The notion of sustainable development is somewhat elusive; yet an understanding is important for those with a role in developing our future from global to national to regional to local level. In a democracy that arguably means all of us. It is a highly relevant consideration at present as throughout the UK, local authorities like Durham County Council and communities like Lanchester’s are in the process of devising local and neighbourhood plans. It is broadly accepted that such plans be consistent with an agreed notion of sustainable development. However, the intangibility of the concept requires that good will and careful deliberation is necessary in coming to agreement.

The term was brought to prominence in the Brundtland Report (1987) in which it was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In balancing the importance of social and economic development with the need for environmental protection it has significantly affected the attitude of the international community towards development. Newcastle University’s Institute for Research on Sustainability succinctly puts it as “Enough for all forever”. Whilst these definitions raise many questions, e.g. relating to the difficulty of predicting the future in contexts influenced by technologies that we can barely imagine, they are at least a starting point for developing understanding. The study of sustainability crosses many disciplines—including natural science, social science, economics and the philosophy of environmentalism. Coming to an agreed perception is problematic as different disciplines employ different frameworks for their ideas. Some of the problems are explored in two articles with different viewpoints and conclusions—one by Jerry Taylor (1998), an environmental policy researcher at the Cato Institute, an American free market, libertarian organisation, the other by Dieter Helm (2011), an Oxford economist and energy adviser to the UK government and various European organisations.

The literature on sustainable development abounds with references to its three pillars: society, economy and environment (e.g. Hecht et al, 2012). Humans have basic needs that include shelter, nutrition, physical and mental health, education and opportunities to fulfil one’s full potential through the development of life skills that prepare one for work and leisure. The prosperity necessary for this comes through appropriate economic activity that relies on the natural capital that the environment provides. If the environment is degraded then development is not sustainable. However, care of the environment requires educated and appropriately skilled people who have the security of shelter and food and this in turn relies on prosperity derived from economic activity. The three pillars are thus so intimately connected that changes cannot occur in any one pillar without affecting the others.

The UN organisation Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2012) presents a framework with four dimensions: the three pillars already referred to plus good governance and personal security, which it argues acts to facilitate sustainable development through providing conditions that include effective and enabling institutions, transparency, accountability and personal security. This framework has been developed into an action agenda for sustainable development, with listed interconnected goals that contribute to the four dimensions of sustainable development.

Social Justice and Economic development

Sustainable development requires that each household should have an adequate income that enables them to access shelter (i.e. decent housing) basic nutrition, food security and healthcare. To enable this basic infrastructure services are necessary—including safe water and sanitation, clean energy and transport (working towards zero-carbon) and access to broadband. All children should be able to access sound programmes of childhood development and education, which prepares them with skills that equip them for meaningful employment and opportunities for life-long learning and fulfilment of their human potential. This should include opportunities for all to be made aware of their cultural identity and those of others within their society as well as the cultural identities of peoples in the rest of the world.

Social needs generally can be considered to centre on social inclusion. Without universal access to the above programmes, fairness and justice are jeopardised and inequality thrives as individuals lacking access are at high risk of unemployment or wages at poverty levels and as a result are unable to make the social connections that those with secure and well paid employment take for granted. According to human rights legislation, universal access means no discrimination relating to religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or age. However, since in our locality (in common with much of the developed world) we have a marked problem with youth unemployment, there perhaps needs to be an emphasis on the provision of opportunities for apprenticeships and vocational training.

Environmental sustainability and its interdependence with economic development and social justice

Sustainable development is aimed at meeting social and economic needs without jeopardising the environment, which provides the natural capital needed for socio-economic development. Deterioration of environmental quality (i.e. the natural base) in turn jeopardises long-term socio-economic development.

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission to allay climate change

Climate change is perhaps the major challenge to an environment in which humans can continue to flourish. There is almost universal acceptance by climate scientists and widespread political acknowledgement among governments of right and left in developed and developing countries and by international organisations like the UN that greenhouse gas emission (of which CO2 is the major component) is a major factor in climate change. Though having to battle against what might be called a “business as usual” model of economic development, there are driving forces for the reduction of C emissions using a variety of approaches. These include: (i) energy conservation through such programmes as insulation of buildings, sea, air and road vehicle design to reduce fuel consumption; substitution of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources and nuclear fuels or at least by cleaner fossil fuels; (iii) capture and storage of CO2 from power stations and other industrial processes. Much attention is going into designing symbiotic relationships between manufacturing processes in which the waste products of one process are used as raw materials in another. A simple example is the use of CO2 from ammonia/fertiliser production to enhance the photosynthesis of tomatoes. Technologies to use industrial waste CO2 in manufacturing fuels is another development. Such innovations are features of what is referred to the circular economy, which also includes the recycling of valuable resource materials.

The importance of decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions

Economic growth has never been achieved without increased CO2 emissions, yet this is an essential ingredient of sustainable development. Tim Jackson (2009) argues for zero growth, contending that such uncoupling is not feasible—i.e. growth inevitably results in CO2 emission increase and resource depletion.

If uncoupling is to be achieved it will require the kind of innovation that is described in the previous paragraph. Such activity is already underway and is likely to become more widespread in the next decade.

In our region new ways industries (manufacturing and service) are being developed in centres such as NETPark in Sedgefield and Newcastle Science Central. However, their number is small relative to other regions like Cambridge. Can a science park in north west Durham be developed to drive a sustainable economy with high value goods and services? It might be helpful to reflect on developments of science parks that started five decades ago to drive a depressed economy in another Durham—Durham North Carolina. It has been transformed into a prosperous and thriving innovation centre that includes Duke University—regularly in the world’s top twenty universities. It is claimed that jobs created inside science parks have created many more outside.

Such high value innovation attracts those with the necessary skills and is likely therefore to attract incomers to the area. We have to think through the implications for the locality, including housing, education and training needs, transport infrastructure and broadband connectivity and speed.

Social and economic deprivation threaten the environment

There are countries with high levels of unemployment and associated poverty (including in many developed nations--for example some Eurozone countries) that make them politically unstable. It could reasonably be stated that such economic conditions—austerity and zero or even negative growth--are unsustainable because they adversely affect well-being and promote social unrest. For those finding themselves in these circumstances, matters of long-term significance such as biodiversity and C emissions are unlikely to feature much in their quest for survival. Those who warn that positive growth leads inevitably to environmental degradation and therefore promulgate a zero growth strategy should consider a report (Guardian Thurs 29 Nov 2012) that some Greeks, unable to pay heating bills, resorted to cutting down trees for winter fuel—a clear indication of how prolonged negative growth in GDP can damage the environment, i.e. deplete natural capital. While this deforestation provides an immediate solution to their problems and is necessary for their short-term welfare, it is not a sustainable development as CO2 emissions rise due to loss of a carbon sink and the burning of the wood. Furthermore, habitats of forest species are destroyed.

This is consistent with the notion that in the long-term, you cannot have thriving businesses, a healthy economy and healthy people if growth and the pursuit of profit destroy the environment. BUT, neither can you sustain a healthy environment if people live in poverty, don’t have decent housing, healthcare, education or economic opportunity.

Agriculture and food security for a rising population

Secondly, we need to find appropriate systems for sustainable agriculture and food production and security to meet the rising demand for food. The nature of these systems will vary according to region and locality depending on the nature of the land and environmental threat— e.g. population rise and demographic balance, food wastage, deforestation, water stress, plant diseases, threats to biodiversity and loss of aesthetically pleasing countryside. Development plans will need to demonstrate how agricultural systems can enable adaptation to climate change. A reasonable balance between local food and imported food will have to be achieved. Most would agree to increase our local supply of food. However we should be careful not to oversimplify the problem; to achieve a situation in which all food is locally grown is both unrealistic and not necessarily desirable. There are many examples where imported food has a lower carbon footprint than locally grown food. According to Saunders et al (2006) the import of various farm produce from New Zealand (including lamb and apples) has a lower energy requirement (including transport) than UK-grown produce. Furthermore, there are socioeconomic justifications for importing food from developing regions. E.g. air freighting fruit and vegetables from Kenya contributes significantly to the development of a country in which 1 to 1.5 million are dependent on agricultural employment, whilst adding an estimated 0.1% to the UK’s total annual CO2 emissions (Chi et al (2009) p 33).

Water resources

The world’s oceans, rivers and lakes, as well as having aesthetic value, are resource bases for our food, industrial and energy needs and thus require protection against pollution and over-fishing.

Good governance and accountability

Planning sustainable development, which is what national, regional, local and neighbourhood authorities are engaged across the globe inevitably raises some controversial issues. Those authorities are called upon to effectively decide upon and manage such matters as: new technologies and ways of providing carbon-neutral energy and how they are financed; how businesses should be regulated for the common good so that social and economic benefits are fairly and justly distributed whilst protecting the environment; what consumption patterns might be encouraged. Citizens should be encouraged to exercise their right to participate in this process and should appreciate the onerous task that local authority leaders and councillors have in these matters. We could all usefully develop good listening skills.

Different age groups will have different self-interests‑‑the younger element on jobs and finding a home to start raising a family, the older age groups more emphasis on health and care. Each interest group needs to see development from the other interest groups’ perspectives. However, all have certain needs in common; their fulfilment may be manifested in different ways, but we all need security, a sense of belonging to the community. Because of the interdependence of the pillars of sustainable development, trade-offs between socio-economic policies and environmental policies are inevitable. It has always been so. House building, industrial development and road infrastructure changes inevitably affect the physical environment (although not necessarily adversely and sometimes dependent on people’s aesthetic values).

Planning involves predicting the future, which by nature is a very uncertain business. Acknowledging this, our planning should be done with an appropriate degree of humility and have an appropriate degree of flexibility to deal with unforeseen and unintended occurrences. Periodic and transparent reviews should be built into the planning process, with review teams accountable to the public through effective and meaningful consultation. We all need to develop good listening skills.

In the end we can somehow navigate a way forward or allow ourselves to drift. The former means a commitment for persons of goodwill to work together, to carefully analyse and deliberate and demonstrate willingness for reasonable compromise.

References and links to Further Reading

Chi KR, MacGregor J and  King R (2009) Fair Miles: Recharting the food miles map. International Institute for Environment and Development

Jackson T (2009) Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy – report. Also available as a book: T Jackson (2009) Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet Earthscan.

Hecht AD, Fiksel J, Fulton SC, Yosie TF, Hawkins NC, Leuenberger H, Golden JS, & Lovejoy TE (2012). Creating the future we want Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy 8 (2): 62-75.

More Publications of Dieter Helm.

Newcastle University Institute for Research on Sustainability (2013). ____________

Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future – Brundtland Report. United Nations (1987).

Saunders C, Barber A and Taylor G (2006) Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry. Research Report No. 285 July.

Smith H (2012) Greeks turn to the forests for fuel as winter nears. The Guardian 28 November.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Circular Economy.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2012) A Framework for Sustainable Development. Draft, 19.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2012) An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development


Alan Myers

7 September 2013