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Sustainable Development: A Review of International Literature



Early conceptual thinking

3.1 A great deal of both academic and policy literature in the ten years immediately following the Brundtland announcement (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1985) concerned itself with understanding and articulating the core principles of sustainable development (see Dresner, 2002 for a useful discussion of key theories and main actors at that time). Much of this activity has dwindled over the last five years, and those still discussing theory are much more likely to be found doing so in relation to a specific aspect of sustainable development delivery (see below for current concerns in this debate and the topic-based chapters which follow for sector-specific discussions).

3.2 Two key conceptual approaches were clearly evident in this earlier debate, namely:

  • Strong sustainability - a position which accepts that non-ecospheric natural capital (minerals) can be depleted but the ecosphere must be protected absolutely - 'there is no substitute to the planet' - a planet over people approach;
  • Weak sustainability - a position that propounds that human made capital ( e.g. technology) will substitute for natural capital so this can be run down, providing a critical minimum level is maintained - essentially a willingness to pay approach.

3.3 Theorists are virtually unanimous in their assessment that sustainable development as a concept has largely evolved from the latter position. It is often criticised as a have your cake and eat it doctrine, suffering from two fundamentally conflicting aims and ideals. For example, Dresner finds that:

"Sustainability is a concept which combines post-modernist pessimism about the domination of nature with almost Enlightenment optimism about the possibility to reform human institutions." (Dresner, 2002: 164)

3.4 Even supporters of the stance taken in Brundtland agree that it developed the concept as a necessary political compromise between the global environmental management and protectionism aims of the North and the human health and development needs of the South (Dresner, 2002; Purvis and Grainger, 2004; Bigg, 2004). Despite their frustrations with the woolly thinking of sustainable development, many Western academics, policy-makers and practitioners have been prepared to work within the framework of its overarching guiding principles because they approve of their moral and practical intentions.

3.5 Purvis and Grainger (2004) find that, despite its weaknesses, the uniqueness of sustainable development as a concept is the attempt to incorporate environmental and inter-generational dimensions within neo-classical economic development theory. This has inevitably resulted in the development of an approach that is intended to work within the existing economic system of production and distribution and a focus on the use of economic instruments for securing its intended outcomes.

3.6 In simple terms, working within neo-classical economic development theory means that sustainable development delivery must rely upon the traditional and often criticised belief that increased economic growth (albeit more equitably distributed) will deliver the necessary improvements to the human condition, as measured by the Human Development Index ( HDI) in developing countries. In addition, it demands that economic activity to achieve this must take account of both environmental capacities and the needs of future generations, so that any rise in income today is not at the expense of social or environmental welfare today or tomorrow.

Greening the economy

3.7 Many of the academics with an interest in sustainable development in the late eighties and early nineties approached the subject from an economics background (for instance, Dasgupta, 1993; Pearce, 1989) attempting to price the environment through a framework of fiscal controls and incentives (see Dresner, 2002 for a comprehensive discussion of this). This argues that the best way to protect the natural environment is to assign it an economic value based on people's willingness to pay. The aim is to internalise all the external costs to the economy in terms of pollution, resource depletion and human health.

3.8 There have been numerous criticisms of this approach, including how to price irreplaceable resources, how to ensure equitable or fair distribution, or both, within and between nations, and how to reflect the resource needs of future generations within the current market place. Indeed, Aubrey Meyer has gone as far as to describe the approach as the economics of genocide (quoted in Dresner, 2002). Nevertheless, economic tax reform has been taken up as the most likely way for the western world to control the environmental impact of our systems of production and consumption. And it has the added advantage of generating government income, which can be targeted at new technologies and other interventions to improve environmental improvements.

Environmental utilisation space

3.9 Another popular approach, which was particularly evident in early Dutch policies for sustainable development, has been the environmental utilisation space concept (Siebert, 1982; Opschoor, 1987). This aims to reflect limits or thresholds to the amount of pressure that the ecosystem can withstand without irreversible damage and to use these to determine the operational boundaries of the environmental space that can be utilised. The ecological footprint method applies a similar set of conceptual principles.

3.10 Critics of the environmental space approach, of which Pearce (1989) is one, claim that a reduction of resource consumption in the North will not necessarily improve the well-being of people in the South, unless this leads to a slump in resource prices internationally, which would allow developing countries to consume more for the same price. However, it could equally make the South worst off if they are the exporters of these resources and thereby could reduce their opportunity to develop.

Resource and energy efficiency

3.11 In the 1970s, Amory Lovins first drew attention to the potential for energy savings to resolve the 'energy crisis' rather than resorting to the use of nuclear fuel (cited in Dresner, 2002). Factor 4 argued that energy and resource efficiency could be quadrupled with the widespread adoption of existing energy efficient technologies. It identified 50 technologies around the world for reducing energy and material intensity and the market failures that prevent their more widespread adoption, including hidden subsidies and other perverse incentives.

3.12 More recently, the Factor 10 Institute and Factor 10 Club have published extensively on the need to reduce energy and resource consumption by a factor of 10 if we are to secure both our economic and environmental sustainability (Factor 10 Institute, 2005). Some more radical commentators even propose that Factor 20 and 30 solutions are necessary. This ongoing debate led to growing policy awareness throughout the 1990s of the need for integrated and consistent policy-making and the potential to develop 'win-win' policy scenarios.

Emergent theoretical approaches from 1998 onwards

3.13 That sustainable development is still chasing a divergent set of policy goals, at the international level at least, is highly evident in the more recent academic literature (Ayre and Callway, 2005). The Northern sustainability agenda is still predominantly focusing on an environmental protection ( e.g. climate change, biodiversity, protection of species and habitats), whilst the South struggles to secure improvements to human health, develop its enterprise-bases and achieve the necessary economic growth for its development.

3.14 Conceptually, there has been some movement towards greater sophistication of understanding, as demonstrated by a move from simple Venn diagram explanations for the interactions between the economic, environmental and social pillars of sustainable development towards a 'Russian Doll' or embedded model of understanding (O'Riordan, 1998; see Figure 3.1).

3.15 The Russian doll model upholds the basic principle that all economic activity should be bent towards social progress and that this must be achieved within environmental limits. There is, therefore, suggestion of a slight move away from the 'weak sustainability' model that was originally put forward by Brundtland towards a more eco-essential approach. The potential to achieve 'win-win-win' scenarios is increasingly being rejected as over-simplistic and practicably unattainable.

Figure 3.1: From Venn diagram to Russian doll explanations of Sustainable Development

Venn diagram explanation

Figure 3.1: From Venn diagram to Russian doll explanations of Sustainable Development

Russian doll explanation

Figure 3.1: From Venn diagram to Russian doll explanations of Sustainable Development

Source: O'Riordan 1998

New approaches to evaluation

3.16 Measuring and monitoring progress towards sustainability was a central focus of 1990s sustainable development policy, both globally and within the UK ( IIUE, 1998), as demonstrated by the plethora of indicator sets that were developed at every level of policy delivery. In the period post-1999 there has been far less academic activity in this respect, although indicator development work has far from ceased. There have been some new approaches to policy evaluation in relation to sustainable development, which help to enhance the understanding of theoretical developments in this area. However, these are outwith the scope of this limited review.

Indices of human development and environmental performance

3.17 Qizilbash (2001) examines the links between human development and environmental protection. Building on earlier research by Desai (1995) and utilizing the Human Development Index ( HDI) and the Ordinal Green Index ( OGI), Qizilbash uses a variety of indices of social progress and environmental exploitation to determine the sustainability of 59 different developing and 15 industrialized countries. Desai's earlier work suggested that where HDI was poor environmental degradation was lower and vice versa. Qizilbash demonstrates that this does not always hold true for all 59 developing countries, with some, such as Nigeria, scoring poorly against both scores, and others, such as Costa Rica, performing well in both instances. He finds that the picture for the 15 industrialised nations is less robust, due to data shortfalls for the poverty indices, and no overall conclusion is drawn in this respect.

Measuring environmental policy integration

3.18 In their 2003 paper, Lafferty and Hovden identify environmental policy integration ( EPI) into non-environmental policy sectors as a defining feature of sustainable development. They claim that successful EPI is an essential and indispensable part of the concept of sustainable development and that, although of itself EPI does not constitute successful sustainable development, it is:

"… semantically inconsistent to conceive of sustainable development without successful policy integration." (Lafferty and Hovden, 2003: 2)

EPI has three core goals, namely:

  • to achieve sustainable development and prevent environmental degradation;
  • to remove contradictions between policies as well as contradictions within environmental policy;
  • to realise mutual benefits and make policies mutually beneficial.

3.19 For a policy to be integrated, they advise, it must be comprehensive, aggregated and consistent and policy priorities must be decided democratically. EPI has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. Vertical environmental policy integration ( VEPI) indicates the extent to which a particular government sector has adopted and sought to implement environmental objectives as part of their central portfolio. Horizontal environmental policy integration ( HEPI) is the extent to which a central authority has developed a comprehensive cross-sectoral strategy for EPI. According to the authors, Germany provides evidence of a useful working example of VEPI and Canada of combining strong VEPI with HEPI. In a recent review of the Cardiff Process, launched in 1998, to integrate environmental considerations into policy areas in the European Union, the European Commission noted the need for further HEPI (in Lafferty and Hovden's terms) in agriculture - with opportunities to integrate rural development policy, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and our approach to pesticides and organic farming - and for increased VEPI in fisheries policy ( EC, 2004).

A framework for integrated decision-making

3.20 Brandon and Lombardi (2005) also focus on policy integration, as a central tenet for the evaluation of sustainable development. They claim that what is required is an integrating mechanism or framework to obviate the interconnectedness and interdependence of systems. To this end, they have identified fifteen 'modalities', based on Dooyeweerd's theory of the 'Cosmic Idea of Reality' for explaining the functioning of complex systems.

3.21 The fifteen modalities are nested within each other to provide continuity between modalities, with each adjacent modality affecting and informing the level above. For example, the economic modality is dependent on the social, the social on the lingual, the lingual on the historical, and so on. The greater the distance between the ordered modalities, the less influence they have on each other. These modalities, as described by the authors in relation to the built environment, are identified in Table 3.1 below.

3.22 The proposed framework does not claim to cover all dimensions of sustainable development, but rather is aimed to guide the planner or policy-maker through a process of understanding and evaluating sustainable development in the planning context, on the basis of a new holistic structure that can act as both a prompt and a checklist. It also aims to encourage collaborations between disciplines, experts and people and act as a learning tool.

Table 3.1 modalities for understanding the interconnectedness of the built environment



Definition for SD

Issues for Built environment



Numerical accounting

Population, available resources, number of species and their population levels, census statistical office, information


Continuous extension

Spaces, shape and extension

Layout, shape, building footprint, location, proximity, terrain, area type, etc



Transport and mobility

Infrastructure, roads, motorway, railways, cycle routes, pedestrian streets, car parking, transport and mobility, wildlife movement, mobility, accessibility.


Energy, mass

Physical environment, mass and energy

Energy for human activity, energy for bioactivity, physical environment, structure of ground, building materials, components, buildings, districts, settlements.


Life function

Health, biodiversity, eco-protection

Food, shelter, housing, air and air quality, water and water quality, hygiene, green areas, pollution, soil quality, biodiversity, habitat diversity, health and health services, hospitals, gyms, etc


Senses, feelings

People's perceptions towards the environment

Feelings engendered by living there, well-being, comfort, fitness, noise, security, provision of peaceful surroundings, counselling services, asylums, housing for domestic animals.


Discernment of entities

Analysis and formal knowledge

Clarity with which issues are aired in community, letting people clearly know facts and issues, quality of analysis for planning and evaluation, diversity, functional mix, knowledge, tendency to understand rather than react to issues, schools, universities, education services, research.


Formative power

Creativity and cultural development

Encouraging creativity in the community, innovation, heritage, history of community and area, technology employed, museums, archives.



Communications and the media

Ease of communication in and with community, quality of communication, lingual networking, symbols, information provision, monuments, signs, advertising, the media.


Social intercourse

Social climate and social cohesion

Social relationships and interaction, recreational places, social climate, cohesion, plurality, competitiveness, collaboration, authority structure, social register, clubs and society.



Efficiency and economic appraisal

Use of land, use and replacement of renewable resources, use of non-renewable resources, recycling schemes, attitudes to finance, efficiency, financial institutions, offices, banks, stock markets, industrial plants, employment.


Harmony, beauty

Visual appeal and architectural style

Beauty, visual amenity and landscape, architecture and design, architectural style decoration, social harmony, ecological harmony and balance, art galleries, theatres.


Retribution, fairness

Rights and responsibilities

Laws and law-making with regard to property, ownership, regulation and other policy instruments, contracts for building, rights, responsibilities, inequities, property-market interests, democracy, participation, tribunals, administrative offices, legal institutions, political structure.


Love, morality

Ethical issues

General demeanour of people towards each other, goodwill, neighbourliness, solidarity, sharing, equity, morality, health of the family, voluntary centres.


Faith, trustworthiness

Commitment, interest and vision

Loyalty to the community, general level of morale, shared vision of what we are, and aspirations, religious institutions, churches, synagogues, etc.

Source: adapted from Brandon and Lombardi (2005)

Geographical and spatial analysis

3.23 In their book on the subject, Purvis and Grainger (2004) argue that existing theories of sustainable development have limitations when applied spatially. They find that most have been only applied to date at a specific geographical level, whether locally, regionally or internationally, but that the interaction between these spatial scales has largely been ignored. They identify that, as a discipline, human geography is already comfortable with analysis at different ecological (biosphere, biome-type, biome, landscape, ecosystem, community, population and organism) and social (world, supranational regions, state, region, locality, household, individual) scales. Their aim is to develop and apply this analytical approach to different aspects of sustainable development delivery in order to investigate the appropriateness of analysis for a given policy goal at each spatial scale.

3.24 In his chapter of Purvis and Grainger, Soussan argues that the 'participatory paradigm' within sustainable development policy can only be effective as far as the legal, policy and institutional frameworks are in place to allow for successful 'grassroots' activity. He finds that over-reliance on grassroots delivery has led to the exclusion of legal and institutional activity in the UK and elsewhere. One of the biggest problems for sustainable development is that it has attempted to progress within existing organisational frameworks, within nation states and globally, and this has led to tokenism.

The institutional or governance dimension

3.25 It is evident from above that a notable addition to theoretical conceptualisation of sustainable development over the past five years has been the argument for incorporation of a fourth 'institutional' dimension or imperative, as demonstrated in Figure 3.2 (see, for example, Spangenberg, 2003). The diagram demonstrates that more sophisticated theoretical understandings are beginning to emerge, with greater emphasis on the social equity and participative aspects of delivery and the democratic and political processes for achieving this ( see Chapter 11).

3.26 Environmental governance is essentially concerned with the distribution of power within environmental decision-making. It is closely related to the issue of environmental rights and environmental distribution because it regards power-sharing as fundamental to the realisation of human rights and as a balance to the present unequal share of and to the environment. Essentially, environmental governance deals with the operation of civil and political rights to realise individual political and civil expression. As such, environmental decision-making is viewed as central to people's quality of life particularly for the inclusion of the most vulnerable, excluded by economic or social factors from most forms of decision-making. Who governs is critical, relating to the development of tools capable of improving public participation and decision-making processes.

Figure 3.2: A multi-dimensional understanding of sustainable development

Figure 3.2: A multi-dimensional understanding of sustainable development

Source: adapted from EPA Ireland Technical Document, 2004

Critical theory

3.27 Despite the burgeoning theoretical discourses on what is required for the delivery of sustainable development, critics of the 'weak sustainability' model that underpins it have long questioned a policy position that suggests sustainable development can be brought about within the existing system of production and consumption. In his recent paper, Castro (2004) develops this position from 'an environmental Marxist' perspective, arguing that sustainable development as it is currently defined in the present literature is basically economic growth on capitalist terms.

3.28 The environmental Marxist perspective questions the very possibility of an environmentally sustainable capitalist economy, arguing that economic growth relies upon exploitation of natural and social capital and the avoidance of wealth redistribution (or equity) both at the national and international level. Therefore, by its very, nature capitalist development does not foster the goals of environmental sustainability, cultural diversity or more equitable social development where poverty is eradicated.

3.29 Whilst Castro and his fellow environmental Marxists could be considered to represent the radical edge of sustainability theory, many of their views were echoed at both the Rio and Johannesburg World Summits by developing countries, which see their hopes for poverty eradication taking a back seat in the global debates surrounding sustainable development policy.

3.30 In his assessment of the role and risk of governments to deliver sustainable development, Howes (2005) also appears to concur with this view. Even from a more mainstream and industrialised perspective, he concludes that despite the considerable resources that have been redirected towards sustainable development by governments over the last ten years, there have been only patchy gains, constituting a small part of a huge countervailing global economy. He suggests that new democratic models are needed to act as a counterforce to the powerful interests of trans-national business. Ayre and Callway (2005) claim that, despite its shortcomings, the UN is the only viable institution capable of working with national governments to achieve this.

The Global perspective

3.31 Numerous observers and commentators of the World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002 ( WSSD 2002) have noted that, in the absence of any really substantial international agreements (particularly with the United States ( NSSD, 2005)), the gathering appeared to be more about developing national action strategies. Arising from that summit, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation ( JPOI) ( UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, 2004) identifies eight core action themes for national strategies:

  • Poverty eradication
  • Sustainable production and consumption
  • Protecting the natural resource base of economic and social development
  • Globalisation
  • Health and sustainable development
  • Small island developing states
  • Africa
  • Other regional initiatives

3.32 It is clear that the policy focus for these national strategies will differ significantly in North and South. Northern strategies are predominantly concerned with institutional reorientation, policy integration, regulatory and voluntary standards, local targets, environmental controls and cost savings. Developing countries in the South are placing the main emphasis on creating new institutions and 'bankable' projects.

3.33 The United Nations Development Programme ( UNDP) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ( OECD) have produced a joint resource book detailing why and how to develop a sustainability strategy ( UNDP and OECD, 2002). It includes approaches to measuring and analysing sustainability, facilitating stakeholder participation in strategy development and delivery, the use of communication strategies, the scope of strategy decision-making at different institutional levels, mobilizing finances and a range of other essential information. It identifies a set of core values and principles for the development of national strategies that must reflect local values and work through existing national and local decision-making frameworks, and which include the following.

  • Strategies need to address new global values introduced by the emerging universal normative framework (1947 Declaration of Human Rights; 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development; 1992 Declaration on Environment and Development).
  • Strategy decisions should reflect risk and uncertainty based on the precautionary, polluter and user pays principle, intergenerational equity, intra-generational equity, free prior and informed consent and helping (involuntary) risk bearers to participate in decisions as well as risk takers (such as government and investors).
  • The strategy's institutional framework must help and support decision-making.
  • All relevant stakeholders should be involved using recognised negotiating procedures where possible and focusing on rights and risks. Negotiation is particularly important in setting decentralised targets.

A human rights approach

3.34 Adebowale (2004) has articulated the case for adopting a human rights and environmental justice approach to sustainable development. She argues that existing legal research suggests that the application of human rights within an environmental context is justified on the grounds that a healthy environment is a fundamental prerequisite for upholding the human right to life. This is because, at the most basic level, a dignified life can not be realised without access to clean water, air, land. This approach is largely informed by the environmental justice legalistic model, which has developed from a predominantly 'grassroots' movement over the past 40 or so years in the USA.

3.35 Within the discourse, human rights and the environment are essentially perceived in two ways, the first in terms of civil and political rights and the second in terms of economic, social and cultural rights. Civil and political rights provide for moral and political order, including the right to life, equality, political participation and association. They are couched most clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Civil and political rights are crucial to guaranteeing good governance, essentially protecting public participation around environmental protection and achieving greater equity.

3.36 The second set of rights, economic, social and cultural, establish the right to a healthy environment and support the right of all peoples to manage their own natural resources. These rights can be sourced in a number of international human rights conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and Conventions on the Rights of a Child (1989).

The European perspective

3.37 In 2001, the European Council adopted the EU Sustainable Development Strategy (European Commission, 2001) which provides a long-term vision that involves combining a dynamic economy with social cohesion and high environmental standards. It requires a new emphasis on policy coordination and integration. As part of the implementation of the Strategy, the Commission has introduced a system of extended impact assessment for all major policy proposals. This approach provides information on the tradeoffs between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development to inform decisions. By allowing a full appraisal of the potential environmental costs and benefits of all major Commission proposals, as well as of the costs and benefits of specific environmental measures, it helps promote environmental integration.

3.38 The importance of integration of environmetal programmes into other aspects of European policy was reaffirmed in the Sixth Environmental Action Programme (European Commmission, 2002). The new programme identified four priority environmental areas to be tackled for urgent action and improvement, namely:

  • Climate change
  • Nature and biodiversity
  • Environment and health and quality of life
  • Natural resources and waste

3.39 The main avenues for action identified by the Sixth Programme are:

  • Effective implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation: necessary to set a common baseline for all EU countries.
  • Integration of environmental concerns: environmental problems have to be tackled where their source is, frequently in other policies.
  • Use of a blend of instruments: all types of instruments have to be considered, the essential criterion for choice being that it has to offer the best efficiency and effectiveness possible.
  • Stimulation of participation and action of all actors from business to citizens, NGOs and social partners through better and more accessible information on the environment and joint work on solutions.

3.40 The EC claims it will take a wide-ranging and integrated approach to these challenges. However, inspection of other areas of EU policy (such as employment, economic development and transport) suggests that little progress has yet been made in this respect. There are also fears that the Lisbon Agenda, which was adopted in 2000 with the aim of making Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010, could place sustainable development beneath an over-arching aim of increasing economic growth (see CEC, 2005 for full details of the Lisbon Programme).

The UK perspective

3.41 The UK Government has clearly made progress in its thinking on sustainable development since the production of its last strategy in ( DETR, 1999), demonstrating both greater clarity of understanding of the issues and the need for more tailored and sophisticated ways of addressing them. The economic pillar of the new strategy ( HM Government, 2005) now involves,

"Maintaining a sustainable, innovative and productive economy that delivers high levels of employment …"

The social pillar requires,

"A just society that promotes social inclusion, sustainable communities and personal wellbeing…"

The environmental pillar encourages methods that promote and enhance the physical and natural environment and use resources and energy as efficiently as possible.

3.42 There is recognition of both the national and international dimensions of these endeavours and of the need for intergenerational considerations, which was entirely absent from its predecessor. Five overarching principles have been agreed between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved administrations, namely:

  • Living within environmental limits
  • Ensuring a strong, healthy and just society
  • Achieving a sustainable economy
  • Promoting good governance
  • Using sound science responsibly

3.43 The four shared priorities areas for action are:

  • Sustainable consumption and production
  • Climate change and energy
  • Natural resource protection
  • Sustainable communities

3.44 Achieving improved environmental equity both within the UK and between it and developing nations has also been identified as an important theme cutting across several aspects of policy delivery. The strategy recommends that whilst there is a need for regulation and enforcement, other levers and controls need to be used in a consistent way to support behaviour change at both the individual and institutional level. The government casts itself in the role of catalyst, exemplifier and facilitator in the delivery of this strategy.

3.45 In an extensive desk review for Defra and the COI (the UK Government's Central Office of Information), Darnton (2004) examined the behaviour changes that could undertaken by the public which would help in the pursuit of sustainable development objectives and policies. The report identifies that many tools are already available to government to deliver progress in sustainability. He notes, however, that some of the bigger gains for sustainability do not relate to individual or household behaviours at all but rather require institutional or legislative changes.

3.46 Darnton recommends that policymakers should consider each aspect of individual or household behaviour in isolation and decide whether or not public behaviour change is the most appropriate and effective route for advancing a given sustainability goal. If it is, then a step-by-step approach to public behaviour change is needed (such as that provided in Stern 2000), in which external barriers are removed before internal (psychological) factors are addressed. Most importantly, members of the public should be provided with the opportunities to pursue a sustainable lifestyle before they are exhorted to do so.

3.47 In common with numerous academic commentators, Darnton also noted that there are numerous and considerable barriers to behaviour change. Not only are behaviours complex, and the factors influencing them multiple, but barriers apply to different behaviours in different combinations, and are experienced by different individuals to varying extents. While some barriers are shown to be actual or physical and other barriers perceived, many are a messy blend of both. Simply removing the physical barriers to an activity may still not change people's attitudes towards it. Equally, attitude change is not strictly necessary in order to provoke a change in behaviour. For example, people in London might still prefer to drive their cars into the centre, but may stop doing so because they cannot afford the congestion charge.

3.48 Darton has identified nine key barriers and eight drivers of change that UK policy-makers should consider in the development of an action plan for sustainable development.

Barriers to change

  • Willingness to act - basic reluctance or refusal to change;
  • Low-level behaviours - lack of conscious or awareness of the behaviour being undertaken;
  • Norms and habits - people need to be " unfrozen" from their habits before behaviour change can be undertaken;
  • Convenience - the excuse most often given by people for not undertaking behaviour change is that it is less convenient than their existing behaviour choice;
  • Cost - perceived cost is seen as a major barrier to the take-up of more sustainable options;
  • Psychological effects - different psychological processes such as fear, apathy, etc., serve to filter other factors influencing behaviour;
  • Agency - people's lack of belief in their own ability to bring about change and not believing that one's own behaviour can make a difference;
  • The terminology of 'sustainable development' - numerous studies have show that people either have not heard of or do not relate to the language of sustainable development;
  • Relative sustainability - confusion relating to behaviours not being single, but inter-related into patterns, or 'clusters'.

Drivers of change

  • Norms and habits - while habits tend to be described as barriers to behaviour change, norms are often shown to be drivers;
  • Key influencers - social norms are most effectively established by engaging key influencers and role models to encourage the adoption a particular behaviour by a community;
  • Groups - pre-established and trusted groups such as faith groups and voluntary organisations have a key role to play in supporting the adoption of behaviours for sustainability. In addition, different groups and sectors of society often need to be treated in different ways to provoke a change in their behaviour;
  • Infrastructure - putting in place the physical provision for people to change their behaviour;
  • Saving money - quality and cost are the top two criteria applied by people in their purchasing decisions;
  • Financial instruments - financial measures can be particularly effective in driving public behaviour change for sustainability, e.g. 'plastax' levy on plastic bags and the tax breaks for cars with catalytic converters used in Eire;
  • Information - provision of practical information is however regarded as a key element in behaviour change campaigns by several sources, but campaigns need to be well targeted and co-ordinated with other measures;
  • The role of government - most people express doubts that the government is serious about delivering on the objectives of sustainability, as environmentalism is believed to be contrary to their interests, particularly economically.

3.49 On the basis of Darnton's useful synthesis alone, it is possible to identify that considerable progress has been made, at the UK level, in understanding the theories and principles underpinning behaviour change. Nevertheless, the task is considerable, particularly given the scale and breadth of the problems faced.

The Scottish perspective

3.50 There is little distinctively Scottish academic literature on sustainable development, although there is a certainly Scottish contribution to the wider debate about sustainable development (Ross, 2000, 2003, 2004) and some relevant social research has been commissioned by the Executive (for example, Scottish Executive Social Research, 2005; Derek Halden Consultancy, 2003). This has included a survey of Public Attitudes to the Environment in Scotland (Scottish Executive Social Research 2005), which reveals little general awareness of the term sustainable development (27%), marginally below that found in similar research conducted in England and Wales (28%). Of those who had heard of the term only around a third were able to provide a definition, which showed a reasonable understanding of the concept. This correlates to only 2% of the Scottish population showing a reasonable understanding of the concept with no fewer than 82% either never having heard the term or, if they had, having no understanding of it.

3.51 It does appear, in the main, that Scottish debates about sustainable development reflect the issues and perspectives of the UK, European and international debates, so distinctions between a strong or eco-centric and weak or anthropocentric version of sustainable development are very much relevant and present (Pillai, 2005). Generally, Scottish approach has focused on, and been shaped by, the weak version of sustainable development although counter examples do exist. For instance, Scottish Natural Heritage ( SNH) first outlined its approach to sustainable development in 1993, emphasising the wise and sparing use of non-renewable resources, intergenerational equity and the precautionary principle, and this continues to be reflected in SNH's more recent policy statement (2001). However, this is uncommon and the predominant Scottish perspective has been the weak version, which is perhaps unsurprising since the Scottish perspective has always stressed the social (and more recently environmental) justice dimensions of sustainable development.

3.52 For example, in the land reform debates concerning the introduction of a community right to buy (implemented by Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 with sustainable development undefined in the legislation), the Land Reform Policy Group emphasised the social and economic aspects of sustainable development over the environmental protection dimension ( LRPG, 1998). This may reflect the fact that with a sparse rural population and concentrated landownership, which has tended to promote monopolistic practices and a relatively high quality environment, it is perceived that the carrying capacity of the environment was generally not considered to be at risk if there was to be additional development.

3.53 The issue of stewardship has also featured in debates and thinking on land reform in Scotland. Formal consultation on proposals for land reform resulted in a considerable call for stewardship obligations to be imposed on community landowning bodies and, indeed, on private landowners (Wightman, 2000). Such obligations were seen as stronger than sustainable development obligations as they carried with them both intergenerational and carrying capacity dimensions and were less amenable to trade-offs. However, the Land Reform Policy Group did not support this approach and it was not incorporated in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

3.54 In 2001, Birley argued that the Executive's stance on sustainable development was wanting in a number of respects. Not only was there seen to be a lack of political commitment, after some positive early announcements, and institutional weakness but the perceived focus of the Executive's efforts on waste, energy and travel (W-E-T) was seen as too narrow and as unacceptable as a strategy. Many of the key energy and waste developments had already been underway by 2000 and the move to a more sustainable transport system was being undermined by a massive expansion of the road-building programme. Priorities for sustainable development published in 2002 seemed to communicate a continued focus on W-E-T, but also stressed wider resource-efficiency issues in addition. For the Executive (2002), energy has also been seen as very much a matter of dealing with fuel poverty in addition to developing renewables.

3.55 There is at the very least a strong commitment to more holistic thinking and promoting integration rather than about making trade-offs and this has received a qualified welcome, for example, by Birley (2002). Furthermore, the latest Executive thinking contains a strong commitment to social and environmental justice as well as intergenerational equity and respect for the carrying capacity of the planet.

Key areas of policy action

3.56 It is already clear from this overview of the main theoretical texts that a number of key areas have been identified for the targeting of policy and action towards sustainable development. Poverty eradication, access to clean water, human health, protecting our natural resource bases, climate change and sustainable production and consumption consistently appear as priorities at all levels of policy-making. Transport, waste, energy, land use and the built environment are also common topics within the sustainable development policy agenda.

3.57 The following sections of this report consider eight key areas of policy action for sustainable development, as determined by the Executive, and examine the available literature in direct relation to these. From a global, European, UK-wide and Scottish perspective each section examines the following:

  • Key concepts and priorities
  • The main policy and practical responses
  • Where these have been applied
  • Whether there is good practical reporting and/or solid research evidence of good practice available
  • Potentially transferable or adaptable approaches for Scotland.

3.58 The policy themes of the review are, clearly, not an exhaustive representation of the relevant issues and areas for action in the context of the Scottish sustainable development strategy. Instead, the review is designed to augment existing syntheses and overview literature and also to compliment other work being undertaken for the Executive.