Sustainable Development

  The most commonly used definition of sustainable development states that it "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The term was first put forward by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its World Conservation Strategy (1980). The current popular definition and concept of sustainable development was furthered and popularized in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, in its report Our Common Future. A Canadian, James McNeill, played an important role in the work of the WCED as he served as the Brundtland Commission's secretary general.

The WCED was formed to consider the key issues related to environment and development, and to provide feasible and innovative ideas to deal with them. Sustainable development was proposed to meet this challenge. A fundamental belief of sustainable development is that a new development path must be pursued where interconnections between environment and economy are considered because they are of equal importance.

While balancing economic and environmental tensions is often seen as the essence of sustainable development, the needs of people must also be met. Awareness of the human need led to the conclusion that there are 3 interrelated and reinforcing aspects of sustainable development, often referred as its 3 pillars: environmental protection, economic development and social development. The emphasis on these 3 aspects is the first key feature of sustainable development.

Sustainable development has an optimistic outlook, which expands and improves the present approaches of environmental, social and economic management. It also identifies the need for appropriate technological innovations, although it would insist on avoiding the unintended and serious consequences of technology, such as the scenario of a "silent spring" suggested by Rachel Carson, who described in her book Silent Spring a spring in which no song bird calls could be heard because all birds had been killed through the uncontrolled use of a technology - pesticides. The Brundtland Commission's emphasis on linking environment, economy and society implies that sustainable development adopts a somewhat technical view of ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT. What is less clear is the relative importance of each of its 3 pillars. Traditionally, economic interests have been favoured in development decisions. This difficulty has led to suggestions that the term is vague and can mean anything to anybody. It has also been suggested that since the words sustainable and development are incompatible, the term is an oxymoron.

The focus on reducing poverty and ensuring that people's basic needs are met now and in the future is a second important feature of sustainable development. In terms of poverty and the environment, the WCED concluded that environmental degradation often has the severest effect on the poorest groups, which are more vulnerable to the impacts than people with wealth and power. The Brundtland Commission suggested that a key to resolving intra-generational equity and reducing poverty is encouraging more growth in the Third World because this would allow their citizens to receive larger per capita incomes. While the intentions are well placed, the soundness of this logic has been questioned.

A third major feature of sustainable development is a belief that there are limits to growth (economic and human population). Economic growth will be limited by finite resources. A particular resource's limit may not necessarily be reached because rising costs and diminishing returns will first reduce its use. Sustainable development's optimism, however, feels that technology and increased knowledge can help increase the lifespan of resources. With respect to population growth, rapid increases must be eliminated. WCED accepted arguments that had been made previously about the need for government action and the importance of self-determination in family planning. However, it extended consideration of the nature of and solutions to the population problem by embracing the idea that the problem was relative to the availability of resources. Solutions, therefore, must also reduce poverty by providing the poor access to resources and, subsequently, improving people's capacity to manage resources through education, training and technology transfer. The important role that women play in all aspects of life, including family planning, must also be taken into account.

The work of the WCED was followed by the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in 1992 and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). These were convened, in part, to take stock of how nations were implementing sustainable development. The former is considered to have been the more successful of the two. The secretary general of that conference was Canadian Maurice STRONG, who played a leadership role in the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and was the first executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Progress on the international stage towards implementing the features of sustainable development has been slow, as evidenced by the increasing gap between rich and poor nations, and continued environmental degradation.

Canada's Adoption of the Concept

A precursor of sustainable development in Canada emerged in 1973 with the SCIENCE COUNCIL OF CANADA report, Natural Resource Policy Issues in Canada. It used the term "conserver society" to portray what it maintained was a key to solving the environmental problems of the time. Rather than being consumers of resources, the Science Council argued, Canadians should ensure the wise and efficient use of resources, and reduce their generation of waste. The principles of the CONSERVER SOCIETY and sustainable development are very similar.

As with the principles of the conserver society, Canada and the rest of the world have been very slow in implementing the principles of sustainable development. The federal government's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was established in 1988. While it has been a forum for discussion and produced a number of reports, tangible and substantial impacts from the Round Table are less clear. The federal government's other major initiatives include development of green strategies by government departments; Canada's participation in several international conferences and agreements, including the UNCED; and passage of the federal Sustainable Development Act (2008). While these initiatives focus on environment-economy interactions, their efficacy is unclear at present. They also fail to directly address issues of poverty and of ensuring that people's needs, in Canada and beyond, are met.

The responses from provinces have been much more varied. Perhaps the most significant action towards sustainable development was British Columbia's decision to implement a "green tax" on gas. This clearly uses prices to influence people's behaviour. All provinces have also considered, or are at various stages of adopting, "green energy" strategies, and some are contemplating charging consumers increased prices for electricity during peak hours in order to curb demand. There has been much discussion by all levels of government concerning the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but little has been done in the way of concrete reductions.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has also embraced sustainable development. It has advocated for the need to fight CLIMATE CHANGE, and improve air and water quality. FCM has produced a report that measures the ecological footprint of Canada's major municipalities. It calculated that, on average, it takes more than 7 hectares of land and sea to support the average Canadian's present consumption. The size of footprints ranged from a little less than 7 hectares per person (eg, for Quebec City) to nearly 10 hectares per person (for Calgary). In contrast, the global capacity available to support each person currently living on Earth is 1.7 hectares per person. (Note: As the world's population continues to increase, this number will get smaller.) These data highlight the inequitable distribution of resources and the need to implement the principles of sustainable development sooner rather than later.