The Insufficiency of Sustainable Development

As a principle, sustainable development has served us well. But it provides only an incomplete roadmap for organizing policy to address the multiple global challenges of the upcoming two decades. Going beyond simple exhortation to balance environment and development requires a vision for the destination and a policy pathway. Innovation, technological change and market transformations need to be centrally embedded in the development agenda, across all country contexts—from the OECD to the least developed countries.

Country delegations and thousands of representatives from non-governmental organizations are convening this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. This is the third in what has become a generational reassessment of global progress and goals at the intersection of development, poverty alleviation, economic vitality and environmental protection. While these large and diverse international confabulations are not ideal venues for addressing the specific details of many of the world's problems, they do, in contrast, provide unusual opportunities for focusing thought and attention on articulating a vision for the future, establishing norms and expectations, and presenting an idea for country delegates to bring back and improvise upon within their own domestic spheres.

The largest potential contribution for the long-term impact of the Rio+20 meeting is, to articulate both a vision for the future and a guiding principle for getting there. The previous two conventions of these environment and development conferences—in Stockholm in 1972, and then Rio de Janeiro in 1992— each facilitated difficult conversations about whether tradeoffs exist between those two goals, and how best to approach them simultaneously. At the first such meeting held in Stockholm 40 years ago, there were arguably even greater disparities across the developed and developing countries, and widespread poverty within many economies, such as China’s and India’s that are now economic forces in their own right. At the same time, ecological scientists and the new environmental movements in the United States and Western Europe had become increasingly concerned about industrial impacts on air, water, and ecosystems. But many developing countries whose priority was development began to feel that the environmental agenda dis not help them. Concerns about population, particularly in fast-growing and often less developed areas of the world, exacerbated tensions between the developed and developing blocs. The 1972 Stockholm meeting was a first step at resolving such conflicts, and today’s feeling of ‘obviousness’ of synergies between development and environmental protection is evidence of that meeting’s at least a partially successful legacy.

This first Rio meeting helped crystallize the vision and the consensus around sustainable development. This was a notable achievement even without counting the three major international treaties that emerged from that same conference.

Twenty years ago, the world was reaching for a global consensus on how to balance environmental protection and economic development. The Stockholm meeting provided the initial movement toward a new model, which was advanced in the mid-1980s by the so-called Brundtland Commission (named after it chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway). This commission articulated the idea of sustainable development in a document called “Our Common Future” in 1987. Shortly thereafter, the international community successfully tackled the global problem of stratospheric ozone depletion and began a collective approach to addressing other global environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity loss. As such, when these stakeholders convened at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the concept provided a surprisingly robust organizing principle that commanded support across a broad spectrum of actors, from small rural NGOs to the World Bank, from farmers’ collectives to large multinational corporations. This first Rio meeting helped crystallize the vision and the consensus around sustainable development. This was a notable achievement even without counting the three major international treaties [1] that emerged from that same conference.

However, while sustainable development remains a useful principle to guide decisions, it is regrettably insufficient for the major challenges facing the global community in the upcoming two decades. One of the challenges of sustainable development was also what made it appealing: As a principle, it could be a point of consensus but as a guide to practice, it was—and is—silent. Several new ideas have been injected into the discussions; indeed, the Rio+20 meeting set its sights on broadening the concept of sustainable development to “sustainable development in the context of green economy and poverty eradication.” While this principle stands as sound and laudable, it unfortunately provides little new guidance on how we might reach any new goals that emerge from the meeting. We have had 20 years to create the roadmap toward these next goals, but the level of ambition heading into the Rio+20 meeting is trending toward diminishing battles and exhortations rather than setting forth an expansive new vision for the next 20 years.

The environmental dimension of development is no longer controversial, and the improvements in technical and economic capacity in many countries open tremendous new opportunities for setting and reaching new goals. The challenge now is not simply to reaffirm the need for sustainable development, but to articulate and realize different futures.

The reality is that the while the value of sustainable development hasn’t wavered, the world has changed since the 1992 Earth Summit. The environmental dimension of development is no longer controversial, and the improvements in technical and economic capacity in many countries open tremendous new opportunities for setting and reaching new goals. The challenge now is not simply to reaffirm the need for sustainable development, but to articulate and realize different futures. This involves the combination of policy choices and market realignments that enable transformational technologies to become commonplace.

Innovation and deployment of new technologies will be a key component of this process. A renewed focus on encouraging transformational innovation, and embedding it in diverse development contexts is necessary for reaching the sustainable development vision that we have inherited from the first Earth Summit. Unfortunately, the halting steps that are being discussed in Rio are not grappling with innovation either systematically or broadly. The innovation “ecosystem” in any given country draws on many aspects—the policy environment, governance and bureaucratic effectiveness, the domestic science and technology system, networks of entrepreneurs and financiers, and more. International and domestic policies can contribute to enhancing all of these elements—for example, through boosting support to research funding, establishing business development incubators, and providing better access to capital or reducing risk premiums (For a fuller description, see “Toward an International Architecture to Support Green Growth Innovation” and “Rio+20: Coalitions Driving Bottom-up Change”).

One of the themes of the Rio+20 conference, and the likely title of the final outcome document, is “The Future We Want.” While at first it may sound a bit petulant, this phrase is rooted in an appropriate attempt to frame our future as one of choice. In other words, we are not bound to follow a current trajectory just because that is where we happen to be heading today. Changing course, though, requires two conditions: First, to determine what new course to take, and second, to have a vehicle to take us there. The Rio+20 meeting is an opportunity to re-imagine our approach to both. Discussions thus far have seem to have established a number of points of consensus on those global goals and process for crystallizing them—but that is only the destination, not the vehicle. While sustainable development has proven to be a useful point of international consensus, it does not go far enough toward making that “Future We Want” a reality. Neither, unfortunately, does “Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”. Embedding transformative innovation in the environment and development agenda, in contrast, could build the vehicle we need to get there.


[1] The Convention on Biodiversity, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification

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