The idea of sustainable development began 50 years ago with the theory that economic progress need not occur at the expense of nature or social progress. The sustainable development agenda, facilitated by the UN, aims to bring that theory alive through government, civil society and business action. The SDGs encapsulate the issues to be resolved.

5 min read | Last updated 22 June 2020

Genesis (1960s-1970s)

With the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, the public realised that nature was being severely compromised by industrial pollution and pesticides and that this was affecting human health (NY Times, 2012).

Not long after that, it was theorised that economic progress need not occur at the expense of nature or social progress. An early use of the word ‘sustainable’ in relation to human development occurs in a 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They were trying to model the dynamics of humanity on the planet: ‘We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people… a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future’. The idea was emerging that economic growth and protection of the environment were both vital to human development and there had to be a way forward that would integrate them without trade offs.

Sustainable development reached the global intergovernmental stage at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first in a series of global conferences to bring nations together to discuss the ecological crisis. The conference stated that ‘to defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations has become an imperative goal for mankind.’

Defining Times (1980s)

Fifteen years later, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) framed an essential need for economic growth in the developing world around integrated, sustainable solutions to problems we still face today, such as population growth, agriculture and food security, biodiversity, energy choices and industry factors.

A popular definition of sustainable development was coined: ‘humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ Our Common Future, 1987 (pdf)

Quantum Leap Years (1990s)

Five years later, the world made a quantum leap toward sustainable development at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro – nicknamed the Earth Summit. It produced numerous groundbreaking outcomes:

The Rio Declaration recognised the right of states to economic and social development and contained 27 principles of sustainable development (UN, 1992 (pdf)). Agenda 21 was a voluntary plan of action for national, regional and local governments to bring about “a tolerable future for the human family and an initial step toward making sure the world will change into a more just, secure and wealthy habitat for all humanity” (ibid.) The Forest Principles recognised the importance of forests for economic and social development, indigenous communities, biodiversity and maintaining ecological processes (ibid.) Three new conventions were created (UNEP, 2013): the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Convention to Combat Desertification; and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The 1990s culminated in the Millennium Summit and Sustainable Development Conference in New York in 2000, with the largest gathering of world leaders there had ever been. Their output was the Millennium Declaration, which recognised the responsibility of the governments of the world to uphold human dignity, equality and equity and their duty to all people, especially children and the vulnerable (UN, 2000). World leaders also resolved to strengthen the rule of law and ensure compliance with decisions of the International Court of Justice. Commitments were set out in eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a deadline of 2015 (UN, 2015).

Inaction (2000-2012)

The first large sustainable development conference of the new millennium was the 2002 UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio+10) in Johannesburg (UN, 2002). It failed to address climate change or reform global environmental governance, merely ratifying approaches that had, so far, failed. For the first time, however, all three sectors participated, as companies joined governments and NGOs at the conference, although the US did not attend. The most notable advance over previous conferences was the number of unofficial summits that convened around the main event, sending out a clear message that civil society was not only self-organising but was ahead of government and would continue its work even as governments were failing to progress on their formal agreements (WRI, 2003 (pdf)).

The 2012 UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio+20) marked a return to the city of Rio de Janeiro and a symbolic opportunity to drive desperately needed progress on the first Earth Summit’s landmark agreements on climate change, deforestation and poverty eradication (UN, 2015). Disappointingly, the leaders of the US, the UK and Germany did not attend and the conference fell short of hopes.

Main outputs were:

  • the conference report, The Future We Want (UN, 2012), ‘lambasted by environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners for lacking detail and ambition’ (The Guardian, 2012).
  • a plan to set new sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2015, when the MDGs would expire
  • the decision that future summits should be informed by a Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR)

Slow Progress (2012-2019)

Good progress was made on several MDGs – in particular, reducing extreme poverty, providing universal primary education, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and providing access to the internet – but none of the MDGs were achieved (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015 (pdf)).

But following the disappointment of Rio+20, a fresh approach was taken to building consensus around the formulation of a new set of global goals. An Open Working Group (OWG) comprised 30 seats, each shared by 1 to 4 countries from five regional groups on rotation through a series of meetings (, 2015). The OWG’s task was to produce a report proposing a set of sustainable development goals balanced across the three dimensions of sustainable development (society, the environment and the economy).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly in New York in 2015 (UN, 2015). It comprises 17 goals (UN, 2016) to tackle the world’s most wicked problems. World leaders recognised at the time that eradicating poverty was the biggest global challenge, although since then climate change has gained far greater attention.

UN Member States agreed in 2016 to use the new Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) platform to strengthen the science-policy interface, with the report to be issued quadrennially by an independent group of 15 scientists representing a variety of backgrounds, disciplines and institutions, and with a geographical and gender balance.

The first science-policy GSDR, The Future is Now, was published for the 2019 SDG Summit in New York, held to review the first four years of progress towards the 2030 Agenda (UN, 2019). It highlighted that no SDGs are expected to be achieved by 2030 (UN, 2019). Key messages include that the SDGs are transformative, not incremental; governments must reach out to forge new partnerships with civil society, businesses and the scientific and technological community; the SDGs must be pursued as interrelated systems; and financing the 2030 Agenda is a challenge.

Perils and Crisis (2020-2021)

The UN 75th anniversary in 2020 commenced with a warning about the perils we will face in the 21st century:

‘I see four looming threats. Geopolitical tensions, the climate crisis, global mistrust and the downsides of technology can jeopardize every aspect of our shared future. We must address these four 21st century challenges with four 21st century solutions.’

(António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, 2020)

Before we had a chance to refocus around these “four horsemen”, the decade delivered a dreadful new challenge. In early 2020, the Covid-19 global pandemic resulted in stay-at-home orders being issued around the world, rapidly eroding economic and psychological normality. As governments restart their economies with various forms of financial stimulus, there are calls to ensure that the sustainable development agenda is not left behind by linking financial aid and new investment to broad sustainable outcomes.