In this exclusive extract from Rough Guide to Sustainability: 3rd Edition by Brian Edwards, we look at how the concept of sustainable development has developed over the last 20 years.

Through its various conferences the United Nations (UN) has been the environmental conscience of the world. Although much more needs to be done, the UN in partnership with other international agencies such as the European Union, has obtained a remarkable level of agreement among often sceptical nations.

Defining sustainable development

In 1987 the UN Environment Commission, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, defined sustainable development as:

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

Now known as 'the Brundtland definition' of sustainable development, this is a virtuous but imprecise concept, open to various and often conflicting interpretations. However, it remains the global standard. It addresses the needs of both the present and future generations in terms of environmental resources. The definition Brundtland coined may well be the single biggest imperative for global development in the 21st century. The consequences have been enormous.

The Brundtland definition has spawned a series of sub-definitions to meet particular sector needs. Typical of these is that used by the practice of Foster and Partners, which defines 'Sustainable design as creating buildings which are energy efficient, healthy, comfortable, flexible in use and designed for long life'. The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) defines 'Sustainable construction as the creation and management of healthy buildings based upon resource efficient and ecological principles'.

The UK government has gone further, stating ambitiously that 'Sustainable development means a better quality of life now and for generations to come …' with the aim to '… avoid using resources faster than the planet can replenish them …' and to join up '… economic, social and environmental goals'. Furthermore, four key areas for activity all of which impact upon the professional life of those in the design and construction industries: sustainable consumption and production (changing the way products and services are designed, produced, etc.); climate change and energy (reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to future climate change); natural resources (understanding the limits of resources); and sustainable communities (maintaining existing urban resources and building an energy-efficient future).

These various definitions show the value of coining terms of reference for specific topics – be they building types, services provided, or levels of development. In summary, the Brundtland definition outlines a philosophy that benefits from a degree of imprecision. There is a general understanding and set of principles which allow useful sub-definitions to be framed within its broad embrace.

Within these broad definitions and interpretations there are three recurring dimensions that provide the focus for action by different interested parties:

  • Environmental sustainability
  • Economic sustainability
  • Social sustainability.

The Brundtland Commission argued that economic and social systems could not be divorced from the 'carrying capacity' of the environment – the idea that growth and social welfare has to be balanced by the conservation of environmental resources by the present generation for the benefit of future generations. Hence the term 'sustainable development' has wide ramifications for architects – the people who are carrying out the 'development'. But it also begs the question of whether environmental and economic sustainability are truly reconcilable. Are architects fooling themselves into thinking that 'development' can ever be sustainable?

A key word in the definition of sustainable development is that of 'future'. Architects are always designing for the future – that is what the blueprint is about. However, the time horizon was extended by Brundtland by the inclusion of another key phrase 'future generations'. Designers of the built environment are accustomed to thinking across decades, even centuries, as they make the difficult material and energy choices. But buildings survive for such a long time and the urban infrastructure even longer, so the obligation to think long‑term has raised questions about the architects' professional role and the knowledge base that underpins professional practice.

Further refinements to the definition

The UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992 elaborated on some of the key concepts encapsulated in the Brundtland definition. Among these was the adoption of the 'precautionary principle' which stipulates that:

  • No environmental action should be taken which was not reversible
  • Designers should use the best scientific knowledge available
  • Scientists had a duty to develop environmental knowledge
  • Ignorance was no defence under international law for ecological damage.

There were far reaching implications for the development industry. The 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development then introduced the concept of 'sustainable consumption and production' leading to a number of` international agreements. The key principle was to establish a link between productivity, resource use and levels of pollution. Specifically, the agreement was about:

  • Ensuring that economic growth does not cause environmental pollution at a global and regional level
  • Improving efficiency in resource use
  • Examining the whole life cycle of a product
  • Giving consumers more information on products and services
  • Exploiting taxation and regulation to stimulate innovation in clean technologies.

Although the Johannesburg World Summit had an economic bias, the ramifications have been felt by architects and the wider construction industry ever since. The agreements, for instance, stimulated investment in new energy technologies and in new ways of recycling or reusing waste. They also encouraged the development of concepts linked to sustainability such as 'added value' and 'cradle to cradle', and provide encouragement to the formulation of arguments around 'productivity' benefits of green buildings. Since more information was being made available to consumers following Johannesburg, designers benefited from both the environmental credentials then being displayed on products and the pressure for more green solutions which flowed from better informed clients.

Global economic downturn and its consequences

Climate change will have a greater impact on the daily lives of the peoples of poor nations than on those who live in wealthy nations. The G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and USA) leaders acknowledged their global responsibilities at Gleneagles in 2005 but took little meaningful action to help poorer nations adapt to altered climates. The creation of an infrastructure of basic services and public buildings is essential if Africa is to pull itself out of the current cycle of environmental and social decline. Sustainable development can only be achieved if aid is directed to the engineering infrastructure needs of water supply, roads and sanitation and the equally important building infrastructure provision of schools and health facilities. In both areas climate change and regional conflict elevates construction to beyond that of basic human rights.

Thanks to the UN, the concept of sustainable development assumed a higher profile in the world economic order, which led to an inevitable rebalancing of national priorities. Not all nations, however, accepted the new imperatives, especially the USA, which resisted or diluted international agreements such as those signed at Kyoto in 1997, The Hague Conference on Climate Change (2000), Johannesburg (2002), Helsinki (2006) and Bali (2007). The USA's intransigence has been a particular problem for global ecological health. The USA is the world's largest consumer nation and, if all of the Earth's population used energy at the rate that the USA does, the world would run out of fossil fuels in under eight years.

Until the election of President Obama in 2008, the political focus of the USA was on sustainable development at the level of states rather than the federal government. Hence individual states such as California could adopt radical green laws while under successive US Presidents (up to Obama), there was a tendency to block international agreements such as Kyoto. However, four things have changed the political landscape over the past couple of years in the USA:

  • The inauguration of President Obama in January 2009
  • A growing awareness that global warming is a matter of national security
  • A grass roots movement which has stimulated ecological awareness within the design professions and business community
  • Recognition that 'regulation' is a good thing after the collapse of the banking system in 2009.

Although it is now recognised that an unstable climate and scarce fossil fuels add to potential conflicts both at home and abroad, the main impetus for change has come from ordinary Americans concerned at the price of fuel and deteriorating quality of life.

At the time of writing, and in the wake of the global recession, governments across the world are implementing stimulus packages aimed at reviving their national economies. The world recession of 2009 has focussed political attention on job creation and the role of the green economy in this. Both Prime Minister Brown in the UK and President Obama in the USA have signalled the important role they see infrastructure investment, particularly in renewable energy and energy efficiency, playing in creating the switch from an industrialised old economy to a slimmer, greener one.

Various forms of green investment are under consideration – not just to create jobs for unemployed automobile workers but to re-fashion economies in new sustainable ways. The new 'green collar' jobs will be in wind and solar electricity generation, in public transport (particularly urban metro systems and high speed trains), in upgrading water networks, building hydro-electric dams for both water storage and power production, and in improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings. Obama wants government buildings to be the initial focus of this re-direction of resources and policy, tackling he says the poor energy performance of federal and state property, and then to address the poor infrastructure of 'cities across the land'.

The USA has a lot of catching up to do compared to Europe and Asia. In many ways the current (2009) recession gives society time to take stock and to rebalance the equation of economic, social and environmental sustainability.

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Extract from Rough Guide to Sustainability: 3rd Edition externallinkby Brian Edwards.

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RIBA Publishing published in association with Earthscan. Copyright February 2010