Overall, the activities of human beings are having a major effect on the physical and biological environments of the planet. This impact is reflected in the adoption of the term ‘Anthropocene Age’ to describe the current period. The concept of sustainable development has been advanced as a way of meeting the challenges and avoiding damaging impact in future.

In 1983 the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). By this time, environmental degradation, which had previously been regarded as a side effect of industrial wealth with only a limited impact, was understood to be an issue impacting on survival and was an increasing concern for low- and middle-income countries.

The WCED, chaired by the ex-Prime Minister of Norway, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, produced a report in 1987, ‘Our Common Future’, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The principles of sustainable development subsequently formed the basis of a series of world conferences:


The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992 and has become known as the ‘Earth Summit’. At this meeting of governments (108 represented by heads of State or Government) three major agreements were adopted that aimed at changing the traditional approach to development:1

  • Agenda 21 — a comprehensive programme for global action in all areas of sustainable development
  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development — a series of principles defining the rights and responsibilities of States
  • The Statement of Forest Principles — a set of principles to underlie the sustainable management of forests worldwide

In addition, two legally binding Conventions aimed at preventing global climate change and the eradication of the diversity of biological species were opened for signature at the Summit:

  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity

The 20th anniversary of UNCED was marked by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), held in Rio de Janeiro on 20-22 June 2012 and known as ‘Rio+20’. The Conference focused on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development. Seven priority areas were highlighted for priority attention; decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.2


The United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, held in New York on 25 - 27 September 2015. This Summit, convened as a high-level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly, adopted the post-2015 development agenda and, in particular, the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.