Sustainable development: Thinking holistically, creating together

May 24, 2021

Javier Surasky
Program Officer Governance and Financing for Sustainable Development

There are many ways to tell the story of sustainable development. We could talk about environmental impacts in the field of development, the long game of mutual seduction between sustainability and development, of synergies to achieve better results. We could even tell a story about humanity seeking to change its relationship with nature to make it less destructive.

All these stories, and so many other possible ones, are only half true. Each one focuses on one point and makes it the key to explaining what sustainable development is. Therefore, each of these narratives is necessarily incomplete.

Is it possible to write a story about the path the world should follow without including in it our own preferences about the world we would like to inhabit? The answer is a definite no. Thinking about sustainable development, even to tell its story and define it, is always an exercise that implies taking a position on the future we want. 

At Cepei we have a clearly defined position, reflected in our mission and vision, and from there we work to promote global sustainable development agendas, follow-up on their implementation, guide stakeholders interested in their achievement, and produce data for informed decision-making to provide concrete solutions to specific problems.

Take care of earth: Your parents didn’t give it to you, they loaned it to your children. We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Native American proverb


What is sustainable development?

Having made the previous clarifications, we can start with the most widely accepted definition of sustainable development in the world: A development model that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It arises from the convergence of three dimensions of development that must be considered together: Economic, Environmental and Social. There is only sustainable development when the three converge in a balanced way.


The three dimensions of sustainable development

Source: Own elaboration, 2021

This triple dimensionality of sustainable development should serve to remind us that sustainable development not only refers to an “environmentally friendly” development, given that development could also be unsustainable for economic reasons (for example, promoting a development model based on the taking of long-term debt, which will have to be paid by the next generations), or for social reasons (for example, a development model that focuses on improving conditions for some groups while deferring others).


The report Our Common Future and the growing environmental concern

The “Bruntland Report” was a product of its time. Drafted by the World Commission on Environment and Development created by Resolution 38/161 of the General Assembly in 1983, and presented in April 1987. Three personalities from Latin America and the Caribbean were part of the 21 Members of the Commission: Margarita Marino de Botero (Colombia), Paulo Nogueira-Neto (Brazil) and Shridath S. Ramphal (Guyana).

The creation of the World Commission on Environment and Development is the consequence of a world context marked by the economic and social consequences of the “Washington Consensus” and by a growing concern of public opinion about environmental issues: In 1967 the first oil spill from a supertanker vessel, the “Torrey Canyon”, took place; In 1978 the situation was repeated with the catastrophe of the ship “Amoco Cadiz”, and a year later the oil spill from the Ixtoc I platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The environmental issue gained public appeal especially because in 1984 there was an accident at a chemical plant in Bophal (India) that left more than 12,000 people dead; In 1985 the presence of the hole in the ozone layer was detected, and in 1986 the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred. And the list goes on from the deforestation of the Amazon in South America to the Fukushima nuclear leak in Japan.


Gro Harlem Brundtland presents the report Our Common Future at the United Nations (1987)

Source: UN Multimedia

The “environment” is where we all live, and “development” is what we all do as we try to improve our lot in the environment in which we live. The two are inseparable.

Brundtland Report


Sustainable development: A new solidarity is born

Although the “Brundtland Report” addresses a wide range of topics, if we focus on the concept of sustainable development, we find that a “new solidarity”, not considered until then, emerges. 

Previous visions of development had focused on issues such as the fight against poverty, postulating a solidarity that should be extended globally, in which the most benefited inhabitants help the most disadvantaged. A “horizontal solidarity” between all the people who inhabit the planet at the same time.

Sustainable development complements this idea with that of intergenerational solidarity, which extends over time to future generations and, therefore, we can understand it as a “vertical solidarity” that crosses the present and the future.

This is not a minor change: Sustainable development calls to modify thinking schemes to provide them with a new entity extended in time, making the bridge between today and tomorrow visible, and with it the impacts of our decisions and current policies on the future well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.


Sustainable development cycle of crossed solidarity 

Source: Cepei


From the Brundtland Report to the 2030 Agenda

Man-made environmental catastrophes continued: The Fukushima nuclear leak in 2011, the explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, the losses of Amazonian forest, the discovery of the “garbage island” of the Pacif Ocean in 1997, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.


Loss of forest cover in the Amazon and South America

Source: Global Forest Watch

Although the first UN “Summit for Earth” had met in 1972, in Stockholm, the impact of the report and a greater awareness of the environmental situation led the United Nations to convene, 20 years later, the Rio de Janeiro “Summit of the Earth” in 1992. It was a critical point in the history of sustainable development, which was officially assumed by the Member States of the organization as a result of that meeting.

Despite the lack of concrete successes, and to follow up the process, climate summits were organized again in 2002 (Rio + 10) and 2012 (Rio + 20). The latter was the starting point of the negotiation process that would lead to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in September 2015. The Latin American proposal, led by Colombia, in the final declaration of Rio + 20, entitled The future we want, affirms that:

the importance and usefulness of a set of sustainable development goals [which] should relate to and incorporate the three dimensions of sustainable development and their interrelationships in a balanced way, and should be consistent with the United Nations development post-2015 agenda and be integrated into it, which would contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and advance related work and the integration of sustainable development in the United Nations system (paragraph 246).

The same conference created the High-Level Political Forum, which would become the “global house” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) incorporated in the 2030 Agenda.


Sustainable development in the 2030 Agenda

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development implied the adoption of this perspective as a guideline for global, regional and national efforts to promote sustainable development, together with the determination of key areas of work, the identification of means to achieve it and the determination of a series of principles of action that should mark the path of the international community towards sustainable development.

The impacts of COVID-19 on that journey will be profound, and for now they leave more questions than certainties.

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