IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

20.4 Implications for environmental quality

The inseparability of environment and development has been widely recognised ever since the Brundtland Commission (WCED, 1987). In the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for example, environmental considerations are reflected in the 7th goal and the operative target, among others, is to reverse loss of environmental resources by 2015. Overall, how to meet the target of integrating the principles of sustainable development in national policy and reversing the loss of environmental resources remains a partially answered question for most countries (Kates et al., 2005).

Interest in environmental indicators and performance indices to monitor change has increased recently. A compilation of different sustainable development indicators by Kates et al. (2005) showed that most implicitly or explicitly build from reflections of the health of environmental and ecological resources and/or the quality of environmental and ecological services. This is relevant in both developed and developing countries, but the drivers encouraging sustainable management are arguably strongest in the developed world. Huq and Reid (2004) and Agrawala (2004) have noted, though, that climate change is being increasingly recognised as a key factor that could affect the (sustainable) development of developed and developing countries alike. The Philippine Country Report (1999) identified 153 sustainable development indicators; some pertain to climate-change variables such as level of greenhouse gas emissions, but none refer explicitly to adaptation. There is, for example, no mention within the MDGs of potential changes in climate-related disasters or of the need to include climate-change adaptation within development programmes (Reid and Alam, 2005). This is not unusual, because links between sustainable development and climate change have historically been defined primarily in terms of mitigation.

Promoting environmental quality is about more than encouraging sustainable development or adaptive capacity. It is also about transforming use practices for environmental resources into sustainable management practices. In many countries and sectors, stakeholders who manage natural resources (such as individual farmers, small businesses or major international corporations) are susceptible, over time, to variations in resource availability and hazards; they are currently seeking to revise management practices to make their actions more sustainable. Hilson (2001), for example, describes efforts in the mineral extraction industry where the relevant players include public agencies operating at many scales (from local to national to international). Definitions of sustainability vary across sectors, but their common theme is to change the way resources are exploited or hazards are managed so that adverse impacts downstream or for subsequent generations are reduced. Climate change is, however, seldom listed among the stressors that might influence sustainability. Arnell and Delaney (2006) note, though, that water management in the United Kingdom is an exception.

Published literature on the links between sustainable management of natural resources and the impacts of and adaptation to climate change is extremely sparse. Most focuses on engineering and management techniques which achieve management objectives, such as a degree of protection against flood hazard or a volume of crop production, while having smaller impacts on the environment. Turner (2004) and Harman et al. (2002) speak to this point, but very few engineering analyses consider explicitly how the performance of these measures is affected by climate change or how suitable they would be in the face of a changing climate. Kundzewicz (2002) demonstrated how non-structural flood management measures can be sustainable adaptations to climate change because they are relatively robust to uncertainty. On the other hand, as shown in Clark (2002) and Kashyap (2004), much of the literature on integrated water management in the broadest sense emphasises adaptation to climatic variability and change through the adoption of sustainable and integrated approaches.

Several studies have highlighted the benefits of adopting more sustainable practices, in terms of reduced costs, increased efficiency or financial performance more broadly interpreted. Johnson and Walck (2004) offer an example from forestry while Epstein and Roy (2003) are illustrative of a more expansive context. None of these studies explicitly consider the effects of climate change on the benefits of adopting more sustainable practices; and none of the literature on mechanisms for incorporating sustainable behaviour into organisational practice and monitoring its implementation (e.g., Jasch, 2003; Figge and Hahn, 2004) consider how to incorporate the effects of climate change into mechanisms or monitoring procedures.

Clark (2002) and Bansal (2005) identified several drivers behind moves to become more sustainable. First, altered legal or regulatory requirements may have an effect. Many governments have adopted legislation aimed at encouraging the sustainable use of the natural environment, and some explicitly include reference to climate change. For example, Canada and some EU member states have begun to incorporate climate change in their environmental policies, particularly in the structures of required environmental impact assessments. The hope is that the impact of present and future climates on development projects might thereby be reduced (EEA, 2006; Barrow and Lee, 2000). Ramus (2002) and Thomas et al. (2004) have observed that internally-generated efforts to improve procedures (e.g., following an ethical position held by an influential champion, responding to the desire to reduce costs or risks, or attempting to attract potential clients) can push systems toward sustainability.

Of course, stakeholder expectations may change over time. While these dynamic drivers may encourage sustainable management, they may not in themselves be directly related to concerns over the impacts of and adaptation to climate change. Kates et al. (2005) noted that the principles, goals and practices of sustainability are not fixed and immutable; they are ‘works in progress’ because the tension between economic development and environmental protection has been opened to reinterpretation from different social and ecological perspectives.