Rio+20: Integrating sustainability and development

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading the featured Rio+20 entries we’ve been bringing you over the last few weeks.

It’s now time to reveal our penultimate entry. Finishing in second place in the competition (and only losing out to our winner by the tightest of margins), MEng Civil Engineering student James Robinson (School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences) submitted a compelling and extremely well researched report which highlighted possible failings in the current structure of UN agencies.

The judging panel were extremely impressed with the suggestions made by James and by the obvious thought and effort he had put into preparing his entry and felt that the suggestions contained within it were something very much worth proposing to our partners in the Planet Earth Institute as actions to be taken forward.


Integrating sustainability and development

1. The challenge

The world faces a considerable development challenge.  In the past decade global population has increased by more than 15% to 7 billion people, and by 2050 it is expected to surpass 9 billion [1].  This growth is mostly occurring in emerging and developing countries which already face the challenges of economic development, poverty eradication and providing a decent standard of living for their citizens.  As a result, the natural environment (already over-exploited by developed countries) is being placed under increasing strain, as are basic resources such as water and food.

Climate change is exacerbating the situation further still.  Global mean surface temperature is expected to rise by between 1.8 and 4.0°C by the end of the century depending on future greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) (currently they are in the upper part of the predicted range and are showing no signs of decreasing) [2,3].  This will have a disproportionate impact on developing countries which will see the worst changes, such as increases in the frequency and severity of floods and droughts, but which will also have the fewest resources at their disposal with which to adapt [3].  Hence, there is an urgent need to take mitigating action and reduce GHGE so as to limit the worst consequences of climate change.

Enabling developing and emerging countries to develop is a moral imperative; however, so is the need for them to do so in an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable manner.  The developed world also can no longer consume and pollute at the same rate as it currently does.  There therefore must be a concerted worldwide shift towards an equitable, global, ‘green economy’.  The June 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development offers an opportunity to truly begin this transition.

2. Environmental sustainability and development

In September 2011 Brazil’s chief negotiator for Rio+20 spoke of the need to for the summit to ‘unenvironmentalise’ the sustainable development debate [4].  Such a comment could at first seem to conflict with the very concept of sustainability, but it reflects the limitations of environmentalism if considered as a standalone issue.  The financial crisis that began in 2007 has shown that governments are unwilling to risk short-term economic growth for the environment, a position UK Chancellor George Osborne recently took by stating limits to GHGE reductions [5].  This has also been demonstrated by the failure of recent negotiations on climate change; even if an agreement to limit GHGE is eventually reached it will likely only come into force in 2020, more than 10 years later than was originally planned [6].  However, whilst international environmental action is stalling, rapid growth and development is continuing in Asia and Africa [7,8], further establishing the traditional economy and wasting an opportunity to entrench sustainability in people’s everyday lives.

At the heart of environmental issues and their isolation is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN body charged with internationally co-ordinating environmental activities and catalysing action [9].  Its actions are separate from those of the international financial and trade institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and seemingly even from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) [10].  Additionally, it can be argued that its ability to act is hampered by its low designation as only a ‘Programme’, its small financial resources, and its low visibility (arguably in part due to its being headquartered in Nairobi, far from the traditional international stage) [9,11].

Rather than environmentalism being pursued as a goal itself, it must be realised that it is a prerequisite of economic sustainability.  If the social and environmental costs of the current actions of society are not priced in the present then they will become a far greater issue in the future.  The (albeit criticised [12,13]) Stern Review demonstrates this point, estimating that climate change mitigation would cost 1% of GDP, but that if no action is taken then future climate change adaptation will cost 5-20% of GDP [14].  An integrated approach must be taken towards sustainability and development.

3. The development opportunity

The developed world faces a great environmental challenge.  Its low population growth, currently low economic growth, and existing civilisation built around suburban sprawl, car use, and high consumption of fossil-fuel produced energy [15] make changing to be more sustainable difficult and expensive.  However, developing countries face a different situation.  Rapid economic development and population growth means that they inevitably must build new infrastructure and buildings, which presents them with the opportunity to build more sustainable societies.  For instance cities can be designed to be dense, so that walking, cycling, public transportation and energy efficiency are inherently easy, or segregated surface-water and foul-water drainage systems can be implemented to minimise water wastage and flood risk.

Such ideals are unrealistic though given current circumstances.  A developing country cannot be expected to build an expensive solar power station instead of a coal one for example, especially when expertise and knowledge are in Western hands.  This particular situation is presently the case: global energy use is predicted to rise 45% by 2030, mostly due to increasing fossil-fuel use in developing and emerging countries [16].

4. Conclusion and recommendations

The traditional segregation of international environmental and development issues has been a hindrance to both, further establishing an unsustainable global society.  One measure to improve this situation could be to create a new UN agency tasked with promoting and stimulating sustainable development.  This body could be an amalgamation of the UNDP and UNEP, only with greater resources and more powers, such as the authority to take part in international financial discussions.  It would co-ordinate the collation and distribution of the expertise and financial aid needed for sustainable development.  As such it would require commitment and funding from the developed world (and emerging economies such as China), and an international decision to move away from the bilateral approach to aid that promotes the foreign policy interests of donor nations.  The Rio+20 conference offers the opportunity to create such a champion for a future global green economy with a mandate from the international community.

James Robinson
MEng Civil Engineering


[1] US Census Bureau, 2012. International Data Base, World Population Summary.  Available at: (Accessed: 27 January 2012)

[2] Manning, M. R., Edmonds, J., Emori, S., Grubler, A., Hibbard, K., Joos, F., Kainuma, M., Keeling, R. F., Kram, T., Manning, A. C., Meinshausen, M., Moss, R., Nakicenovic, N., Riahi, K., Rose, S. K., Smith, S., Swart, R. and van Vuuren, D. P., 2010. ‘Misrepresentation of the IPCC CO(2) emission scenarios’, Nature Geoscience, 3, (6), pp. 376-377

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

[4] Watts, J., 2011. ‘Rio+20 must ‘unenvironmentalise’ green issues, says G77 negotiator’, The Guardian, 12th September

[5] ENDS Report, 2011. ‘Osborne speech alarms green groups and low-carbon investors’, 441, pp. 56-57

[6] ENDS Report, 2011. ‘Durban conference saves climate talks rather than the climate’, 443, pp. 48-49

[7] The Economist, 2011. Africa’s impressive growth.  Available at: (Accessed: 27th January)

[8] The Economist, 2011. Hares and tortoises.  Available at: (Accessed: 27th January)

[9] Ivanova, M., 2010. ‘UNEP in Global Environmental Governance: Design, Leadership, Location’, Global Environmental Politics, 10, (1), pp. 30-59

[10] United Nations Development Programme, 2012. About us.  Available at: (Accessed: 27 January)

[11] Andresen, S., 2007. ‘The effectiveness of UN environmental institutions’, International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 7, (4), pp. 317-336

[12] Tol, R. S. J. and Yohe, G. W., 2009. ‘The Stern Review: A deconstruction’, Energy Policy, 37, (3), pp. 1032-1040

[13] Weitzman, M. L., 2007. ‘A review of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change’, Journal of Economic Literature, 45, (3), pp. 703-724

[14] Stern, N. H. and Great Britain. Treasury., 2007. The economics of climate change : the Stern review. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press

[15] Glaeser, E. L., 2011. Triumph of the city. London: Macmillan

[16] International Energy Agency, 2008. World Energy Outlook. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

2 thoughts on “Rio+20: Integrating sustainability and development

  1. This was a well written article. I think an important issue is the use of ecological engineering techniques to build infrastructure to sustain levels of biodiversity. My colleague and I have developed an approach for artificial shorelines that managed to improve biodiversity by 110% We are looking to develop similar approaches using living walls and roofs on buildings. Here is a ref to our work Browne, M. and M. Chapman. 2011. Environmental Science & Technology doi:10.1021/es201924b.

  2. Pingback: Rio+20+1 month | Sustainability@Newcastle

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