Sustainability as a policy driver

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Sustainability has been a significant influence on governmental and intergovernmental policy and action since the 1970s, and the focus of major global agreements for the past several decades. The most recent outcomes of this process include the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Both these initiatives, and the growing influence of sustainability as an outlook, shape in important ways the actions of key actors such as governments, businesses and civil society.

Historical Emergence of Policy Interest in Sustainability

Sustainability issues began to enter popular and political consciousness during the 1960s and 1970s as a critical response to the post-WW2 rise in mass-consumption in industrialised countries, its export to the rest of the world via 'development', and increasing concerns as to the deleterious environmental and social effects, raised in seminal and influential works such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, and the Limits to Growth report produced by the Club of Rome.

Limits to Growth provided detailed analyses and models of the current situation and potential future consequences of depletion of limited non-renewable resources, including minerals and fossil fuels, and accumulation of pollutants, including greenhouse gases. It predicted that continuation of present-day trends would lead to transgression of biophysical limits, declining industrial output and eventual collapse of industrial society over the course of the 21st Century, and outlined various alternative scenarios that could avoid this.[1] Reassessment of the findings by both the original team and independent analysts show their findings and projections largely to have been borne out, raising genuine concerns over the consequences if prevalent trends are not reversed.[2][3][4][5]

In 1972 the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm, leading to the signing of the Stockholm Declaration.[6] The Stockholm Declaration includes 26 principles and 109 recommendations to protect the environment and promote human wellbeing, and represented the first recognition in international law of the need for environmental protection.

In 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (also know as the Brundtland Commission) produced its report Our Common Future,[7] which introduced for the first time the concept of Sustainable Development, as an attempt to reconcile ongoing development with needs for environmental sustainability. Although widely criticised for effectively subordinating environmental concerns to the prevailing political and economic model, the Bruntland Report brought attention to sustainability, at least in principle, into mainstream policy agendas.[8]

Around the same time, climate change became a focus of international policy concern with creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with a mandate to provide a scientific view of climate change and its ecological and socio-economic impacts, in 1988.[9] In 1994 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force with nearly global membership (196 countries). In 1997 the Kyoto protocol, the world's first greenhouse gas emissions reduction treaty, was adopted, entering into force in 2005.

Further key events:

  • At the 1992 Earth Summit held at Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Convention to Combat Desertification were opened for signature and entered into force few years later. This important summit also brought to life the Agenda 21, an action plan for local governments to achieve sustainable development. The Rio Declaration, a percursor of the Earth Charter and that had been initiated some years before by members of the Club of Rome, was transformed into a citizens initiative and finally approved at UNESCO in the year 2000.
  • Also in 2000, 189 governments adopted the Millennium Declaration, which included commitments relating to sustainable development within its 8 Millennium Development Goals.[10][11]
  • The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (also know as Rio+10) in South Africa adopted the Johannesburg Declaration, with a particular focus on the severe threats to sustainable development.[12]
  • At Rio+20 (2012), also known at UN Conference on Sustainable Development and again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, publishes a non-binding document entitled "The Future We Want" endorsed by 192 governments.[13]

Key Current Policy Initiatives

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Sustainable Development Goals were initially conceived at the "Rio+20" United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. The resolution and publication Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was subsequently accepted by 193 countries on September 25th 2015.[14][15]. The SDGs replaced and updated the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were in place for 15 years from 2000.[16]

The process of creating the SDGs was more inclusive than any previously conducted by the UN, involving participatory events all over the world. They aspire to be more widely relevant, and comprehensive in scope, and incorporate mechanisms for monitoring and accountability. Numerous overlap and potential synergies are evident between community-led initiatives and the Sustainable Development Goals, with many CLIs already active, and effective in areas covered by the SDGs. This suggests that bottom-up local-scale action provides an important potential implementation vehicle for the SDGs, and challenge to some of their limitations, while the SDGs offer an opportunity to mainstream and/or upscale ideas and action originating at community scale.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement was reached at the 21st international Conference of the Parties on Climate Change in December 2015, the culmination of nearly 30 years of work on the part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[17] The Paris Agreement, an update on the Kyoto protocol that significantly raises levels of concern and ambition, aims to keep the average rise in global temperature within a limit of 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, and ideally within 1.5ºC.

Community-led Initiatives and Sustainability Policy

Community-led initiatives (CLIs) arise whenever people self-organise in the places where they live to take action on issues that concern them. These issues may range from local to global in scope, and often bridge distinct scales. They may, for example both address local sustainability issues directly and at the same time consider them in global context, or pay attention both to the direct local impacts of climate change and its global causes and solutions. As well as being effective and important in their own right, they often inspire other people, within their home communities and elsewhere, to re-think and transform their ways of thinking, acting and being in the world.

Increasing numbers of scholars now recognise the present time as a distinct geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human impacts significantly and unavoidably affect ecological conditions all over the world.[18] The Anthropocene raises new, complex and often unprecedented challenges, of many kinds: ecological, cultural, socio-political, socio-technological and economic. In light of this, scientists from many different disciplines are now calling for a shift in the premise of global governance to one of planetary stewardship [19].

CLIs represent a pre-emptive response, at local levels, to this call for planetary stewardship. Arising and existing across Europe and focussing on a huge range of local and global issues, they take many different forms. Building and mobilising community through diverse partnerships and innovative initiatives, their work is a vital complement to high-level political action on climate change and sustainability. Through their work towards creating low carbon alternatives to existing lifestyles, local economies and other societal structures, directly reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses and fostering independence from the fossil fuel economy, they can make significant contributions to effective, inclusive and pluralistic implementation of the Paris Agreement. Their work often addresses themes relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals, and can provide innovative ways to implement these goals at local levels. It also challenges, in important ways, some of the assumptions behind both the Paris Agreement and SDGs: particularly in highlighting the benefits of alternative transition trajectories involving fundamental changes in political and economic structures in favour of more inclusive, equitable and democratic alternatives.

Understanding community-led action on climate change and sustainability is also important from a scientific perspective. CLIs are important agents in processes of sustainability transitions - the shifts in interlinked social and technical configurations in key societal domains such as energy, water and transport. Improved understanding of CLIs - what they do, the effects and the factors that enable and assist these - can help inform wider questions of appropriate technological choices and governance methods for society-wide transitions to sustainability. CLIs are also important to the science and practice of social-ecological resilience. Community-level innovations can increase adaptability and resilience, in ways that both directly affect local-level prospects for navigating social, environmental and economic changes and affecting the prospects for wider transformation.


  1. Meadows, Donella H.; Meadows, Dennis L.; Randers, Jørgen; Behrens III, William W. (1972). The Limits to Growth: A report for the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.
  2. Meadows, Donella H.; Meadows, Dennis L.; Randers, Jørgen, 1992. Beyond the limits: global collapse or a sustainable future. London: Earthscan.
  3. Hall, C.A.S., Jr., J.W.D., 2009. Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil. American Scientist 97, 230–237.
  4. Turner, G., 2008. A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change 18, 397–411.
  5. Turner, G. (2014) Is Global Collapse Imminent?, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
  6. Accessed September 30th 2018.
  7. World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. De la Court, T., 1990. Beyond Brundtland: Green development in the 1990s. London: Zed Books.
  9. Accessed October 7th 2018
  10. Accessed October 2nd 2018.
  11. Also see Hulme, D., 2009, The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise. BWPI Working Paper 100.
  12. Accessed October 2nd 2018.
  13. Accessed October 2nd 2018.
  14. Accessed October 9th 2018.
  15. Accessed October 9th 2018.
  16. Accessed October 9th 2018.
  17. Accessed October 9th 2018.
  18. Steffen, W., Crutzen, P.J. and McNeill, J.R., 2007. The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8): 614-621.
  19. Steffen, W., Persson, Å., Deutsch, L., Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Richardson, K., Crumley, C., Crutzen, P., Folke, C., Gordon, L. and Molina, M., 2011. The Anthropocene: From global change to planetary stewardship. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 40(7), pp.739-761.