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A New Era in Sustainable Development

Steve Bass

IIED Briefing, 4 pages

It is 20 years since the World Commission on Environment and Development — the Brundtland Commission — released its influential report on sustainable development. This is now the declared intention of most governments, many international organisations, and an increasing number of businesses and civil society groups. High profile ‘intentions’ have given rise to a bewildering array of sustainable development plans, tools and business models. But these have not yet triggered the pace, scale, scope and depth of change that is needed to make development sustainable. They leave the underlying causes of unsustainable development largely undisturbed. They include few means for anticipating non-linear changes – from climate change to economic cycles – and for building resilience to them. Consequently, most environmental and welfare measures continue to decline in almost all countries. Much energy has been spent crafting the sustainable development ‘toolkit’. But that energy has been channelled largely through a narrow set of international processes and ‘elite’ national actors. The results are not yet integral to the machinery of government or business, or people’s daily lives. This paper calls for energies to be directed in new ways, constructing a truly global endeavour informed by diverse local actors’ evidence of ‘what works’, and focusing more keenly on long-term futures. The key drivers and challenges of a ‘new era in sustainable development’ are suggested, to elicit ideas and leadership from a richer vein of experience than has been embraced by the formal international endeavours to date. This paper is the first in a series on the sustainable development futures that face key sectors and stakeholder groups.

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