History of Sustainable Development
The modern concept of environmental sustainability dates to the post-World War II period. At this time the previous utopian view of technology-driven economic growth was replaced by a public perception that the quality of environment was closely linked to economic development.
In 1956 the UK Parliament introduced the Clean Air Act in response to the great smog of 1952 and this legislated for zones where smokeless fuels had to be burnt and relocated power stations to rural areas. This Act was revised in 1968 and introduced the use of tall chimneys to disperse pollution for industries burning coal, liquid or gaseous fuels. There were further revisions to this Act in 1993.
Canada had its own Clean Air Act in 1970, which sought to regulate the release of four specific air pollutants: asbestos, lead, mercury, and vinyl chloride and in many ways was at the forefront of environmental awareness at this point in time. This act was replaced by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in the year 2000.
In 1972 the Club of Rome raised considerable public attention with its document the "Limits to Growth" where they stated that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of the limited availability of natural resources, particularly oil. Also, in 1972 the United Nations adopted the Stockholm Declaration, which was the first document in international environmental law to recognize the right to a healthy environment.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature were the first international body to formally recognise the concept of sustainable use in their World Conservation Strategy of 1980. This was followed by the Global 2000 Report, which was released in 1980 by the Council on Environmental Quality and the United States State Department. The report was based on data collected by different institutions and concluded:
"If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, and more vulnerable to disruption, than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today."
In 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), now known as the Rutland Commission, was convened by the United Nations. The commission was created to address growing concern "about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development." In establishing the commission, the UN General Assembly recognized that environmental problems were global in nature and determined that it was in the common interest of all nations to establish policies for sustainable development. This was followed by the 1985 Helsinki Protocol on Air Quality, where 21 ECE committed to reduce 1980 sulphur emissions by at least 30 per cent, and by 1993, all parties involved had managed a sulphur reduction of 50%.
The 1987 Brundtland Report ("Our Common Future") targeted multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path and placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda. This was followed by the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer, which was an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion. The treaty has undergone several revisions and it is believed that if the international agreement is adhered to, the ozone layer is expected to recover by 2050. Due to its widespread adoption and implementation it has been hailed as an example of exceptional international co-operation, with Kofi Annan quoted as saying that "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol". It has been ratified by 196 states.
In 1990, the Commission of the European Communities published a "Green Paper" on the urban environment as a first step toward establishing an integrated policy for European cities, focusing on the revaluation of public space whose degradation is considered a symptom of a deep-seated developmental and environmental crisis.
The United Nations held a Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and 172 governments participated. The conference resulted in an agreement on the Climate Change Convention, which in turn led to the Kyoto Protocol. They also agreed to "not carry out any activities on the lands of indigenous peoples that would cause environmental degradation or that would be culturally inappropriate".
The 1990 UK white paper "This Common Inheritance" set out the British Governments approach to improving the environment both from Britain's and a global perspective. It proposed the integration of economic growth with improvements in the environment thus recognising that in order to achieve a better environment in the future it was not sufficient to consider these two characteristics in isolation and that society must have a role in environmental conservation.
In 1994 the European Environment Agency was established as a monitoring network for the monitoring of the European environment. It is governed by a Management Board composed of representatives of the governments of its 32 member states, a European Commission representative and two scientists appointed by the European Parliament, assisted by a committee of scientists.
The next major development in the history of sustainability was the Kyoto conference on Global Warming held in 1997. This resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, which is a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC), aimed at fighting global warming. The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty with the goal of achieving the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."
The Protocol was initially adopted on 11 December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and entered into force on 16 February 2005. As of August 2011, 191 states have signed and ratified the protocol. The only remaining signatory not to have ratify it is the United States, with other states yet to ratify including Afghanistan, Andorra and South Sudan.
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, sustainability has become an issue of ever increasing importance. There is more global awareness of the threat posed by the human-induced enhanced greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of fossil fuels. In March 2009, the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, issued a strongly worded statement:
"The climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts".
Also in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States determined that greenhouse gases "endanger public health and welfare" of the American people by contributing to climate change and causing more heat waves, droughts and flooding, and threatening food and water supplies. Rapidly advancing technologies now provide the means to achieve a transition of economies, energy generation, water and waste management, and food production towards sustainable practices using methods of systems ecology and industrial ecology.
There is now more far awareness of sustainability than at any other time in our history and there are a multitude of new concepts to help implement and measure sustainability including:
- the Car-free movement;
- Smart Growth;
- Life Cycle Assessment;
- Ecological Footprint Analysis;
- Green building;
- De-carbonisation, and much more.
The issue of sustainability and the way we deal with it has now become the most important issue for our future.