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History and aims

The generally accepted definition of sustainable development is that of the Brundtland Report, 1987 : “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Durable or sustainable development is a mode of development applied to growth and considered at worldwide scale in order to take into account the general economic, ecological and cultural aspects of the planet. The schema below represents the interpenetration of these three fields.

The concept of sustainable development has in recent years become part of our common vocabulary. Yet reflection on the relation between human activities and ecosystems was already to be found in Greek and Roman philosophy.

The notion of ecology, or ‘study of the home’, first appeared in 1866 ; a complementary term, which would apply to the management of the home, was introduced in 1909. Under the name ‘genomy’, this new science defined the relations between human societies and their natural environment. But it was only in the second half of the 20th century that the beginning of a systematic response made its appearance, ultimately reflected in the concept of ‘sustainable development’, progressively constructed over the last three decades of the century.


1949 : In his State of the Union address, the President of the United States Harry Truman popularised the word ‘development’ by recommending a policy of aid to under-developed countries, based on the technical knowledge of the industrialised nations. He affirmed that “all countries, including the United States, will greatly benefit from a constructive programme for the better use of the world’s human and natural resources”.

1951 : Founded in 1948, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the first report on the state of the environment in the world, a report that was ahead of its time in seeking reconciliation between economic and ecological priorities. Today, it is the leading NGO dedicated to the conservation of nature and one of the biggest worldwide networks of professionals involved in this cause.

1968 : Foundation of the Club of Rome, associating a group of personalities influential in their respective countries. Their aim was to encourage research to deal with the problem of the future evolution of the world as a whole in order to determine the limits of economic growth.

1972 : Publication of the Meadows Report which called for a halt to growth following the unbridled growth of the three post-war decades (1945-1975).

The Club of Rome published the report The Limits to Growth, written at their request by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This first report gives the results of computer simulations of the evolution of the human population in function of the exploitation of natural resources, with projections up until 2100. It concludes that the pursuit of economic growth would result in the course of the 21st century in a dramatic decline in population as the result of pollution, the impoverishment of cultivable soil and the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels.

A United Nations conference on the human environment at Stockholm highlighted eco-development, the interactions between ecology and economy and the development of countries of the South and of the North. This conference was retrospectively designated the first Earth Summit. From then on, the environment was seen as a key world heritage to be passed on to future generations.

1975 : Adoption of the Barcelona Convention and the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP).

1980 : The IUCN published a report entitled World Conservation Strategy where the notion of ‘sustainable development’ appeared for the first time.

1987 : A definition of ‘sustainable development’ was proposed by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Report).

1989 : The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) defined principles for the environment, which constituted the first environmental code of conduct.

1990 : The first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCI.) alerted the international community to the risks of climate warming due to the concentration in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases.

1992 : Second Earth Summit, at Rio de Janeiro, and consecration of the term ‘sustainable development’, which was beginning to be widely used by the media. Adoption of the Rio Convention and launch of Agenda 21, corresponding to 21 commitments for the 21st century. The aim was to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. It is considered as the key document relative to sustainable development.

The Brundtland definition, focused in priority on the preservation of the environment and the rational consumption of non-renewable natural resources, was amended to define the expression ‘sustainable development’ as development simultaneously respecting economic efficiency, social equality and the respect of the environment.

1995 : Barcelona International Conference – adoption of the Action Plan for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Sustainable Development of the Coastal Areas of the Mediterranean, to replace the Mediterranean Action Plan convention (1975).

1997 : 3rd United Nations conference on climate change, where the Kyoto Protocol was drafted.

2002 : Johannesburg Summit – More than 100 heads of state and several thousand representatives of governments and NGOs ratified a treaty taking a position on the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity.

2005 : The Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions came into effect in the European Union. Adoption in France of a Charter of the Environment, insisting on the principle of precaution.

2009 : Copenhagen conference on climate.

2009-2010 : In France, the Grenelle de l’Environnement, a negotiation between the government and social, economic and environmental stakeholders, was intended to constitute a starting point towards an ecological democracy that would enable a transition towards sustainable modes of production and consumption. The final decisions, as inscribed in the legislation of Grenelle I, adopted at the National Assembly on 24 July 2009, and Grenelle II, adopted on 29 May 2010, are only a partial reflection of the initial project.

2010 : United Nations conference, 7 to 11 June at Busan (Republic of Korea) - Almost 90 government delegates gave the green light to the setting up of an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES - implementing an expert panel on biodiversity). Like the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), the IPBES aims to bridge the wide gap between scientists and political deciders, and thus trigger a response to the loss and decline of biodiversity that will be both local and global

2012 : Second Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, adoption by consensus of the document ‘The Future we Want

À consulter

- How the notion of sustainable development was born :
- History of sustainable development :
- World commission on the environment and development
- The 27 principles of the Rio Conference :
- Agenda 21 :
- The Copenhagen Conference :
- Grenelle de l’Environnement :