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Sustainable development: “wellbeing in the ‘here and now’, ‘later’ and ‘elsewhere’

Considering the influence of the concept of sustainable development in our society today, it’s hard to imagine that the concept is just 25 years old. The term was coined by the seminal “Brundtland” report in 1987, and it has clearly struck a chord in society.  Many other terms and concepts have come and gone but this one has endured.

Central to the concept is the ethical position that the current generation is responsible not only for its own wellbeing but also for that of future generations. Because what we do today will affect the living conditions of our children and grandchildren, literature on the subject devotes a lot of attention to environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

But sustainable development is actually much broader than that, and includes social and economic aspects both for present and for future generations. The Brundtland report added another dimension by pointing to the responsibility of developed countries to find solutions for global poverty. One might say that sustainable development has three dimensions:  wellbeing in the “here and now”, “later” and “elsewhere”.

The United Nations, most particularly through its Rio conferences, has played a vital role in putting the issue on the international agenda. Nowadays, although sustainable development is a popular concept, it’s often seen as vague and poorly defined.  The term “sustainable” is given countless different meanings by companies, people and institutions. No one seems to agree on what exactly the term means.

One group that could provide some clarity is the statistical community. However, different statistical offices generally still have different definitions and indicators for it.

Over the last decade, the UNECE has played a vital role in bringing statisticians and academics together to work towards a common understanding of the concept. In 2006 the joint UNECE/OECD/Eurostat Working Group for Statistics of Sustainable Development started the dialogue between statisticians and academics on the “capital approach of sustainability”.

In 2009, the Working Group was followed up by the joint UNECE/OECD/Eurostat Task Force for Measuring Sustainable Development (TFSD).  Using the Stiglitz report as a basis, the Task Force provides a broad measurement framework (while maintaining the concept of capital proposed by the Working Group. The new framework has made it possible to accommodate the current practices of the statistical community and the wishes of policymakers.

It’s been a privilege for us to work with UNECE on this very important topic and we hope that through our work in this Task Force we can help foster understanding of sustainable development, both in society and in the statistical community. We also hope that we can contribute to harmonizing the measurement of sustainable development in the not-too-distant future. 


Read more about what UNECE does:

Draft Report of the Joint UNECE/Eurostat/OECD Task Force on Measuring Sustainable Development