Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sustainable Development

In an era where environmental degradation is rampant, climate change is on the anvil and resources are depleting at a rate faster than what we can ever fathom, the term “Sustainable Development” is oft repeated and often misused. So what is Sustainable Development (SD)? Here’s some background on the concept of Sustainable Development.


Industrial revolution was one of the landmark event in the history of mankind. This revolution had far reaching impact on means of production, distribution pattern and access to resources. One of the consequences of this was the fact that “industrialization” and “development” became synonyms. This gave birth to paradigms like “industrialize or perish”, thus a blind rat race started across the world in pursuit of industrialization and its persistent growth. The protagonists of this ideology were obsessed with the notion of growth and considered industrialization as panacea for all evils on this planet. These protagonists were committed to achieve growth at any cost. The thrust was on unbridled growth and development without paying heed to environmental and social factors.
Nonetheless in the late eighties it was realized that the obsession with “growth” has resulted into more problems than the solutions. It was realized the “growth” which was earlier considered as panacea is generating public pathologies like inequity and environmental degradation. In pursuit of growth and industrialization the mankind had piled up huge inventory of by-products resulting in the environmental degradation. Ironically, the most marginalized countries and communities across the world had to bear the brunt of these negative externalities resulting in their further exclusion.  Thus it was realized that growth alone is not sufficient to make this planet a better place to live in.
 It was in this background that in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) convened by the United Nations came out with the Brundtland Report (also known as “Our Common Future”). The report came out with a simple yet lucid definition of Sustainable Development. It defined Sustainable Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”. This was followed by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where a framework was identified (Agenda 21) for global action on Sustainable Development.
In the recent times, summits such as the Copenhagen Summit reinforce the need to ensure SD by limiting world temperature increase to 2°C by 2050. The recent Copenhagen Conference was held from 7 to 18 December 2009. After the Rio Conference of 1992, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will take place on the 20th and 22nd of June 2012. The two main themes of the summit are:
  1. Building a Green Economy in the context of poverty eradication and Sustainable Development
  2. Building an Institutional framework for Sustainable Development.  
The Concept
Sustainable Development revolves around the concepts of “needs” and “limitations”.  Economic development put human needs in the centre, without thinking about how exploitative we could become towards the resources obsessed with the concepts like growth.
The three indicators of Sustainable Development are Economic Growth, Social Equity and Environmental protection. Combining these three, one can understand Sustainable Development as development that leads to economic growth in such a way that the benefits are equitably distributed and the environment is protected so that the future generations can derive the same benefits as we did. Equity is the central concept of Sustainable Development, i.e., everyone should have equal access to resources and profits and no community or section should be made to bear extra environmental burden on account of the activities of a few people/ community/government. The stress is on Intergenerational Equity; equity across different future generations and intra-generational Equity; equity across communities and countries within one generation.

Implications in Policy and Programs

Post the Brundtland report, there was a clamor to modify the policies of the government in line with the concept of Sustainable Development. But there was and still is utter confusion regarding the means to achieve the same. Some were of the view that pumping in high rates of economic growth will bring about equitable use and distribution of resources while others were of the view that economic growth leads to gross imbalances. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992) identified a framework, Agenda 21, to foster global partnership in achieving the goals of Sustainable Development.  This covered 4 aspects of Sustainable Development namely economic development, environmental protection, social justice, and democratic and effective governance. Therefore any policy of governments honoring this concept should ensure that their growth model is such that it exemplifies effective governance and ensures social justice and equitable distribution of resources in a manner that does not harm the environment.
Countries are adapting to the concept by forming National Strategy on Sustainable Development at the centre and constituting Green Cabinets and the like. But forming committees and strategies alone will not help address the larger issue. A programme/ scheme is said to be sustainable if the said programme/ activity continues even after the key implementing agency’s withdrawal. Decentralization and participation of the stakeholders in decision making and implementation should be ensured to achieve the same. Another prerequisite is enabling the communities with appropriate technology; technology that prevents pollution and decreases the reliance on non renewable energy resources. Community members should not only be trained on how to use it, but also regarding the functioning of the technology. Sustainability measures take a long time to realize and show impacts. Therefore there should be continuous evaluation and feedback to ensure that the government is on the right track.   Any policy that takes sustainable development into cognizance entails integration of policies in the sphere of environment, economic growth and social justice.
Sustainable Development and Climate Change has thrown words like carbon footprints, ecological deficit and the like. These concepts are being increasingly used by both governments and business houses to ensure sustainability and minimal environmental degradation. Carbon footprint is nothing but the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere as a result of one’s activities during a given period of time (applies to products and services too). Companies are being forced to track the carbon footprint of their products; right from the sourcing of the raw materials to delivery of the finished goods to the consumers.  Virtual Water is another interesting concept developed by Professor John Anthony Allan from King’s College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies. It tracks the amount of water used in production of a product or a service. Such concepts have proved very useful in policy making with respect to Sustainable Development.
The Clean Development Mechanism has been instrumental in promoting Sustainable Development.  It is a mechanism through which developed countries invest in green technologies in developing countries so as to reduce their carbon emissions. It provides developing countries the requisite funds to adopt sustainable projects which benefit local communities and developed countries a means to reduce their green house emissions.

Indian Context

Understanding Sustainable Development in the Indian context requires an understanding of the interconnectedness between various variables such as poverty, health, education et al. There are various communities in India which increasingly depend on forests and natural resources for their survival. Their needs could force them to degrade the environment or use it in ways that are undesirable. Therefore there is a need to spread awareness about environment protection and sustainable Joint Forest Management. Traditional practices and arts and crafts should be encouraged as they are more eco friendly.
Another factor that has to be looked into is the rate at which the government is pushing the so called development projects. Mining and land related projects top the list. What the government fails to realize is the fact that there is a limit to activities that can be done on the land, continuous and mindless extraction is not a sustainable proposition. Another lesson to be drawn from the Vedanta, Posco and Kundakulam projects is that attaining the trust and consensus of the local community members is a prerequisite to ensuring sustainability of any project.
The civil society has acted as a watchdog on both the government and the private business houses. Business houses are increasing taking up the rhetoric of environment sustainability. Though their intentions are questionable, it is still a good start. For example, Coca Cola is encouraging sustainable behavior through recycling their bottles, doing communication campaigns, putting recycling messages on the package et al.
India’s commitment to reducing green house emissions has been reinforced by the number of green technologies and projects undertaken by many players in the country. It is estimated that India’s per capita GHG emissions would be less than four tonnes of CO2, which is lower than the global per capita emission of 4.22 tonnes of CO2 in 2005.

Measuring Sustainable Development

Measuring Sustainable Development has been a widely contested topic. The GDP of a country is not a good indicator of Sustainable Development as it does not take into account the negative and positive externalities of a product or service.  Even HDI is not a good index for measuring SD as it does not talk about the productive base/ resources of the country.
Many countries and organizations have come up with myriad measures of SD; one of them being the concept of Inclusive Wealth, ie, Sustainable development exists if relative to the country’s population its inclusive investment/capital (at constant prices) hasn’t reduced. Another popular measure is the Dashboard of Sustainability developed by Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indices (CGSDI) convened by IISD. It presents the complex relationship between environmental, social and economic variables. It is been increasing used by countries to measure their progress towards Sustainable Development and also towards meeting MDG goals. However, there is no consensus on a common set of indicators to measure SD as there seems to be some difficulty in defining such a broad concept as SD.

Road Ahead and Constraints

Though there has been significant headway in the field of Sustainable Development, there is still a long way to go. One of the key challenges as mentioned earlier is the absence of a common set of indicators. There has to be more consultations and discussions so as to attain clarity regarding the definition of SD.
Clean Development Mechanism is a good step towards Sustainable Development, but there are concerns regarding misappropriation of carbon credits. It is feared that these will be cornered by the powerful and the elite instead of benefitting the local communities. Though Carbon credit is a revolutionary concept, it has been misused by the developed and industrialized countries. Carbon credit is a permit that allows countries to emit 1 tonne of carbon dioxide. No doubt developed countries invest in green technologies in developing countries, but the problem arises when such credits are increasingly used to meet the Kyoto commitments without actually reducing pollution and emissions.
The decision to contribute towards Sustainable Development has to come from each and every individual. One has to have a sense of the scarcity of resources and accordingly satisfy needs and aspirations.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams made a profound statement when he asked, “How do we live in a way that shows an understanding that we genuinely live in a shared world, not one that simply belongs to us?” This is a question that individuals and countries ought to introspect upon.

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