Climate Change 2001:
Working Group III: Mitigation
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10.3.2 Development Choices and the Potential for Synergy

Chapter 1 provides a concise overview of sustainable development as a context for climate change mitigation policy. As argued there, the concept of sustainable development defies objective interpretation or operational implementation. However, it is precisely the diversity of interpretations that “makes up the biggest advantage of the concept: it is sufficiently rich and flexible to refract the full diversity of human interests, values and aspirations” (Raskin et al., 1998). So nearly everyone can agree that sustainable development is a good thing, and consensus has become possible over broad policy areas in which previously people could not agree. Or, in the words of O’Riordan (1993), “sustainable development may be a chimera. It may mark all kinds of contradictions. It may be ambiguously interpreted by all manners of people for all manners of reasons. But as an ideal it is nowadays as persistent a political concept as are democracy, justice and liberty.”

Now, sustainability is perceived as an irreducible, holistic concept in which economic, social, and environmental issues are interdependent dimensions that must be approached in a unified framework. However, the interpretation and valuation of these dimensions give rise to a diversity of approaches. Different disciplines have their own conceptual framework, which translates into different variables, different pathways, and different normative judgements. Economists stress the goal to maximize the net welfare of economic activities, while maintaining or increasing the stock of economic, ecological, and sociocultural assets over time. The social approach tends to highlight questions of inequality and poverty reduction, and environmentalists the questions of natural resource management and ecosystems’ resilience (Rotmans, 1997). Apart from the weight placed on each of the critical dimensions, the important conclusion from this ongoing debate is that achieving sustainable economic development, conserving environmental resources, and alleviating poverty and economic injustice are compatible and mutually reinforcing goals in many circumstances.

While the overall literature on sustainable development is very large, the literature that focuses on concrete policies to make operational the concept of sustainable development is, however, much smaller. This asymmetric coverage of the guidance and the operational principles for managing a sustainable development path constitutes a non-negligible barrier to an effective decision-making process, since policymakers lack concise and relevant information that would allow them to assess alternative development choices.

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