Sustainable development vs global sustainability

The UN Secretary General’s high-level Global Sustainability Panel is due to report soon. The panel has been billed as the natural successor to the Brundtland Commission, which published Our Common Future in 1987. This document contains the iconic, and slightly enigmatic, definition of sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The new panel, set up by Ban Ki Moon in 2010, toyed with the idea of overhauling the definition of sustainable development, a definition that went on to be used to incredible effect at the first Rio Earth Summit twenty years ago.

Ultimately the panel resisted the urge to tinker. This was a mistake.

The problem is not with the definition; it is what the definition defines. Given our new knowledge about rising risks of crossing thresholds and tipping points in the Earth system, Brundtland’s words should not define “sustainable development” but rather they should define “global sustainability”.

There is a big distinction here. The world is split into the developed world and developing nations. Those in rich nations feel they have stopped developing so don’t link sustainable development to their own actions or agenda, except in the context of aid to developing countries. The richest 25% of the planet use 90% of the world’s energy. Yet the iconic definition used to promote the message of sustainability unwittingly throws the problem at poorer nations.

Moreover, in international spheres sustainable development is pigeon-holed and remains at arms length from the main business of economic growth. Even after decades of effort, and despite the rhetoric, the sustainable component of development remains a minority interest among those in power. If we want to change that it must straddle the whole thing not consigned to some ghetto.

For these reasons the Global Sustainability Panel should have tried to shake up Brundtland’s definition and made it fit with today’s challenges. By applying the Brundtland’s commission definition to “global sustainability” Ban Ki Moon’s panel could have seized upon an opportunity to nudge a mindset that is crippling efforts to transform societies.

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