Sustainable development, the basis of the new international development agenda, is a deceptively simple notion that in fact reflects a complex balance struck between different perspectives on the interplay between the environment and economic and social development.
The concept of sustainable development was the brainchild of the Brundtland Commission, set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 1983. The Commission’s report, Our Common Future (1987) defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, and set the objective of meeting the simultaneous demands for an environmental protection agenda and for ensuring the development of developing countries. This required efforts to ensure coherence in the economic and social components of environmental policies and development strategies, a process that gradually led to the consideration of the “three dimensions” or “three pillars” (economic, social and environmental) of sustainable development.
The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992) set out the concept of sustainable development in a series of principles, which came to be known as the “Rio principles”. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002) focused on poverty in the context of sustainable development, methods of implementation —particularly financing— and sustainable consumption and production. The issue of financing has been addressed in greater depth at the various sessions of the International Conference on Financing for Development.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly selected two themes for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (often referred to as Rio+20) to be held in 2012: “the institutional framework for sustainable development” and “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”. The concept of the “green economy” maintained that the paradigm shift needed to protect the environment could also give rise to new opportunities for economic growth, which was crucial in the context of the global economic crisis.
One of the main outcomes of the Rio+20 conference was that it launched the process of negotiating a set of sustainable development goals, which called for the convergence of the international process to implement sustainable development with the post-2015 development agenda, thereby representing a decisive step towards the true assimilation of sustainable development as a guiding concept across the board, above and beyond the confines of environmental institutions and mere rhetoric.
This holistic approach, which has equality and environmental sustainability at its core, requires structural changes to the economic system that call for far-reaching social compacts. ECLAC has distilled that message into its equality trilogy, particularly the second and third publications in that trilogy, namely Structural Change for Equality: An Integrated Approach to Development (2012) and Compacts for Equality: Towards a Sustainable Future (2014). That message also runs through numerous studies prepared in conjunction with other bodies within the United Nations system, such as Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean: follow-up to the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015 and to Rio+20 (2013), which seek to integrate these proposals into regional and global processes with a view to achieving a more sustainable kind of development.