Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 4/2009 by T. Edwards

Sustainable development is an evolving concept that emerged in the 1980s in response to a growing realisation of the need to balance economic and social progress with concern for the environment and the stewardship of natural resources.

Perhaps the most famous statement on sustainable development comes from the World Commission on Environment and Development (popularly known as the Brundtland Commission) in its report Our Common Future published in 1987:
      Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

What this statement means in practice has proven elusive, and many different definitions of sustainable development have been suggested. The uniquely Australian concept of Ecologically Sustainable Development was proposed in the 1990s and has been defined as:
      using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased.

In New South Wales the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 gives an extensive definition of how ecologically sustainable development can be achieved. A further definition is given by the NSW Whole of Government Sustainability Principles which were published in 2006:
      Sustainability in the NSW public sector means addressing the needs of current and future generations through the integration of social justice, economic prosperity and environmental protection in ways that are transparent, accountable and fiscally responsible.

A number of different approaches have been taken to measuring sustainable development using indicators. One approach is to use a composite indicator, the other has been to define a set of indicators of sustainability which are reported on over time.

The Ecological Footprint measures how much land area is required to provide the resources consumed and absorb the wastes generated in ‘global hectares’. In 2005, the World’s ecological footprint was estimated at 2.7 global hectares per capita, against a global biocapacity of 2.1 hectares, an overshoot of 29%. Australia’s ecological footprint was recently estimated at 7.8 hectares per capita. In other words it would take more than three planets to provide the natural resources and absorb the waste if everybody lived like Australians. On the other hand, Australia’s endowment of natural resources mean it has a biocapacity of 15.4 hectares, giving it a reserve of 7.6 hectares per person. NSW’s ecological footprint was estimated in 2001 to be 5.92 ha per capita.

The Environmental Sustainability Index attempts to define and standardise measures of sustainability to enable comparison between nations. It is based on indicators in five categories: environmental systems; environmental stresses; human vulnerability to environmental risk; social and institutional capacity to respond to issues; and global stewardship. Australia's performance was rated 13th overall out of 146 countries in 2005.

The Environment Performance Index records performance against targets in six policy categories – environmental health; air quality; water resources; productive natural resources; biodiversity and habitat; and sustainable energy – and two overall dimensions of environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Australia rates less well on the EPI, being placed 20th overall out of 133 countries. The dimensions in which Australia's performance on the EPI lags in particular are greenhouse gas emissions and the protection of biodiversity.

Sustainable development has been seen as the simultaneous satisfaction of a number of policy objectives. Another approach to measure progress in achieving sustainable development has been to develop a set of indicators that can show progress in meeting such policy objectives. It is difficult to make judgements about exactly what result for an indicator means that sustainable development has been achieved, or to decide how to weight the importance of individual indicators. However, tracking the progress over time of a set of indicators can give an impression of whether development is becoming more or less sustainable.

In 2001, Commonwealth Ministers endorsed a set of 24 headline sustainability indicators for Australia. A report published by Environment Australia in 2002 included data allowing trends in some of these indicators to be assessed. The report found that Australia’s development path was enhancing individual and community welfare and wellbeing; and equity within generations was increasing. However, the report found it was not clear whether economic development was safeguarding the welfare of future generations, or whether biological diversity and essential ecological processes and life-support systems were being protected. The idea was that subsequent reports would allow trends in the indicators to be tracked. To date, no update reports have been published.

The UK and the European Union have also developed indicators of sustainable development to accompany and monitor progress with their sustainable development strategies. The UK has 20 framework indicators which are common to all UK administrations, and a further 48 indicators which are specific to England. The EU has a total of 128 indicators, arranged in ten themes. Recent assessments against the indicators show progress in some areas, but a lack of progress or deterioration against other indicators. The most recent EU assessment concluded that it was clear that the EU was not yet on a sustainable development path.

The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment which establishes arrangements by which Commonwealth, State/Territory and Local Governments interact on environmental matters refers to the importance of both ecologically sustainable development and sustainable economic development.

Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development was Australia’s response to the Brundtland Commission’s report. The Strategy was adopted by Australia's three tiers of Government: Commonwealth (Federal), State and Local in December 1992. The strategy’s goal is to achieve:
      Development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends.

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 the annual reports of Commonwealth departments, authorities, companies and other agencies must report on how the agency's activities have accorded with the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD)

Other important aspects of Commonwealth sustainability policy aim to make its own activities more sustainable, for example by improving the energy efficiency of government buildings, changing the ways government employees travel, and making government procurement more sustainable.

In New South Wales, the Department for Environment and Climate Change’s responsibilities under the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 include to “protect, restore and enhance the quality of the environment in New South Wales, having regard to the need to maintain ecologically sustainable development”. The Act also requires the Department to produce a report on the State of the Environment in NSW every 3 years. The most recent report, published in 2006, describes a range of policies which the NSW Government is implementing to make progress towards sustainability. For example:
      the NSW Greenhouse Plan 2005, and the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme, which aim to cut NSW greenhouse gas emissions
      the Metropolitan Strategy, which provides a planning framework for population growth in Sydney until 2030, based on the guiding principles of economic, social and environmental sustainability
      the Metropolitan Water Plan to manage Sydney's water supply and demand, encourage recycling, make provision for the current drought and population growth, and improve river health
      the Building Sustainability Index (BASIX), which enhances the performance of new and redeveloped housing on sustainability criteria, particularly water and energy consumption

The Department of the Environment and Climate Change is also responsible for a number of initiatives aimed at making NSW’s households, businesses and communities more sustainable. For example, by providing advice on how households can cut their water and energy use and reduce the use of chemicals around the home, and environmentally friendly features to look for when buying or renovating a home.
The Victorian Department of Sustainability and the Environment was created in December 2002 and has the lead responsibility for sustainability policy in the Victorian Government. Its work on sustainability is assisted by Sustainability Victoria which was created by the Sustainability Victoria Act 2005. Victoria also has a Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability whose role is to report on progress in achieving sustainable development.

Victoria’s Environmental Sustainability Framework was published in April 2005. The Framework set three strategic directions for environmental sustainability and thirteen environmental quality objectives. The Framework sets a goal of making significant progress towards these objectives within a generation. To measure progress, the Framework also set a series of interim targets. The Department of Sustainability and the Environment reports biennially on progress towards meeting the targets.

The Victorian Government published an Environmental Sustainability Action Statement in July 2006. It sets out how the Victorian Government intends to implement the Environmental Sustainability Framework. The Action Statement contained 150 sustainability initiatives with government spending of $200 million. In August 2008 the Victorian Department of Sustainability and the Environment published a report on progress against the interim targets between 2005 and 2007. Some targets had already been met while there had been little or no progress towards meeting others.

Following devolution in the 1990s, the UK administrations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are each taking forward separate sustainable development strategies. In 2005 they agreed on a common overarching framework, common objectives, and a common set of indicators for measuring progress. The UK also has an independent watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission. It monitors and reports on progress in implementing sustainable development policies, and audits reports from UK government departments and agencies on the work they are doing to make their own activities more sustainable. Since 1997, the UK Parliament has also had an Environmental Audit Committee whose remit is to consider how government policies and programmes contribute to sustainable development. The Committee has regularly reported on sustainable development matters.