What is ‘sustainable’ about Sustainable Development? (Part I) Sustainable Development: The Big Elephant in the Room by Joseph Onele

  1. Introduction

Much has been written on what amounts to ‘sustainable development’ and what does not. Literature abound on what sustainability or sustainable in development context is and what its principles are. Scholars appear to have nearly drowned their ever-dripping pens, providing as it were, contexts as to why sustainable development is the way to go – why man must think beyond the ‘now’ think of the ‘tomorrow.’ Arguments have also been canvassed as to why we all must embrace the future of the environment. Environmentalists have urged us, quite ceaselessly, on why we need to use the environment in a such a way and manner that not only reflects we think ‘sustainability’ but affords us the opportunity to pass the legacy of our dearly beloved ‘mother-earth’ to the coming generations, without which our planet ceases to exist.

Fast forward to recent years, we have equally not been spared of the discussion of why we all should be concerned about happenings in both our immediate environment and the world over. Out of great concern for our warming world (taking Australia for example) and the need to think posterity, we all channel our thoughts, actions and convictions, with a view to clearing all doubts remaining, as to why one must embrace collective world initiatives towards the protection of our environment and preservation of mankind.

Global efforts at driving home the point on the urgency of the exercise to preserve man (loosely used in this context for both gender), his world and the environment are best seen when one puts  past international efforts into better perspective. These international efforts include: United Nations (UN) Stockholm Conference in 1972; Rio Declaration (UN Conference on Environment and Development) of 1992; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) born at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 and more recently, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change 2015. Noteworthy, the SDGs replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which started a global effort in 2000 to among other things, tackle extreme poverty and hunger, while protecting the environment.

For the purpose of this post, however, our focus is on the SDGs. SDGs, otherwise known as the Global Goals, are universal calls to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The 17 SDGs Goals seek to build on the successes of the MDGs, while including new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities. Worth noting is that the SDGs are quite interrelated and inextricably linked. This is because one is likely to find out that the success of one SDG is somewhat dependent or connected with tackling another SDG.

2.Focal Point
It is therefore, with the foregoing in mind, that this post and a couple of subsequent posts to be made in this regard (ahead of peer reviewed publication(s) to be made by the present author), will take a sneak peek at Sustainable Development Goals, while testing them against the concept of sustainable development. We shall attempt to answer the following question: How sustainable are the sustainable development goals? For the purpose of this post, we will start the discussion on the Sustainable Development Goal 7 which focuses on ensuring access to Affordable, Reliable, Sustainable and Modern Energy for All but continue the discussion in the next post. For the time being, we are quite interested in providing a plausible answer to the question of whether it could be said that that Sustainable Development Goal 7 is ‘sustainable’ in the true sense of the word itself.

3.Conceptual Clarification

Like all (legal) concepts, it is understood that there is hardly any definition to end all definitions. As a matter of fact, it is quite notorious that there is ever any conceptual clarification that can be said to be a one-size-fits-all. This notwithstanding, the present writer is not unaware of the efforts as well as considerable works, to contribute to the discuss on sustainable development. Arguably, the most cited definition of ‘sustainable development’ contained in the Our Common Future, (the much talked about Brundtland Report, where ‘sustainable development’ is defined to mean “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” readily comes to mind. Worth mentioning, however, is that this Brundtland’s definition has heavily critiqued, plagued by controversies and called out in some quarters as being quite vague, full of ambiguous statements and leaves room for different possibilities.

There have been other interesting attempts to define ‘sustainable development’ worth mentioning. For instance, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) has asserted that while the concept of sustainable development can be interpreted in varying ways, at its core, however, is an approach to development that looks to balance different, and often competing, needs against an awareness of the environmental, social and economic limitations we face as a society. Useful to note that this attempt to define ‘sustainable development’ also includes the words ‘development’ and ‘needs,’ which surfaced in the Brundtland’s definition. It is further worth stating that SDC, in providing a working definition of ‘sustainable development,’ bemoaned how development is often driven by one particular need, without the full consideration of the wider interests or future impacts. Hence, one can then understand why concerns have equally been raised as to the damage this kind of approach can cause – from large-scale financial crises caused by irresponsible banking, to changes in global climate resulting from our dependence on fossil fuel-based energy sources. SDC summed up its position by further asserting: “The longer we pursue unsustainable development, the more frequent and severe its consequences are likely to become, which is why we need to take action now.”

Further to the foregoing, one sure needs no soothsayer to come to the realization that ‘unsustainable development,’ as opposed to ‘sustainable development,’ has the tendency to do great harm to our world and we all do owe it a duty to ensure that the nature of development we embark, support or lend credence to, is such that promotes sustainable development.

4. Conceptual Analysis
Critics of the earlier stated Brundtland’s definition assert that the Brundtland’s definition of ‘sustainable development’ is ‘more inspirational than practical.’ They argue it is ‘not precise and measurable’ as no one can specifically agree on what the definition means. Their position is that the Brundtland’s definition appeared to be: somewhat circular in nature for including ‘development’ in an attempt to offer definition of the word ‘sustainable development;’. They also criticise it for its inability to define what constitutes ‘present needs’; as well as how best to define ‘future generations.’ The contention is that the Brundtland’s definition creates more problem than that which it sought to fix and has not done much to help shine its beam light on what would really amount to sustainable development.

Capturing the state of affairs since the Brundtland Commission, some scholars have opined in a leading publication thus: “Since the Brundtland Commission first defined sustainable development, dozens, if not hundreds, of scholars and practitioners have articulated and promoted their own alternative definition; yet a clear, fixed, and immutable meaning remains elusive. This has led some observers to call sustainable development an oxymoron: fundamentally contradictory and irreconcilable.”

The foregoing in mind and assuming arguendo (for the purpose of argument) that sustainability in development context may somewhat be a complex concept to define or even explain, it is respectfully submitted that the conceptual clarification of ‘sustainable development’ should not ordinarily take away from some arguably universal truths about what should or must be done for the preservation man’s race, his immediate environment and the world at large.

For the present writer, the concept of sustainable development can be best surmised in these three elements, to wit: first is man’s duty to the preservation of the human race through daily conscious living; second is man’s duty to his immediate environment which includes cultivating habits that preserve the environment, as opposed to choices that destroy the environment; and third is man’s duty to the world at large which includes taking positive actions in ensuring that his actions are such that leave a legacy for generations after him.

The reflection of the present writer as to what the elements of sustainable development are or better still, what could be said to constitute sustainable development can be best be understood when placed in the larger context of the understanding of how seemly finite (mineral) resources and man-made materials or resources available for the enjoyment or use of man in his environment or world are. Man must strive not be like the proverbial father who ate away all that is available as food but left no inheritance for his ward, leaving them as it were, to suffer in the very cruel hands of life. This understanding is quite important and will enable all realize the need to handle with utmost care, judiciously and as great stewards, those resources life has put in our possession or at our disposal. We must exercise great caution and sternly warn ourselves, not to eat all available now with our full hands firmly dived in our all-opened mouths, as if all that matters is the ‘now’ and not the ‘morrow.’ We must not only focus on enjoying for the short-term but must think posterity for life goes beyond the “I” or the “me” but also includes others in pronoun forms.

5. What about Goal 7 and Sustainable Development?
Having attempted to clarify the concept of sustainable development and established the need for all (including the anti-global warming advocates or proponents) to embrace sustainable development as it is ultimately in our best interests, this post will now proceed to examine Goal 7 of the SDG and test whether it meets the criteria for sustainable development earlier alluded to.

For starters, Goal 7 is focused on ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. It is expected that by 2030, universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services will have been made possible. It is also hoped that by 2030, there would have been substantial increase in the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Additionally, Goal 7 is aimed at ensuring that by 2030, the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency would have been doubled and international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology would have been enhanced. Goal 7 is further committed to the actualization of renewable energy, energy efficiency as well as advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology, while promoting investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology.

But that is not even all, Goal 7 is to see that by 2030, there would have great expansion in infrastructure and technology upgrade for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States, and land-locked developing countries, in accordance with their respective programmes of support.

A careful review of the above stated lofty ideals or intents of Goal 7 will reveal that Goal 7 accords with the elements for sustainable development earlier identified in this post. The point must still be made that how development is approached does matter and should matter to all. It is time the environment sceptics changed their mindsets and moved on from the ‘siddon look.’ There is sure no doubt that our decisions, whether as individuals or a society sure have great and real consequences for not only human’s lives but also our immediate environment and the world at large. Given the word restriction of this post, the full-blown analysis on how Goal 7 meets the elements of sustainable development will be made the subject of the next post by the present writer.

6.Final Remarks
From the news about the warming Arctic (recently confirmed again by the UN Environment further to a research report released on 14 March 2019 at the just concluded UN Environment Assembly) to the seemly unbearable heat in Australia, and depletion of the ozone layer, evidence of man’s efforts at damaging the his environment and by extension, his world abound. As rightly put by the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Ozone (O3) depletion does not cause global warming, but both of these environmental problems have a common cause: human activities that release pollutants into the atmosphere altering it.”

While the environment sceptics have attempted to deny the seemly glaring and overwhelming evidence, including scientific findings that point them in the direction of the truth about our world and climate change, the point must be made that the move towards sustainable development best seen through the recent efforts of coming up with the SDGs, are for mankind’s benefits and the environment. This position is predicated on the fact that sustainable development seeks to leverage on the Precautionary Principle (PP) which “anticipate(s) and minimize(s) potentially serious or irreversible risks under conditions of scientific uncertainty.” It is also useful to recall that sustainable development has been incorporated into many international treaties and pieces of national legislation for environmental protection and sustainable development. Conclusively, the SDGs are quite commendable, and Goal 7 portends great potentials, if fully implemented.
Key words: Sustainable Development, Sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals

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Author: Joseph Onele

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