Sustainable development is a global agenda to advance human development toward a state of sustainability. Facilitated by the United Nations and currently encapsulated in 17 sustainable development goals, its three pillars - economic growth, social progress and environmental protection - underpin several governments' strategies, including the NZ Living Standards Framework and the EU Green Deal.

7 min read | Last updated 4 June 2021

Development is the process by which humanity progresses. It is universal, the measure of us all. Any agenda for development must work, not for those who are already enjoying the fruits of progress, but for those who are not.

‘Most people agree…Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Wealth is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination… All of these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that’s progress.’

(Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018)

The mission of human development is a state of global sustainability, which is the efficient and equitable distribution of resources intra- and inter-generationally within socioeconomic operations and the confines of a finite ecosystem (Stoddart, 2011). No generation has the right to make it harder for a future generation to continue to make progress. This was articulated by the UN in its 1987 report Our Common Future, which explained development that is sustainable as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Sustainable development, as opposed to development that’s sustainable, refers to a specific global agenda for formulating policies to advance human development, facilitated by the United Nations. It has three co-equal pillars for success – social, environmental and economic sustainability – along with peace and partnership across all nations and sectors. The three sustainability pillars summarise the underlying premise of the UN approach, a 50-year old idea that societal progress, environmental protection and economic growth are axiomatic for human development, so a solution must exist that enables them to be achieved simultaneously. The applied solution is resource decoupling (UNEP, 2016 (pdf)), first presented by the OECD in 2001.

Theory of Decoupled Growth

According to this theory, it should be possible through policy and behavioural change to link economic growth with a rise in wellbeing, a relative decrease in resource use and an absolute decrease in environmental impact. Achieving decoupled growth requires avoiding trade offs and finding synergies between economic, environmental and social aims. This is the crux of the sustainable development agenda and the challenge for 21st century business.

the question
of growth

The question of whether the pursuit of economic growth helps or hinders human development is a longstanding topic of debate. Critics argue that economic growth is not a requisite for human progress. Data show that while resource decoupling is generally possible due to inherent resource inefficiencies, it isn’t happening in practice at a global scale. Furthermore, there is not yet any evidence that absolute decoupling is possible at a global scale. Since COVID-19 affected economic patterns around the world, there has been an uptick of academic interest in economic degrowth.

Decoupling theory underpins the UN’s sustainable development strategy, influencing government policies around the world, and has even trickled, unfiltered, into the business sector. Unilever, under former CEO Paul Polman, famously used resource decoupling (but not impact decoupling) in its groundbreaking 2010-2020 sustainable growth strategy, the Sustainable Living Plan (pdf), which aimed to increase wellbeing (‘improve health and wellbeing for more than 1 billion people’), generate economic impact (‘enhance livelihoods for millions’) and decouple resource use (‘reduce Unilever’s environmental impact by half’), ie double resource efficiency.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) plays a central role in facilitating implementation of the 2030 Agenda, lending support to countries as they develop the policies, capabilities and resilience they need to achieve the SDGs. The UNDP’s strategy bridges the social / economic nexus and the environmental / economic nexus of the agenda.

  • Social / economic nexus: Humanity’s greatest development concern is the eradication of poverty – the UNDP’s mandate is to end poverty and a core principle of the 2030 Agenda is to leave no one behind. It is known that economic stagnation increases poverty and inequality. It happens after natural disasters, it occurred after the 2008 GFC and it is occurring during the COVID-19 global pandemic (Perry et al, 2021). Yet, rising GDP can also exacerbate income inequality – smaller, less diverse economies can be economically exposed through a reliance on export-based growth of a narrow range of primary commodities or a dependence on volatile sources of foreign direct investment. The UNDP’s position is that economic growth is a necessary but insufficient condition for reduction in poverty and income inequality.
  • Environmental / economic nexus: Incontrovertible evidence shows that current patterns of economic growth are not environmentally sustainable. The UNDP calculates that the environmental toll of growth lies between 3% and 10% of GDP, and posits that an economy must grow at least 3% (under current patterns) to obtain societal gains that are greater than environmental losses.

Hence, the UNDP’s strategy is for sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth (UNDP, 2017) through policy instruments that enable broadly shared prosperity from economic growth (wellbeing economy), promote growth patterns that are more resilient to shocks and fully consider the value of the environment (green growth).

a wellbeing
economy

The OECD has championed the idea of a wellbeing economy in which multidimensional wellbeing and long term economic growth are mutually reinforcing. The OECD Wellbeing Framework (see slides below) is built around current wellbeing, inequalities in wellbeing outcomes and resources for future wellbeing. To make a difference to people, this framework must be brought into policymaking and national metrics. New Zealand Treasury Te Tai Ōhanga’s Living Standards Framework (see slides below) is based on the OECD Wellbeing Framework. The LSF underpins New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budgets (2019, 2020, 2021), produced under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership.

green
growth

The OECD defines green growth as the fostering of economic growth while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and services on which our wellbeing relies. Green growth strategies, while ostensibly answering two pillars of sustainable development, must also address the third by promoting social equity through three avenues: human capital investment, inclusive employment and wealth redistribution policies. In particular, green growth strategies need to carefully manage trade-offs and exploit synergies with poverty reduction, a core principle of sustainable development, such as by improving infrastructure, tackling health issues caused by environmental degradation and introducing technologies that ease environmental pressure. The report The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, commissioned by the UK Treasury and released in February 2021, has brought us a significant step forward in understanding the economic benefits of biodiversity and the economic costs of biodiversity loss. In March 2021, the UN adopted a new statistical framework, SEEA EA, for including the contribution of nature when measuring prosperity and wellbeing.

The European Green Deal is the EU growth strategy for a sustainable economy to achieve three outcomes that echo the sustainable development agenda and principles: no net emissions of GHGs by 2050, economic growth decoupled from resource use, and no person and no place is left behind. Policy areas include: measures to protect ecosystems, ways to ensure more sustainable food systems, sustainability in agriculture and rural areas, clean energy, sustainable production cycles, a cleaner construction sector, sustainable means of transport, measures to cut pollution and making the EU climate neutral by 2050.

By contrast, the US Green New Deal, modeled after Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal, is not legislation, but a 14-page resolution sponsored in the US Congress, first introduced in 2019 and reintroduced in April 2021. Its goals are to achieve net zero GHG emissions and a fair transition, create millions of high -wage jobs, invest in infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century, secure clean air and water, community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature and a sustainable environment, and promote justice and equity. In May 2021, President Biden presented a US$4 trillion infrastructure plan that includes significant climate change investments and job creation.

indivisible
global
goals

The targets of the sustainable development agenda are renegotiated by UN member states every 15 years. The current 169 targets are grouped under 17 symbolic Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the period 2016-2030. These replaced eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the period 2001-2015. The MDGs were focused on action and impact in developing nations, whereas the SDGs take a systemic view of world issues and ask for action from, and impact within, every nation, including developed nations. A fundamental intention of the 2030 Agenda is that the SDGs should be treated as indivisible because the world is a complex system with intertwining issues. Nevertheless, there being so many of them, the SDGs are often sliced and diced into groupings that help us make more sense of them, especially to illustrate a particular perspective. The ‘SDG wedding cake’, for instance (see slides below), presents the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s perspective that the biosphere is a ‘precondition for social justice, economic development and sustainability’.

The SDGs have attracted a range of criticism, including that they are totalitarian (The Guardian, 2015), they don’t go far enough (Quartz Africa, 2018) and they are too complex and lack focus (The Conversation, 2015). Public awareness of the SDGs is remarkably low. Global surveys of more than 26,000 people found that only about half of people had heard of them and the best-known goal was SDG 13 for climate action. Almost all respondents were aware of the concept of sustainability (Global Survey on Sustainability and the SDGs, 2020 (pdf)).

Looking back over its 50-year history, progress on the UN Sustainable Development Agenda has been slow despite intense waves of international diplomacy and persistent activism on many issues. This could be because many people wrongly believe that the agenda is a set of goals set by governments for NGOs to deliver. But humanity’s issues are too big, complex and interconnected to be tackled by one sector alone. All three sectors – government, business and civil society – are joint stakeholders with co-responsibility for the pace of universal human progress.