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Characteristics, Role & Functions of Sustainable Development in Environmental Management

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

In a previous discussion on the characteristics, functions, and significance of “sustainable development” in the context of environmental management, it was noted that in order to attempt a rationalization of sustainable development (or achieving “sustainability” in development activities) and how that relates to the environment, it may be useful to establish a proper understanding of some of these main concepts.

To begin with, what is the “environment” as it pertains to sustainable development? For this purpose, the “environment” can be considered as the combined features and assets that provide the basis for economic and social development, natural resource management and conservation. In this context, sustainable management strategies, options and “best design” practices must be planned and implemented in relation to the processes, components and attributes of abiotic (non-living), biotic and human factors in any given developmental landscape.

Or to use a more formal definition:

 Environment = The combined features and resource capital, that provide the basis for development, environmental management and conservation. Includes the processes and components of, and services provided by, atmospheric, hydrological, geophysical, biotic, human and landscape factors.

Environmental quality = The status or value of the natural resource capital at a particular location at a specified time, relative to development, environmental management and conservation.


Some further discussions on these concepts that characterize  “sustainable development”:

Development = The act of altering and modifying resources in order to obtain potential benefits. 

Environmental Degradation
 = Adverse effects (reversible or permanent) on biophysical, social and economic resources, or any other reduction of the set of options available to future generations.

Adverse Effects = Any reduction in environmental quality of a system, or other depletion of the environmental resource capital. Defined in terms of, and measured by, environmental impacts.

Environmental Impact = Change in environmental quality due to external disturbance to a system. Includes positive and negative, primary and secondary, cumulative, synergistic, short, medium and long-term, reversible and irreversible. Described in terms of magnitude (of effect), direction (of change) and probability (of occurrence), with or without mitigation


In terms of discussing “development” (the act of altering and modifying the resources of the natural environment in order to obtain potential economic and social benefits), it is important to note that it involves the application of human, financial and biophysical resources to satisfy social and economic needs, inevitably leading to some modification of the biosphere. The extent of development-induced modifications depend on the location, scale, intensity and duration of activities as well as adequacy of mitigation and compensatory measures, which define the scope for, and degree of balance in, environmental costs and benefits. As noted, ideally, for a development to be “sustainable” it should demonstrably be economically feasible and socially acceptable, without causing significant environmental impacts
or land degradation.

From a policy, regulatory and legislative perspective, very closely related to implementation of all of these characteristics of sustainable development, is the “Precautionary Principle” – a sustainability principle which states that if there are threats of serious irreversible environmental impact, lack of full scientific certainty will not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

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