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International Environmental Law 101: The Transition to Sustainable Development


International Environmental Law 101 is a series that will dive into the manifold dimensions of preserving the environment from human destruction and economic development. The main objective of these articles is to provide a comprehensible grasp of the institutions, agreements, and principles which fight against climate change, wildlife extinction, and contamination, and foster sustainable practices.

International Environmental Law 101 will be divided into the following chapters:

1. International Environmental Law 101: How the Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement

2. International Environmental Law 101: A Regime of Principle

3. International Environmental Law 101: The Decision Makers

4. International Environmental Law 101: A Map of Environmental Agreements

5. International Environmental Law 101: The Case of Temperature

6. International Environmental Law 101: The Transition to Sustainable Development

7. International Environmental Law 101: Healing the Ocean

8. International Environmental Law 101: What will the Future Bring

In the last chapter of this series, the matter of global temperature, which is perhaps the most crucial issue concerning environmental law, was put under the microscope. With the understanding of how global warming takes place and of its imprint on the local and global environmental state, the focus now moves to the subject of economic development, which is the driver of climate change, and how it can be achieved in a sustainable way. With this, we must ask: what is sustainable development, and why is it presented as the only way to move forward, leaving no one behind?

The term sustainable development entered the international agenda back in 1987 with the Brundtland Report, otherwise named "Our Common Future" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Dr. Go Harlem Brundtland, a Norwegian politician that was the chair for the Commission at the time, has served as the Director-General of the World Health Organization: since then she has championed sustainable development and its importance for human and environmental health (Norway in the UN, 2017).

In the Report, Sustainable Development was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Nebenskie (n. d.) Role of citizens in making Earth a cleaner and better place to live in.

Sustainable Development consists of four principles. The first one is the principle of intergenerational equity (Vojnovic,1995) that contains the meaning of fair and equal distribution of resources. Until Brundtland, there was no awareness of the long-term impact of policies on future generations.

The term Trust, derived from inheritance law, is used when someone inherits something in order to pass it on to the next. In this context, environmental management is transferred. The current generation needs to manage the environment in such a way that it can be passed on to future generations. We are not owners, so we cannot destroy something that is not ours. In some nations, such as Germany, the term is part of state law. In the EU, during the formulation of the Green Deal, which is the EU policy on the transition to sustainable green development, there was a debate on whether or not a mediator for future generations needed to be set. A mediator would be a body charged with assessing the extent to which current policies safeguard the interests of future generations, and with making recommendations. Such a plan, however, was not implemented. The second principle is that of intragenerational equity (Vojnovic, 1995) This focuses on the management of natural resources within the present generation, so as to ensure a fair, equitable distribution of their benefits among the same generation. This principle applies especially to countries that share common natural resources, such as a common river. The drainage of natural resources cannot be so great that the next country cannot equally use them.

The third principle is of sustainable use of natural resources (Schröder & Msuya, 2021), which is more straightforward. Its meaning arises through the rules of ecological science. The number of trees that can be cut down should be equal to the number of trees that can be reborn naturally, thus it cannot exceed the carrying capacity of ecosystems. The consumption of natural resources needs to be limited to the extent of an ecosystem's ability to reproduce them. Lastly, there is the principle of integration of environmental parameters in individual policies of an economic nature (Penning-Rowsell,1997). Environmental protection needs to be a factor considered when designing policies. A state policy that is based on fossil fuels needs to perform an environmental impact assessment and then restructure the project in a way that has the least possible impact on the environment. Energy policies, tourism policies, and economic policies need to be evaluated closely.

Ben (2017). Environmental jobs: Green jobs in sustainable development. Peterson's.

The goal of the Brundtland report was to advance the evolution of sustainable development and encourage cooperation between nations at different stages of economic and social development on environmental issues, sharing common goals in their common futures. It was the first time that the environment was linked to development. The takeaway from this report was that, in order to truly develop sustainably, three pillars need to be combined in parallel and in equal measure. Those are social progress, effective environmental management, and economic growth. Society, environment, and economy cannot function separately, and no one pillar is more important than the others.

Sustainable development was further popularized at the UN Rio de Janeiro Conference in 1992, which was dedicated to sustainable development and made headways in materializing it into existence. The action plan Agenda 21 (UN, 1992) on how sustainable development can be achieved was reviewed by the participants and published, but it is important to remember that action plans are not binding policy instruments. The Rio Conference was held just after the collapse of the Eastern block, and the former socialist countries were in the process of transitioning to the market economy and needed resources in order to grow. Sustainable Development was not a priority for many of the officials that participated. A decade later, at the UN Johannesburg Summit that was also focused on Sustainable Development, it became clear that all nations wanted to avoid making environmental commitments. The developing ones did not want to agree to anything that would put a halt to their economic growth. On the other side, the developed countries did not wish to face any more requests to administer development funding to those who needed it. The Conference did not achieve anything of real substance for the cause; no timeline, no commitments, only general political texts. Instead, it became apparent that economic interests were still prioritized over the environment.

United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals

A clearer step in the right direction was taken in 2015 (rather late in history, as one might note) when the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were introduced by the United Nations (UNDP, 2015). The SDGs were, and still are, a call to action, a universal implementation roadmap for a prosperous future. Balancing the social, economic and environmental pillars, they focus on 17 different areas of interest and how they can be improved to protect human lives and the environment. Specifically, the call for better choices is focused on poverty, hunger, health, quality education, gender equality, clean water and clean energy, economic growth and working conditions, sustainable cities, innovation, infrastructure, consumption and production, climate action, marine life, discrimination, life on land, peace and prosperity and cooperation. These goals need to be integrated into every nation's state law with regards to the way they assess, decide on, and implement new policies. The goals are still not legally binding, but the UN expects nations to take measures to include them in their framework.

The errors of the past, when nations marvelled at their accelerated economic growth with no regard for the environment, is coming to an end. Sustainable development goals contain a series of subgoals focused on the poor and developing countries, which require further growth and suffer from poverty, hunger, and unavailability of drinking water. They need a way to evolve and protect their citizens but they cannot do that in the old ways anymore. What developed countries need to do is help them through funds and support, while also focusing on their own carbon footprints, switching to clean energy alternatives, and boosting their social policy. Inevitably, Sustainable Development will have to be our common future.


Bansard, J., Schröder, M., & Msuya, J. (n.d.). The sustainable use of Natural Resources: The governance challenge. International Institute for Sustainable Development. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from

Norway in the UN: Permanent Mission to the United Nations on New York (2017): Mother of sustainable development. Norgesportalen. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from

Penning-Rowsell, E. (1997). A general model for promoting the integration of national natural resources management. GeoJournal, 43(3), 247–262.

Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. UN Sustainable Development. (1987). Retrieved December 5, 2021, from

Sustainable development goals: United Nations Development Programme. UNDP. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2022, from

United Nations. (2015.). Staying on-track to realize the sustainable development goals | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs. United Nations. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. (1992). Agenda 21, Rio Declaration, Forest Principles. New York: United Nations.

Vojnovic, I. (1995). Intergenerational and Intragenerational Equity Requirements for Sustainability. Environmental Conservation, 22(3), 223–228.

Image Sources

Image 1. What are sustainable development goals and why it is important for humanity and mother earth? SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS AND WHY IT IS IMPORTANT FOR HUMANITY AND MOTHER EARTH. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2022, from

Image 2. Ben. (2020, April 22). Environmental jobs: Green jobs in sustainable development. Peterson's. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Image 3. United Nations. (n.d.). Staying on-track to realize the sustainable development goals | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs. United Nations. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from

Suggestions for Further Reading

Techera, E. J., Lindley, J., Scott, K. N., & Telesetsky, A. (2021). Routledge Handbook of International Environmental Law. Routledge

Τσάλτας, Γ. (2017). Περιβάλλον: Διεθνής Προστασία, Πολιτική, Δίκαιο, Θεσμοί. Εκδόσεις Ι. Σιδέρης.

Πλατιάς, Χ. (2016). Πολιτική της ΕΕγια το Περιβάλλον και τη Βιώσιμη Ανάπτυξη, Ζητήματα πολιτικής διακυβέρνησης. Εκδόσεις Ι. Σιδέρης.

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Konstantina Manta

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