Can the World Bank revive Sustainable Development

One of my favourite professors in university once described the adoption of the paradigm of sustainable development as a trade between two parties. Environmentalists on one side and governments and business interests on the other. In 1987 the most common definition of sustainable development came into public consciousness through the United Nations Bruntland Report. It called for ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

At the time, environmentalists had the legitimacy, where as governments and businesses were seen as out for their own interest. However, environmentalists remained outsiders, they could protest, but were excluded from the tables where businesses and governments made the decisions. Thus, a deal was struck.

The acceptance of the sustainable development paradigm would at the very least give environmentalists  a voice in regards to development and their support would give governments and business interests the public legitimacy they desired. So, in 1992, when the Earth Summit produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development optimism abounded.

Unfortunately, this feeling didn’t last long in environmental circles. For, while the term sustainable development has lived on, in practice, it has all but been forgotten. Time and time again economic benefits of intense resource extraction have been supported to the detriment of the environment. Those who originally embraced this new paradigm have yet to see any true commitment to the first half of the term. There remain few, if any, who would defend what has occurred over the last two decades as anything remotely imitating sustainable practices.

Yet, there is reason for optimism! The World Bank has recently published a report detailing the dramatic economic costs that climate change will create while stressing that the worst repercussions will be felt by the poorest nations. And yes, the fact that that the sentence preceding this can be considered a ‘reason for optimism’ is perhaps far more depressing than the news itself; however, the the hardship that faces a world that refuses to act is not news to the environmental community, whereas the World Bank taking this fact seriously is.

The World Bank is one of the largest economic development agencies and for them to fully account for the impacts of climate change in how they go about their work could dramatically alter how our world works. There is reason for skepticism of course, the World Bank loaned $3.75 billion to South Africa for coal fired power plants in 2010 and they don’t exactly have the best historical case for successful development, but sustainable development has been such a monumental failure at this point that the World Bank certainly couldn’t hurt its reputation. And maybe, just maybe, it might be able to revive the entire operation.


By: Stefan Hostetter

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