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History of Sustainable Development
The concept of sustainable development formed the basis of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The summit marked the first international attempt to draw up action plans and strategies for moving towards a more sustainable pattern of development. It was attended by over 100 Heads of State and representatives from 178 national governments. The Summit was also attended by representatives from a range of other organisations representing civil society. Sustainable development was the solution to the problems of environmental degradation discussed by the Brundtland Commission in the 1987 report Our Common Future.
The remit of the Brundtland Report was to investigate the numerous concerns that had been raised in previous decades, namely, that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked. Key works that highlighted this thinking included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968), the Blueprint for Survival by the Ecologist magazine (1972) and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972).
The concept of sustainable development received its first major international recognition in 1972 at the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm. The term was not referred to explicitly, but nevertheless the international community agreed to the notion – now fundamental to sustainable development – that both development and the environment, hitherto addressed as separate issues, could be managed in a mutually beneficial way.
The term was popularised 15 years later in Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which included what is deemed the ‘classic’ definition of sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
It was not until the Rio Summit, however, that major world leaders recognised sustainable development as the major challenge it remains today.
More recently, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg in 2002, attended by 191 national governments, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions and other major groups to assess progress since Rio. The Johannesburg Summit delivered three key outcomes: a political declaration, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and a range of partnership initiatives. Key commitments included those on sustainable consumption and production, water and sanitation, and energy.
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