What is Sustainable Development?

Sustainable development means the well-being of people within the limits of Earth's carrying capacity. This is typically illustrated with the doughnut model of sustainability developed by economist Kate Raworth. In the sustainability doughnut, the green zone represents an area in which human well-being is realised within the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity.

The picture contains a round “doughnut model” with different layers. The exterior of the doughnut describes issues related to the carrying capacity of the environment, i.e. ecological boundary conditions. In the centre, there are issues related to social well-being, such as health and education. The space between the centre and the outside is a reflection of the interface where people are doing well within the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity.
                   Original picture: Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics. Editing: Prime Minister's Office.

Social issues that affect people’s well-being are located in the centre of the doughnut. These include education, employment and health. When talking about sustainable development, we often mean social sustainability, and issues in the centre of the doughnut are key questions of social sustainability. Without them, people cannot be well. Issues in the centre of the doughnut are also referred to as the social foundation.

On the outer edge of the doughnut are issues that relate to Earth’s carrying capacity. They include biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and the state of the oceans. Environmental load caused by humans currently exceeds the limits of Earth’s capacity in many areas, with significant impacts on human well-being. Sustainable development often includes environmental sustainability, and the issues in the outer edge of the doughnut are key questions of environmental sustainability. Issues on the outer edge are also referred to as ecological ceilings (as a counterpart to the centre’s social foundations).

In sustainable development thinking, the economy has an enabling role. In the doughnut, the economy is located at the bottom of the green ring. The economy enables the society and services to function. In this way, a social foundation necessitates a functioning economy. However, the economy uses natural resources and places load on the environment. Minimising environmental load caused by economic activity is essential to sustainable development. How and what we produce and consume has a big impact on sustainable development.

In the context of sustainable development, we often talk about the three dimensions of sustainability: social, environmental and economic. The sustainability doughnut illustrates their relationship with one another.

A key concept in sustainable development is interdependence. Interdependence means that issues relating to social foundations, economy activity and environmental load are linked in many different ways. For example, creating new jobs strengthens the social foundation and human well-being but from the environment’s point of view, it is not insignificant which sectors the new jobs are created in. For the environment, the best sectors for new jobs are those which do not add to the burden on the environment. Another example is food production, which is vital to human well-being and a significant employer. At the same time, food production involves important environmental questions that must be taken into consideration when looking at food production and consumption as a whole.