

Sustainable development: UK initiatives

Since the UK committed to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 the Government has put in place a number of initiatives to help achieve those targets. As part of the commitments, each nation needs to produce at least one Voluntary National Review (VNR) in which it updates other members on progress made in achieving the goals.

In 2019, the UK published its first VNR in which it highlighted progress made in key areas but also identified other areas for improvement.

Some of the achievements to date included:

  1. A high-quality health service, free for all at the point of use.
  2. High and rising standards of education.
  3. Increasing employment, with more women and disabled people in work.
  4. Progress made on climate and the environment.
  5. Some of the world’s strongest legislation on equality issues.

Areas identified for further progress included:

  1. Tackling injustice to ensure no one is left behind.
  2. Further increasing efforts to address climate and environmental issues.
  3. Ensuring the housing market works for everybody.
  4. Responding to mental health needs.
  5. Supporting a growing and ageing population.

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