The three pillars of sustainable development and their tensions. Discussion of various examples

Essay, 2019

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Using examples discuss the claim that the three pillars of sustainable development are inherently in tension

It is December 2019; Greta Thunberg was just voted as person of the year 2019 by Times Magazine because she started the unique global Fridays for Future movement almost one year ago where pupils give up on their right of education to strike every Friday on the streets worldwide to make governments act towards climate change. The governments of the world came together to hold the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. Their goal was to produce a blueprint on how to limit climate change because at the moment the world is on a path towards an increasing temperature of up to 4.3 °C until the end of the century (IPCC, 2019: 8). Why does it seem so difficult for world leaders and humankind to develop in a sustainable way with intra and intergenerational justice and without harming the environment to a level where it creates a more dangerous surrounding for humans i.e. by air pollution and global warming through burning of fossil fuels (Kalogirou, 2004; Panwar et al., 2011)?

Governments first identified strategies for a healthy environment and more global justice in 1987 published in the Brundtland Report, where sustainable development was defined as meeting “[…] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987: 43). From an anthropocentric point of view sustainable development by itself sounds like a phenomenal goal aiming for (Hopwood et al., 2005). It refers to justice for current generations and future generations. A more modern version of sustainable development is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development published by the United Nations in 2015. 17 Sustainable Development Goals should be achieved by 2030 and “[…] balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental” (United Nations, 2015). Supporting prosperity while environment should be protected, identifying the ending of poverty with simultaneous economic growth and attempting to fulfill social needs, the United Nations created a plan for a better world (United Nations, 2015). When sustainable development was widely used first in 1987 one could expect after more than 40 years humankind would be able to bring environment, society and economy as three “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” (United Nations General Assembly, 2005: 11) of sustainable development in a balance as it is shown in figure 1.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Model of three pillars of sustainable development (Elliot, 2013: 20)

Unfortunately, climate change is a perfect example showing that neither the society pillar reached an acceptable degree of justice because poor countries are effected the most by the negative impact of rapid global warming nor is the environmental pillar in a state of a healthy environment with an animal extinction rate 100 till 1000 times higher than normal (Godfray et al., 2010; Steffen et al., 2015). Therefore in the following I want to discuss if the three pillars of sustainable development could be inherently in tension resulting in a balance of all three pillars could be described as utopia or maybe already existing examples can show that sustainable development can actually work and bring all of the three pillars in a balance.

With solar radiation an infinite use of a natural resource is possible in the physical sphere of planet earth (Kalogirou, 2004). It is even possible to create one of the most wanted goods for wealth and economic development: Energy (Kalogirou, 2004). Therefore, as a first example to achieve sustainable development I want to introduce solar power as a renewable energy source. If every human being on the planet would live on an increased level of development it would need 33% more energy than the world's per capita use of energy in 2016 (Arto et al., 2016). To reach or to maintain the welfare of developed countries a constantly high level of energy needs to be available for services, goods, commodities or living (Arto et al., 2016). In the example of renewable energy sources, the environment pillar and society pillar are not in tension. To gain a better understanding of the inter-beneficial relationship between the environment and the society in this case I want to introduce a model shown in figure 2, where the economy and society are placed inside a circle of the environment.

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Figure 2: Alternative model of sustainable development to the model of the three pillars (Elliot, 2013: 20)

The figure shows that society and economy can only exist inside the planetary boundaries (Elliot, 2013: 21; Steffen et al., 2015). All human and economic activities are dependent of nature and natural systems (Elliot, 2013: 21). Therefore all damages or crossings of planetary boundaries “[…] weaken the basis of human existence itself” (Elliot, 2013: 21). Planet earth’s resources are usually not infinite or are just renewable in a certain amount of time like trees or fish stock. Technologies using solar radiation to produce energy is a rare exception (Kalogirou, 2004). The negative impacts on the environment and the society of the current widespread use of fossil fuels as the main energy source could be avoided with solar technologies resulting in society and environment having a positive influence on each other (Kalogirou, 2004; Panwar et al., 2011). One big factor would be the limitation of global warming, due to an historically high amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being one of the most concerning issues for humanity in this century (Panwar et al., 2011). Most of this carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels for creating energy (Kalogirou, 2004). Solar energy technologies do not produce carbon dioxide and have therefore no impact on the greenhouse effect. If humanity would replace fossil fuels with renewable energy like solar power the heating of planet earth could be reduced. As a result the environmental pillar becomes more stable leading to less frequent heat waves, decreasing occurrence of droughts and floods, reduction in the risk of natural disasters leading to less malnutrition as well as a slower loss of biodiversity (Panwar et al., 2011; Steffen et al., 2015). With a more stable environment pillar the society pillar would become strengthened because humans benefit from a stable environment so that no inherent tension could be implied.

Tension could also inherently exist between the economic and the social or the environmental pillar. But first, let’s have a look at the benefits solar power could bring to the economy pillar. Future economic costs for the global society caused by the fossil fuel based energy production can be avoided, i.e. expenses on health care caused by air pollution (Sawin et al., 2016: 10). Global climate change also imposes costs on the long run because of climate caused migration or broader appearance of diseases former limited to tropic regions but due to a rise of temperature spreading out (Sawin et al., 2016: 10). Both of those cost avoiding measures are connected to the environment and have again a positive impact on society because the “[…] reality is that humanity is dependent on the environment, with society existing within, and dependent on, the environment, and the economy exists within society” (Hopwood et al., 2005). Where human needs have to be fulfilled for sustainable development and resources should be fairly shared with every human; social justice becomes important (Hopwood et al., 2005). Not only for today’s generations but also for the generations in the future. Economies can even grow over a long term and be environmental friendly with investments in solar energy infrastructure and development (Sawin et al., 2016: 10). Regions or countries without a natural occurrence of fossil resources can reduce their economic reliance on other countries or big companies to be more economically independent (Sawin et al., 2016: 10). Economic benefits were actually redistributed when single households or regions supply themselves with solar energy to gain energy security and to keep their revenues on a local level (Sawin et al., 2016: 12). The big energy companies RWE, E.ON and EnBW earn a few billion Euros every year and constantly grew in size and gained market power in the past (Kungl, 2015). When Germany expanded in renewables in the last years of the 2000s smaller businesses were able to take over parts of the German energy supply resulting in a change of the market power shares (Kungl, 2015). As a conclusion, not the economy pillar and society pillar are inherently in tension, but the interests of different actors in the economic sector are.

As a second example to achieve sustainable development I want to introduce the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). In their own statement the RSPO aims for sustainable development with making “[…] sustainable palm oil the norm” (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018: 8). Like the United Nations, they see themselves in the middle of a process towards sustainability goals and even refer to three sectors people, prosperity and planet comparable to the three pillars of sustainable development to reach their goals of resilient and healthy landscapes where communities with a green and inclusive growth are built on (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018: 12). They offer a private label to firms making use of sustainable palm oil. To get the Label of RSPO the firms have to fulfill various standards by either supporting beneficial activities outsite their own supply chain or by engaging with their own supply chain (Gallemore and Jespersen, 2019). By internalising the environmental externalities caused by the production and the trade with palm oil the RSPO wants to create healthy communities respecting human rights and have a positive impact on the current generations (Gallemore and Jespersen, 2019; Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018: 9). Also they want to conserve and enhance ecosystems to protect them for future generations (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018: 9) . The whole idea of internalizing external costs for the environment is developed to work in the worlds current market system. Economic growth is furthermore desired but in a sustainable way, where less harm is implied on local communities and the environment, specifically in this case the tropical rainforest.

Hopwood, Mellor and O’Brien presented in 2005 a classification of groups with different approaches on how to achieve sustainable development. I want to make use of these different and broad views to discuss if the three pillars of sustainable development in the example of the RSPO might be or might not be inherently in tension. The RSPO can be seen as a business supporting the mindset of a group called Reform. Within the corridor of the current capitalistic market system they want to fix the market failure, as a source for environmental and societal issues, by internalizing environmental external costs (Hopwood et al., 2005). Palm oil only grows in regions of humid tropics resulting in tropical deforestation and therefore a loss of species and release of carbon dioxide, i.e. a study could show that more than 50% of oil palm plantations in Indonesia or Malaysia in 2005 once were still forests in 1990 (Vijay et al., 2016). The RSPO sets standards to prevent and limit tropical deforestation i.e. through fire and therefore strengthens its environmental pillar to achieve sustainable development (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018: 61). They refer directly to sustainably managed forests as the 15th Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations and claim that green economic growth is possible in the frame of sustainable development (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018: 52). With this specific example and this view on sustainable development there is no tension between the environmental and economic pillar because they rather reinforce each other. Bringing the opinion of the Transformation group in, there could arise a tension between those two pillars. The Transformation’s view includes an intrinsic value for nature (Hopwood et al., 2005). They would probably argue to stop tropical deforestation for good, to protect animal and plant species from losing their habitat and to limit the release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide because annual carbon dioxide emissions release caused by deforestation made “[…] nearly 10% of the global total of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions” between 2001 and 2013 (Vijay et al., 2016). If there is a tension between the environment pillar and the economic pillar in the example of the RSPO depends on the definition and expectation of sustainable development. The tension between the pillars is therefore not inherently but depends on the subjective views of humans.


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The three pillars of sustainable development and their tensions. Discussion of various examples
University of Birmingham
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sustainability, sustainable development, three pillars, tension, economy, society, environment, model, model of the three pillars
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Christina Wulf (Author), 2019, The three pillars of sustainable development and their tensions. Discussion of various examples, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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