Sustainability—are we really committed to it?

Who is committed to sustainability?

Sustainability is the hottest buzzword in business and government strategy. Every Australian government department is committed to it and the corporate sector is on board. Most organisations have a sustainability policy that they can include in their tenders and on their website. Everyone it seems, is committed to sustainability.

But what does it mean? Is sustainability a weasel word thrown around for effect but with all the meaning sucked out of it?

But what does sustainability really mean?

The modern, formalised concept of sustainability was first defined by the publication of Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission) in 1987, almost two generations ago.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, was chosen as chairperson of the commission due to her background in the sciences and public health.

The Brundtland Report aimed to respond to the conflict between global economic growth and accelerating ecological degradation. It redefined “economic development” in terms of “sustainable development” and created the main definition of sustainability with the concept of intergenerational equity at its core:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Rio de Janeiro

Our Common Future formed the basis of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The conference agreed 27 principles for sustainability introducing several core concepts in addition to intergenerational equity (included as Principal 3). It was signed by 175 countries.

Principle 5—All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world [ERADICATION OF POVERTY].

Principle 15— Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation [known as the PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE].

Principle 16— National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalisation of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment [known as the POLLUTER PAYS PRINCIPLE].

The strategy was broad and included concepts of equal access to health, food, wealth and opportunity of women, children and indigenous people.

Australia’s ESD strategy (1992)

Australia formalised its strategy for ESD in the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in 1992. Several of the key principles of ESD were teased out. These have been adopted by the Federal and state governments in their legislation.

At the Commonwealth level the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 – Section 3A spells out the principles of ESD on which all Australian policy is based:

(a) decision-making processes should effectively integrate both long-term and short-term economic, environmental, social and equitable considerations;

(b) if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation [PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE];

(c) the principle of inter-generational equity–that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations [INTERGENERATIONAL EQUITY];

(d) the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity should be a fundamental consideration in decision-making [CONSERVATION OF BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY AND ECOLOGICAL INTEGRITY];

(e) improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms should be promoted [includes POLLUTER PAYS, MARKET MECHANISMS or ECONOMIC INSTRUMENTS and FULL LIFECYCLE COSTING].

Are we sustainable?

The principles of ecologically sustainable development have been agreed but we are ignoring our responsibilities as a nation to live by them. Our present international development paths are clearly not sustainable. There is no evidence that we are going to hand the world over to the next generation in anything but a highly damaged and degraded condition—it will be badly worn out and needing a lot of repair.