The green economy versus sustainable development

Concept of Sustainable Development

The main components of sustainable development are generally agreed to be economic, environmental and social.


International policy milestones

“The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

These 17 Goals build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals, while including new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities. The goals are interconnected – often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another.

The SDGs work in the spirit of partnership and pragmatism to make the right choices now to improve life, in a sustainable way, for future generations. They provide clear guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental challenges of the world at large. The SDGs are an inclusive agenda. They tackle the root causes of poverty and unite us together to make a positive change for both people and planet.” – United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Critique of Sustainable Development

Dawe and Ryan (2003) highlight a weakness in considering all three components (economic, environmental and social) as equivalent, as it implies compromise can be achieved between economic needs, human well-being and the environment. Whereas in reality, humanity can have neither an economy nor social well-being without the environment. The environment should therefore be viewed as the foundation when developing the economy and working to improve human well-being.

In practice, a Sustainable Development approach means that trade offs between social, economic and environmental concerns are inevitable (Morrow, 2012).


I agree with Dawe and Ryan (2003) that the environment is the source of both the economy and human well-being and should therefore be viewed as more significant than the others. This has profound implications for the kind of economy that is required in the future.

However, the concept of sustainable development has been more successful in gaining traction with nation states and continues to be the overarching policy goal of the international community. The green economy is widely seen as a means of supporting its achievement (Allen and Clouth, 2012), or as an enabling component of it (UNCTAD, 2010).

However, as noted by IUCN (2010), the concept of the green economy often carries a more distinctive meaning, which focuses specifically on the fundamental changes that are required to ensure that economic systems are made more sustainable. Similarly, for the Green Economy Coalition (2012), the green economy is about a different way of doing things.

Given that sustainable development is a well-established concept, it is worthwhile nuturing, but there still remains a need for a more far-reaching goal of establishing a true global green economy and in this respect there is a need to galvanise further action whilst continuing to support sustainable development goals.

References and further reading

Newton, A. C. and Cantarello, E. 2014. An Introduction to the Green Economy. Science, systems and sustainability, Earthscan, London.

Dawe, N. K. and Ryan, K. L. 2003. The faulty three-legged-stool model of sustainable development. Conservation Biology, 17: 1458-1460

Morrow, K. 2012. Rio+20, the green economy and re-orienting sustainable development. Environmental Law Review, 14: 279-297

Allen, C. and Clouth, S. 2012. A Guidebook to the Green Economy. Issue 1: Green Economy, Green Growth and Low Carbon Development: History, Definitions and a Guide to Recent PublicationsUN Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), New York.

UNCTAD 2010. The Green Economy: Trade and Sustainable Development Implications. Background Note Prepared by the UNCTAD SecretariatUnited Nations, New York

IUCN 2010. A Guidebook for IUCN’s Thematic Programme Area on Greening the World Economy (TPA5)IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.