The Three Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Is an Integrated Approach beyond our Reach?
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Even before the 1987 Brundtlandt Report, Our Common Future, there was a growing recognition that sustainable solutions can be achieved through integrating their social, economic and environmental dimensions. It is very encouraging, therefore, to see that nations renewed their commitments to sustainable development in 2012 at Rio+20, and affirmed that a new integrated agenda beyond 2015 would ensure the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally viable future for our planet and for present and future generations. They called for the development of Sustainable Development Goals.

During the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-1), in June 2014, ministers concluded that the post-2015 sustainable development agenda should fully integrate economic, social and environmental dimensions in a "coherent, holistic, comprehensive and balanced manner". This was reiterated by the UN Secretary-General in his December 2014 synthesis report The Road to Dignity by 2030.
UNEP has developed a simple and clear conceptual framework that draws on lessons that have been learnt from both the millennium development goals and the global environmental goals. By working in silos we can achieve specific sectoral targets but this may impact gains in other areas: environmental damage, such as climate change, can defeat developmental gains. By not building on environmental opportunities, we can unnecessarily hamper development.

The Open Working Group on SDGs distilled the top key issues in all dimensions of sustainability. It also identified interconnected issues, where two or more dimensions need to be integrated. These include access to water, sanitation and energy; food security; sustainable growth; sustainable industrialization; resilient infrastructure; inequality; and inclusive prosperity. Underlying these were more general issues, such as sustainable consumption and production, and good governance.
Integration can occur within a sector (e.g. between climate change and biodiversity), or between any of the three dimensions of sustainability. It has also referred to linking the humanitarian, development and security functions of the UN. UNEP’s conceptual integrated framework, a trilogy, states that the road to sustainability needs to address at least three key principles:

a) Leave no one behind and provide a life of dignity for all.
The poor, vulnerable, and marginalized—in both developed and developing countries—should be assured a minimum level of social and environmental protection, and a basic standard of living. Poverty, accordingly, needs to redefine to be multi-dimensional. Can the world agree to guarantee a minimum standard of living for all? One that ensures social protection, secure tenure of assets, and the right to live in a clean, healthy and productive environment? That ensures access to basic services through sustainable energy? Addresses pollution, water-related diseases, degraded lands, and waste? And encourages green, decent and meaningful jobs?

b) Live within our means and achieve greater prosperity in an inclusive manner within the capacity of the Earth’s life support system.
Human well-being and social and economic functioning ultimately depend upon responsible management of the planet’s finite resources. Growth can be decoupled from increasing material and resource use—and from the environmental and social impacts of unsustainable consumption and production— through a shift towards an inclusive and resilient green economy. Many initiatives already provide solutions, and all require that we do more and better with less (decrease material intensity of products and waste, and eliminate harmful and adverse subsidies and incentives), responsibly manage the planet’s finite natural resources, consume better and safer, stimulate innovation in sustainability, move away from a “throw-away” behaviour, and address over-consumption, obesity, hunger, stunting and malnutrition in all its forms.

c) Leave something behind by increasing natural, social and economic capital to achieve greater resilience and secure future generations’ livelihoods.
If we are to achieve the first two principles above, we can not do it with today’s shrinking resource base. In addition, where would the resources come from to assure a healthy legacy for future generations and ensure inter-generational equity? Investment is needed now to provide the means to achieve the multiple aspirations of sustainable development for today and secure the assets of future generations. This would also ensure resilience to social, economic, political and environmental shocks and disruptive change. These investments must produce more and better natural capital (through ecological restoration), social capital (e.g. knowledge, skills, societal cohesion) and economic capital (e.g. sustainable infrastructure, efficiently built environments and longer-lasting economic assets).

Such an integrated approach may appear too complex and daunting to implement. However, many examples exist of successful interlinkages that follow the above three principles. With today’s data revolution, we have no excuse not to call for more integration of the aims and the means. An integrated approach is within our reach, but requires political and multi-stakeholder commitment to reform our institutions, create the incentives for interlinked solutions, and take a longer-term view towards economic and social progress and our planetary health. UNEP has and continues to help governments, civil society and the private sector to reach for an ambitious, integrated and universal agenda.

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