A reflection on progress made in last 30 years since the landmark document on sustainability – Our Common Future – was published and how the findings from before can help us to build back better after the pandemic. GradIEMA member Aastha Sethi and Dr Alina Congreve explore this in our latest blog.

In the summer IEMA book club we debated ‘Our Common Future’ - a landmark publication for sustainability. What messages does it have for us now as we face health, climate and biodiversity crisis?

The first thing that struck the panel was the broad range of topics including poverty, education, health, biodiversity, and many more. It connects these key topics with development, to focus on the question "How are the environment and development linked?". This was framed in the report around sustainability being composed of three pillars: economic, social and environmental. This breadth is in contrast to the situation now, with so many environmental policies and strategies exclusively focusing on zero carbon.

Reading the report now, the key messages in Our Common Future can be summarized as 4Ls:

  • Linkages between environment and development,
  • Limitations to our use of natural resources,
  • Legacies important to intergenerational equity,
  • Literacy and the role of education.

Literacy is a key component of sustainable development as education, especially for women, is a route out of poverty and leads to more considerate actions towards environmental conservation. In low-income countries, the report notes that educating about key environmental concepts is not sufficient. It is essential to consider the possible alternatives, which do not harm the environment and at the same time do not cause financial burdens on people. With the youth climate movement and Fridays for the Future, there is a now a strong demand from young people across the world to be taught about solutions.

The report gives a scientific perspective on most of the issues. This reflects the scientific and technical background of the chair and lead authors. The panel felt the societal aspects are missing or underplayed. It is important to consider social sustainability and collective behaviour change to encourage a shift towards sustainability. We still see politicians putting high levels of confidence in technological solutions that are a long way off implementation rather than collective behaviour change. One thing the last few months has shown us is that behaviour change at scale is possible, and that most people are prepared to act for the common good as long as they don’t face serious personal hardships like losing their job or home.

We found looking at the report three decades later gave us some valuable insights into our situation now and a sense of perspective. Certainly things have changed over these years, but have we progressed much? Island nations and low lying countries are at the verge of submerging, the economic gap between the poorest and the richest is increasing in many countries, forests are burning, glaciers are melting, and species extinction is higher than ever. Global consumption and production patterns have put tremendous pressure on our natural resources. Looking at these trends can make people sceptical about the value of Our Common Future and the actions that followed from the Rio Earth Summit.

On the other hand, energy consumption is shifting towards renewable sources, school enrolment rate is increasing, and many more countries have policies and laws addressing climate change. Progress has been made on gender equality and involving citizens in environmental decision-making. The key legacy of Our Common Future and the Earth Summit was to set in train the processes that lead to the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are certain challenges which were not predicted in the report and have emerged in the past 30 years. For instance: increased microplastics on land and in water; whole life impacts; modern slavery; the impact of climate change on conflicts and climate refugees. Our heightened concern for the environment and human health mean new environmental concerns will be highlighted in the future. We can see hopeful signs for other sectors in the advances in renewable energy. In the late 80s when the report was written the adoption of solar energy was confined to the fringes – men with beards fitting them to the roofs of eco-cabins. But now this technology is being adopted in every part of the world, and the shift from non-renewable energy to renewable energy is increasing. While some have been in large solar farms, most have been installations on individual homes, schools, and community buildings. We have seen similar progress for wind power, which now regularly outperforms gas and other fossil fuels in the open market.

We are more aware now than in the 80s about the life cycle of materials, and new businesses are being set up to recycle this first generation of solar panels. Research programmes are underway to look at repurposing first generation wind turbines into park benches. Batteries needed to store renewable energy present a huge environmental challenge in the raw materials need to make them and safe disposal at the end of their life. Again there is exciting progress here with the new Cornish Lithium operation developing a much more sustainable approach both for the environment and communities. Looking back at 'Our Common Future' reminds us how far we have come, that a step forward with some setbacks along the way is still a positive thing.

How much have we progressed over the last 3 decades? Do you think we have done enough or is there still a long way to go? We would like to hear your experiences and thoughts on this.

IEMA book clubs provide interactive webinar sessions wherein the panellists discuss their views on a particular book. This year so far IEMA has organized two book club webinars: Happy City by Charles Montgomery and Our Common Future by Brundtland Commission. Which books would you like to discuss in our future book clubs?

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated

Written by:

Aastha Sethi is working as an Environmental Specialist on transportation and infrastructure projects with JB Barry and Partners Limited in Limerick. She graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 2019 with MSc in Environmental Sciences. Her research focused on eco-hydrological assessment and quantification of aquatic carbon losses from a degraded upland blanket bog. She completed her undergraduate degree in Urban Planning in 2018 with her thesis on mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts through planning interventions. She has keen interest in linkages between environment, sustainability, and development.

Dr Alina Congreve has worked as a lecturer and principal lecturer at several universities including LSE, Reading and Hertfordshire. At Hertfordshire she led the MSc in Sustainable Planning. In 2018-19 she worked at Climate KIC, designing postgraduate and professional courses with a focus on solutions to climate change challenges. She has also worked for the UK Green Building Council, bringing stakeholders together to better align the green buildings and city devolution agendas. She holds an MSc in Conservation from UCL and PhD from King's College London.


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