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The sun shines in a blue sky surrounded by white clouds; at the bottom, the silhouette of some trees with red leaves.
© UNPhoto/R. Kollar

Defining sustainability

Author: Federica Napolitano (E.MA's graduate)

The common shared definition of sustainable development was given by the Brundtland Report in 1987 where sustainable development is defined as the "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." That was a consistent translation of the principle already affirmed in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm: "[m]an has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations".

The concept of sustainable development combines environmental protection needs and development needs, maintaining human beings at the centre of interests: on one side, there is the need to preserve the balance of natural ecosystems and not to deplete the natural resources as necessary means to allow the continuity of life in the future. On the other side, there is the idea of development as a comprehensive concept referring not only to an economic dimension, but as a broader process aimed at the full development of human beings in respect of their dignity.

Human dignity and full development of human beings are concepts embedded in the paradigm of human rights, since when they made the international scene. Parallel to the acknowledgment of the interdependence and the indivisibility of human rights, different matters, until then thought separately, have converged in common conceptual spaces, as it is the sustainability.

The strictly interconnection between human rights, development and environmental protection is sanctioned by the acknowledgement of the right to development and the right to a healthy environment.

In 1995, the former UN Commission on Human Rights, in its Resolution n. 14, supporting the principles affirmed in the Rio Declaration stated: "the promotion of an environmentally healthy world contributes to the protection of human rights, and that environmental damage has potentially negative effects on the enjoyment of life, health and a satisfactory standard of living."

The right to a healthy environment represents the trait d'union - even at the legal level - between environment and development, as affirmed by the sus, and "development is sustainable where it advances or realizes the right to a healthy environment."

On the other side, the adoption of the so-called human rights approach to development is the clear sign of the recognition that these two concepts are interrelated too. Human rights and development, in fact, have the common objective to improve a comprehensive wellbeing of people considering not only the economic sphere but also social and cultural dimensions of development, including the principles of fair management and distribution of resources, transparency, accountability and participation.

In 1993, the Vienna Declaration reaffirmed that the right to development is linked to the environment and it is fulfilled only if environmental and developmental needs of present and future generations are met equitably.

Finally, at the 2005 World Summit, the United Nations reaffirmed the importance to consider comprehensively the different dimensions of sustainable development which are economic development, social development and environmental protection, as three interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars. According to this approach there is no efficient development without considering the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and the protection of natural eco-systems.

In contradiction with the meaning of sustainability used in the EU's Renewable Energy Directive, this brief reconstruction of the evolution of the idea of sustainability gives reason to the opinion according which it is not possible conceiving terms of sustainability without including considerations on human rights.

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