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International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development

One-World Chemistry

Sustainable Development

The Concept of Sustainable Development

1972The Club of Rome published a highly influential report entitled The limits to Growth [1], which predicted the disastrous impacts that would follow from exponential economic and population growth in a world of finite resources.
1987The World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland produced a report [2] which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
1992The UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio: 'Earth Summit') issued the Earth Charter (Agenda 21): building of a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in 21st Century [3], which aimed towards "socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth".
2012The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg: 'Rio+20') issued an outcome document, "The Future We Want" [4], with 192 governments renewing their political commitment to sustainable development.
2009- 2015The concept of planetary boundaries was developed and refined, with nine boundaries being identified and partly quantified [5,6]. This proved very influential in the formulation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
2015United Nations Agenda 2030: 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by all 193 Member States [7].

Planetary Boundaries

The concept of Planetary Boundaries has been developed by the environmental scientist Johan Rockström in Sweden, the chemist Will Steffen at the Australian National University, and others [8]. They have identified nine Earth system processes which have boundaries and have used these to defining a "safe operating space for humanity".

Source illustration by F. Pharand-Deschênes/Globaïa
(Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Credit: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Three of the boundaries concern biogeochemical flows of key elements that are relatively abundant in either the Earth's crust (carbon: 0.18%; phosphorus: 0.1%) or atmosphere (nitrogen: 0.002% in the crust and 78% of the atmosphere). In each case, there is a problem because industrial uses are contributing to major environmental changes. For example, combustion of carbon-rich materials to produce energy is generating greenhouse gases that are causing climate change; the atmosphere and water resources are suffering pollution by nitrogen oxides and nitrates that come from the production of nitrate fertilizers; and water bodies are also being polluted by phosphate fertilizers.

In the case of nitrogen, It is estimated that the planetary boundary for the introduction of new ‘reactive’ nitrogen to the Earth system is 62-82 Tg N per year, while the current scale of production is far in excess of this, at about 150 Tg N per year.

21st Century Challenges

A number of factors at play in the world are acting together to create multiple challenges. These include:


  1. D.H. Meadows, D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, W.W. Behrens. The Limits to Growth. Potomac Associates, Universe Books, New York 1972.
  2. Our Common Future. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. United Nations, New York 1987.
  3. Agenda 21. Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro 3-14 June 1992: The Earth Summit). United Nations, New York 1992.
  4. The Future We Want. Report of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg: 'Rio+20'), United Nations, New York 2012.
  5. J. Rockström, W. Steffen, et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 2009, 461, 472-475; doi: 10.1038/461472a.
  6. W. Steffen, W. Richardson, et al. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347 no. 6223 (2015); doi: 10.1126/science.125985.
  7. The Sustainable Development Agenda: 17 Goals to Transform Our World. United Nations, New York, 2015.
  8. Planetary boundaries research. Stockholm Resilience Centre 2018.
  9. World Urbanization Prospects 2018. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division 2018.
  10. WHO facsheet on drinking water.
  11. Endangered elements. American Chemical Society 2018.
  12. Y. Lee. Antimicrobial resistance: a threat to global health. Lancet Infectious Diseases 2018, 18(9), 339-340.

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