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What is Sustainable Development?

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UNESCO's Priorities
Educating for Sustainability
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Home > What is sustainable development ? - Updated: 08-01-2003 5:20 pm
The term 'sustainable development' was popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report entitled Our Common Future.  
This book is also known as the Brundtland Report, after the Chair of the Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The aim of the World Commission was to find practical ways of addressing the environmental and developmental problems of the world. In particular, it had three general objectives:
  • To re-examine the critical environmental and development issues and to formulate realistic proposals for dealing with them;
  • To propose new forms of international co-operation on these issues that will influence policies and events in the direction of needed changes; and
  • To raise the levels of understanding and commitment to action of individuals, voluntary organisations, businesses, institutes, and governments.

    Photo:© Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Earth from above/UNESCO

    Our Common Future was written after three years of public hearings and over five hundred written submissions. Commissioners from twenty one countries analysed this material, with the final report being submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987.

    Key Issues

    Our Common Future reported on many global realities and recommended urgent action on eight key issues to ensure that development was sustainable, ie. that it would satisfy 'the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. These eight issues were:
    - Population and Human Resources
    - Industry
    - Food Security
    - Species and Ecosystems
    - The Urban Challenge
    - Managing the Commons
    - Energy
    - Conflict and Environmental Degradation

    Agenda 21

    These issues - and many others like them - were discussed at a major international conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. Known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - or more simply as the Earth Summit - this meeting brought together nearly 150 Heads of State where they negotiated and agreed to a global action plan for sustainable development which they called Agenda 21.

    The Earth Summit was also attended by nearly 50,000 official observers and citizens from around the world who met in a wide range of official and community-based councils and seminars at a Global Forum.

    As well as Agenda 21, four new international treaties - on climate change, biological diversity, desertification and high-seas fishing - were signed in the official sessions. In addition, a United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development was established to monitor the implementation of these agreements and to act as a forum for the ongoing negotiation of international policies on environment and development.

    Agenda 21 has been the basis for action by many national and local governments. For example, over 150 countries have set up national advisory councils to promote dialogue between government, environmentalists, the private sector and the general community. Many have also established programmes for monitoring national progress on sustainable development indicators. At the local government level, nearly 2000 towns and cities worldwide have created their own Local Agenda 21plans.


    Author(s) UNESCO
    Periodical Name Extracts of "Teaching and learning for a sustainable future – A multimedia teacher education programme"
    Publication date 01/06/2002
    Keywords sustainable development



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