The 1987 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development prompted a global agenda to safeguard the interests of future generations. The subsequent Brundtland Report (1987) called for a new era of economic growth, one which would be ‘forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable’.
While environmental issues began to attract serious international political and public attention following the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the Brundtland Report acknowledged an interlocking crisis of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. The interdependencies were strong, and so, each aspect could not be dealt with in isolation.
The oft-cited definition of sustainable development emerged from the Brundtland Report. That is, ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (UN 1987). However an action plan was still required.
The global sustainable development debate was strengthened at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (i.e. Earth Summit). The Conference established a set of guiding principles for sustainable development outlined in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. An action plan for sustainable development was set out in Agenda 21, and the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development was formed.
Measuring sustainable development, however, is inherently difficult. Progress is often monitored in terms of achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) comprise a set of eight international development goals each with a subset of measurable targets to be achieved by 2015.
In a follow up to the Millennium Summit, the 2005 United Nations World Summit reaffirmed commitment to sustainable development via the implementation of Agenda 21, and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which was an outcome of the 2002 Earth Summit. The World Summit outcome statement stressed that the economic, social and environmental components of sustainable development represent ‘interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars’ (UN 2005:12).
After the onset of the GFC, the 2009 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting canvassed strategies to promote recovery in the real economy and to shape the post-crisis agenda. The statement of the Labour Leaders indicated that a Triple Crisis had enveloped the global economy. Growing income inequalities, job losses and loss of purchasing power were viewed as a consequence of deregulation and promotion of ‘innovative’ and ‘efficient’ financial instruments. The Leaders asserted that ‘the models of market fundamentalism […] have so brutally failed on an institutional and moral level, leaving workers from the middle- and low-incomes wage classes with the heavy burden of limited credit flow and the risk of losing their jobs’ (WEF 2009:1).
Marking the 20th anniversary of the inaugural Earth Summit, policymakers at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development again renewed their commitment to the sustainable development agenda. Despite financial, economic, food and energy crisis causing significant setbacks to the development targets since the 1992 Summit, policymakers remain deeply concerned with levels of extreme poverty, and high levels of unemployment and underemployment. Jobs are an urgent global concern.