"Sustainable development" - can it be defined?

United Kingdom
"Sustainable development" - can it be defined?

The term "Sustainable Development" was first defined in 1987 by Brundtland as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs", latterly interpreted as " being a good ancestor" or "not cheating on our children". The principle of Sustainable Development underpinned Agenda 21 arising out of the Rio Conference in 1992 and now the European Community's Fifth Action Programme on the Environment which extends to the end of the millennium and which determines law and policy on environmental issues.

The principles of Sustainable Development have been subject to much debate over the past decade, focusing on two aspects which are potentially in tension: firstly, the notion of "sustainability" pursuant to which the current generation should protect future generations against a deteriorating environment and secondly, the need for "development", now generally accepted to be both social and economic development. Theoretically under this analysis there will be some development which will be prevented on the grounds that it is not environmentally sustainable and equally the imperative for development may be so overriding that it will take place, notwithstanding that it is environmentally damaging. On this interpretation, the Sustainable Development principle is analogous, but not identical, to a "cost-benefit" analysis.

Environment agencies duties

Interestingly, the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are both required under the Environment Act 1995 to take costs and benefits and the objectives of Sustainable Development into account when exercising their powers. This is the first time that the term "Sustainable Development" has appeared in a statute. However, notwithstanding the fact that the Environment Agency has codified its own methods for determining costs and benefits, in a recent appeal against an abstraction licence modification, the inspector rejected the Environment Agency's calculations in favour of those of its opponent (Thames Water Utilities Limited). The fact that the Environment Agency has to work to the principles of Sustainable Development and to apply a balance between costs and benefits is probably going to be a severe problem for it in practice, in that it will make it vulnerable to legal challenge. In practice, the principles will probably be developed gradually on a case by case basis, some cases going to the Environment Agency and others to the challenger.

Sustainable development in context

Of course, it is early days and only the first tentative steps have been made in codifying or quantifying what Sustainable Development (and for that matter "costs and benefits") actually means. However, it seems inevitable that the definition of "Sustainable Development" will always depend on the context in which it is being determined. For example, the balance between the necessity for development and due consideration of environmental matters will be significantly different in the emerging Eastern European states from that in Western Europe. What is Sustainable Development for an inner city brownfield site will be different from that for an out-of-town leisure centre.

Sustainable development indicators

There have been various attempts to quantify Sustainable Development by the introduction of Sustainable Development indicators, for example, by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and Local Agenda 21. The recent report on "Getting the Best Out of Indicators" by the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development took as its definition of an indicator "a measurement (or series of measurements) which can be used reliably as a signal to specify the current state or monitor the change, of factors having an impact on sustainable development". The Round Table identified two areas of particular interest: the use of indicators for the development, implementation, monitoring and communication of policy; and the raising of public awareness. The Round Table drew the conclusion that the following indicators would cover areas of crucial importance: the consumption of non-renewable resources; pollution of air, water and land; social issues; biodiversity; and landscape and cultural resources.

However, in a recent speech, Michael Meacher MP, Minister for Environmental Protection highlighted eight indicators: climate change; air quality; water quality; biodiversity; the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside; the use of our natural resources; the health of the population; and the state of the economy. He conceded, however, that different indicators are needed for different purposes and for different audiences. In addition, there is a need to encapsulate the social as well as the environmental and economic dimensions of Sustainable Development. It appears that the Government has in mind the production of a hierarchy of "nested sets of indicators" aimed at different levels. They are:


  • those to be used at a national level, to give an overview of progress for use in national and international reports;

  • those reporting on Government policy targets, specifically related to those targets which are within Government's own direct control;

  • those for local authority use, which it would be sensible for all local authorities to use to report on their own progress;

  • those for businesses - perhaps some common to all businesses, and others particular to those in a particular industry or sector - so that they can measure their own contribution; and

  • some highlighting the part which individuals and householders themselves must play if we are to achieve specific goals - for example by using energy and water more wisely, cutting down on waste, thinking more carefully about the use of the car and so on.

It will be interesting to see whether this initiative will develop into a true qualitative and quantitative analysis of Sustainable Development capable of developing reliable and legally binding definitions or whether it will be simply an obvious wish list which anybody who is well informed in environmental matters could have compiled.

Pamela Castle