Introducing Sustainability to Environmental Policy and Strategies for Development

By Diane Henkels

To incorporate the principles of sustainability, environmental policy and strategies for international development must be approached holistically.  The whole context of how humans address their needs in a way that permits future generations to meet their needs must be considered.   This article focuses on how these concepts have developed over the past twenty-plus years as the international community has formally explored the relationship between the use and conservation of resources and the needs and rights of humans.

In 1972, representatives of 113 countries met in Stockholm, Sweden, at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.  The representatives concluded that concern for development and concern for the environment can be compatible, that support for environmental action must not be an excuse for reducing development, and that there must be a substantial increase in development assistance with due consideration for environmental factors.1  There was also general agreement that a “no growth” could not be a viable policy for any society, but it was necessary to rethink the traditional concepts of the basic purposes of growth.2

The participants at the Stockholm Conference declared that one responsibility of government is “to protect and improve the environment for both present and future generations.”3  Taking future generations into consideration necessarily means that sustainable development and regulatory principles must be adopted.  The concept of sustainability was thus formally introduced to existing and evolving environmental policy and world development strategies, requiring a more holistic approach to both.  In addition, the Stockholm Declaration recognized that clean air, water, shelter, and health are undeniable human needs and rights. 

The participants at Stockholm also called for a study to be completed of issues related to its findings.  The resulting study was Our Common Future, which was written by the World Commission on Environment and Development and issued in 1987.4  Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, has become a defining document for the sustainability movement. The Brundtland Report asserted that, in light of the stresses on the environment caused by both the affluent and the impoverished, a new approach to environmental policy was needed.  Growing demand on scarce resources by the affluent and pressure on the environment caused by the waste and the destruction of the environment by the poor for their survival degrade the environment, depleting natural resources and adding pollutants.  The Brundtland Report recognized that, whereas environmental policies had been previously directed at the symptoms of harmful growth, an approach was needed to integrate environmental policies and strategies for development.  The Brundtland Report defines “sustainable development” as “development that  meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”5  According to the U.S. EPA, the common use of the term “sustainability” began with that report.6  Our Common Future specifically addresses the role of law and policy in sustainability in Annex1, which summarizes legal principles for environmental protection and sustainable development.7

After the Stockholm Declaration and the Brundtland Report, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)8 reaffirmed the Stockholm Declaration and identified 27 core principles of sustainable development.  These include the precautionary principle, Principle 15, which states:  “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.  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.”9

Policies articulated in the Stockholm Declaration, in the Brundtland Report, and at the Earth Summit, triggered and accelerated efforts to regulate human impact on the climate.  There are differing approaches to climate change and its regulation, even at the macro-international level.  For example, in its Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) refers to climate change as “change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically of decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.”10  This differs from the definition used in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which refers to “a change in the climate that is directly or indirectly attributable to “human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable periods.”11 

It is important to understand the framework in which sustainability has been formally integrated into law.  While motivations and key principles have developed at least simultaneously in the United States as elsewhere, the legal framework of sustainability originates in the international community and in that way draws from very diverse contributions.  This has created an approach to global sustainability that applies to very industrialized countries like the United States, as well as to developing countries.  The framework will need to continue to evolve, however, to incorporate the impact of emerging economies such as China, and other areas of the world where little information about the conditions and impacts of development in those regions was available at the time of the Stockholm Conference. 

Diane Henkels is a private practice attorney with over ten years of experience advising clients on legal issues and incentives related to sustainability, increasing conservation, and renewable energy production, and representing clients in tribal courts.
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1 Brief Summary of the General Debate at the Stockholm Conference, available at Return to previous location.

2 Id. Return to previous location.

3 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Jun. 16, 1972, available at Return to previous location.

4 The World Commission on Environment and Development was chaired by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a physician, former prime minister of Norway, and director-general of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003. Return to previous location.

5 Return to previous location.

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7 Annex I of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, June 14, 1992, available at Return to previous location.

8 This Conference was also known as the “Earth Summit.”  Held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was unprecedented for a U.N. conference in terms of its size and scope, with 172 governments attending, of which 108 were represented by heads of state or government.  This very influential event emphasized the right of people both to a healthful environment and to development. Return to previous location.

9 Annex I, available at Return to previous location.

10, at 8. Return to previous location.

11 Id.; Return to previous location.