Defining sustainable development: The woman who started it all

Widely regarded as the “mother” of sustainable development, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland has been an advocate of public health, political activism and the environment for most of her life.

As an environment minister, a Prime Minister, and a party leader in her home country of Norway, she gained international recognition as a passionate spokeswoman on key global challenges including human rights, global security issues, sustainable development and the environment.

It was in a 1987 report “Our Common Future” – written when she was chair of the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), eventually known as the Brundtland Commission – that she developed the broad political concept of sustainable development.

This movement eventually swept through governments, NGOs, businesses, think tanks and civic society globally over the past three decades. This September, UN member nations will meet in New York to agree on details of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will help define the future global development framework.

“It is clear that the Report from 1987 has set a large process of global change in motion,” Dr Brundtland told Eco-Business in a recent interview. “This year, finally, the world will decide concrete Sustainable Development Goals for the period up until 2030.

This same year, a climate deal will hopefully also be concluded, in Paris. The two processes are closely interlinked, as our report made clear, when we warned about the danger of serious climate change, back in 1987,” she adds, referring to the December UN climate change meeting in Paris, where the world’s top decision-makers from government, business and civic society will try to draw out the most far-reaching global environmental agreement ever.

While “mainstreaming” the discussions on development and climate change has taken “much too long a time,” the fact that the global conversations on development and climate change are now running in parallel, finally, is a “strength that impacts on both”, she says.

There is today much more awareness of the fact that we are in this together, and that there is no way to find workable solutions, unless there is global cooperation and global common responsibility, she observes.

“Much is yet to be done, but more and more actors are now aware of the crucial links between environment and development, and ready to invest in the necessary change towards sustainable development,” she says.

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