Top 4 Challenges to Sustainable Development

Since the inception of the sustainable development goals, the United Nations has faced some challenges to sustainable development. In this article, we take a look at the four major challenges to sustainable development.

The United Nations’ overriding paradigm is sustainable development. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was founded on the concept of sustainable development. The summit was the first attempt at a global level to formulate action plans and strategies for moving toward a more sustainable growth pattern.

Over 100 heads of state and delegates from 178 countries were in attendance. Representatives from a variety of different civil society organizations were also present at the Summit. The Brundtland Commission, in its 1987 report Our Common Future, proposed sustainable development as a solution to the challenges of environmental deterioration.

The Brundtland Report’s mission was to look into some concerns that had been voiced in earlier decades, especially, that human activity was having serious and detrimental effects on the earth, and that unregulated growth and development patterns would be unsustainable.

In 1972, during the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the concept of sustainable development earned its first substantial international acknowledgment. Although the term was not used directly, the world community agreed on the concept – now central to sustainable development – that both development and the environment, which had previously been seen as separate issues, could be managed in a mutually beneficial manner.

The term was popularized 15 years later in the World Commission on Environment and Development’s report, Our Common Future, which included the ‘classic’ definition of sustainable development: “development that meets present needs without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.”

Key world leaders did not recognize sustainable development as a major concern until the Rio Summit, which took place in 1992. In 2002, 191 national governments, UN agencies, international financial institutions, and other important groups gathered in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development to examine progress since Rio.

Three major outputs emerged from the Johannesburg Summit: a political declaration, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and some collaboration activities. Sustainable consumption and production, water and sanitation, and energy were among the key commitments.

The General Assembly established a 30-member  Open Working Group in 2013 to draft a proposal on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN General Assembly began negotiating the  post-2015 development agenda in January 2015. The process culminated in the subsequent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 SDGs at its core, at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015.

With the passage of numerous significant agreements, 2015 was a watershed moment for multilateralism and international policymaking:

At the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, the process concluded with the approval of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 SDGs.

Before we go into the subject matter-Challenges to Sustainable Development, let’s define the term, Sustainable Development.

What is Sustainable Development?

“Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The concept of sustainable development can be understood in a variety of ways, but at its heart, it is a method of development that seeks to balance many, often conflicting needs against an understanding of our society’s environmental, social, and economic constraints.

What is the difference between sustainable development and sustainability, one could wonder? Sustainability is frequently conceived of as a long-term objective (i.e., a more sustainable world), whereas sustainable development refers to the various procedures and pathways that might be used to attain it (e.g. sustainable agriculture and forestry, sustainable production and consumption, good government, research and technology transfer, education and training, etc.).

Imagine a world, 50 years from now. What do you see with our current misuse of resources? Let me break the silence, it’s going to be a world where our climate has been destroyed, and most of our biodiversity hotspots have been eliminated leading to massive loss of biodiversity and extinction.

We would also find out that our water (both surface and groundwater), land, and air have been adversely polluted. It’s not a world we dream of surviving in.

All too often, development is driven by a single need, without taking into account the broader or longer-term consequences. We are already experiencing the consequences of this strategy, from large-scale financial crises produced by irresponsible banking to global climatic problems induced by our reliance on fossil fuel-based energy sources.

The 17 SDGs are interconnected, recognizing that actions in one area have an impact on outcomes in others and that development must strike a balance between social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The 17 sustainable development goals include

The 17 SDGs are:

The four objectives of sustainable development are:

  • Stable economic growth – The elimination of poverty and hunger as a means of assuring a healthy lifestyle.
  • Natural resource conservation – Ensure widespread access to basic amenities such as water, sanitation, and renewable energy.
  • Social growth and equality – Reduce global inequities, particularly those between men and women. Providing chances for the next generation through inclusive education and good work. Create communities and cities that are capable of generating and consuming sustainably to foster innovation and resilient infrastructures.
  • Environmental protectionEntails combatting climate change and safeguarding maritime and land ecosystems.

Why is Sustainable Development Important?

Sustainable development is a difficult topic to define since it encompasses so many factors, but the people are the primary driver of sustainable development initiatives. So, we can see why sustainable development is important through these:

  • Provides Essential Human Needs
  • Agricultural Requirement
  • Manage Climate Change
  • Economic Stability
  • Sustain Biodiversity

1. Provides Essential Human Needs

People will have to compete for limited life necessities such as food, shelter, and water as a result of the population expansion. Adequate provision of these fundamental necessities is nearly entirely dependent on infrastructure that can support them for an extended period.

2. Agricultural Requirement

Agriculture must keep up with the expanding population. It’s difficult to imagine how to feed more than 3 billion people. If the same unsustainable cultivation, planting, irrigation, spraying, and harvesting procedures are used in the future, they may prove to be financially burdensome, given the expected depletion of fossil fuel resources.

Sustainable development focuses on agricultural strategies that generate high yields while protecting the integrity of the soil, which provides food for a large population, such as effective seeding techniques and crop rotation.

3. Manage Climate Change

Sustainable development techniques can help to minimize climate change. The goal of sustainable development is to limit the usage of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal. Fossil fuel energy sources are unsustainable since they will dwindle in the future and are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Economic Stability

Sustainable development strategies have the potential to help economies around the world become more financially stable. Developing countries without access to fossil fuels can power their economy with renewable energy sources. These countries can create long-term jobs through the development of renewable energy technology, as opposed to finite jobs based on fossil fuel technologies.

5. Sustain Biodiversity

Biodiversity is heavily impacted by unsustainable development and overconsumption. The ecology of life is set up in such a way that species rely on one another for survival. Plants, for example, create the oxygen required for human breathing.

Plants need carbon dioxide for growth and production, which humans exhale. Unsustainable development methods, such as the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, resulting in the extinction of many plant species and a loss in atmospheric oxygen.

Challenges to Sustainable Development

In the new millennium, significant progress has been made toward achieving global development goals. Poverty was falling in all parts of the world, at least until the global financial crisis hit, thanks to strong economic growth in developing and rising economies.

As a result, the Millennium Development Goals’ first goal of halving the worldwide proportion of people living in extreme poverty has already been achieved. The global financial crisis exposed the fragility of progress, and accelerating environmental degradation imposes increasing costs on communities.

Deeper globalization, persistent inequalities, demographic diversity, and environmental degradation are among the economic, social, technical, demographic, and environmental challenges to sustainable development that have to be dealt with.

Business as usual is therefore not an option, and sustainable development will require transformative change at the local, national and global levels. Below are some of the challenges to sustainable development being faced globally.

  • A Deeper Globalization 
  • Persistent Inequalities
  • Changes in Population
  • Environmental Degradation

1. A Deeper Globalization

Globalization is not a recent occurrence. In terms of trade volume, today’s globalization is not unprecedented, but it is qualitatively different. Rather than shallow integration, which is defined by trade in goods and services between independent corporations and portfolio investments, this new phase of globalization has brought deep integration, which is organized by transnational corporations that connect the production of goods and services in cross-border value-adding.

However, because key research and development activities are rarely outsourced and are predominantly concentrated at corporate headquarters in industrialized countries, only a few countries have entered this market in recent decades.

Global production shifts are reflected in shifting global trade patterns. Overall trade has increased at a considerably higher rate than world GDP, and emerging nations have been able to diversify and increase the export of manufactured goods in addition to expanding their share of global trade.

Diversification is mostly limited to Asia’s growing and emerging economies, whereas traditional trade patterns based on commodity exports and imports of manufactured and capital goods predominate in Africa and, to a lesser extent, Latin America.

China’s ascent has aided this tendency, both directly and indirectly, by contributing to high commodity prices, particularly for oil and minerals, due to China’s strong demand for commodities and conventional sectoral patterns indicated by expanding South-South.

The breakdown of manufacturing, which has accelerated since the millennium, may also be seen in the rapid growth of intermediate products trade. As a result, as lead firms react to changes in demand and pass shocks on to their downstream suppliers more swiftly, the income elasticity of trade has grown, further increasing interconnectedness in the global economy.

However, trade flows have slowly recovered since their collapse during the 2008 and 2009 financial crises, and trade expansion is projected to remain much slower than before the crisis, signaling a probable weakening of trade globalization. This has made it one of the top challenges to sustainable development.

2. Persistent Inequalities

Persistent inequalities are one of the challenges to sustainable development. Income disparity is merely one of the most obvious, facets of persistent inequities that occur with country variability. While worldwide economic inequality has significantly decreased in recent years, inequalities inside several countries have increased.

These trends are complicated and are influenced by a variety of causes, many of which are structural and country-specific, and they are closely tied to social, environmental, and political inequality. Globalization, on the other hand, has significant direct and indirect effects on inequality. These inequities endanger sustainable development prospects in a variety of ways if they are not addressed.

Global income disparity has been reducing in recent years, albeit to a relatively modest degree and from a very high level, due to the convergence of mean incomes of developing and established nations. After the large global income disparities that began with the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, location, not socioeconomic status or class, continues to account for the vast majority of overall income inequality.

Differences in income across nations account for more than two-thirds of global inequality, while distribution patterns within countries account for barely one-third.

3. Changes in the Population

Changes in the population are one of the top challenges to sustainable development. The global population hit 7 billion in 2011 and is expected to continue to expand, albeit at a slower rate, to 9 billion by 2050. Aside from global population growth, demographic development is marked by variation, as countries are at various phases of demographic transition.

While global population growth is slowing, it is still significant in some developing nations, and while the global population is quickly aging, some countries are seeing an increase in the proportion of young people in their overall population. As a result of this diversity, as well as persistent disparities, migration pressures arise both inside countries and globally.

These demographic trends will pose significant challenges to future development strategies at all levels: local development will be shaped by increased urbanization, national development strategies will need to adapt to changing demographic structures, and global migratory pressures will need to be addressed.

4. Environmental Degradation

Over the previous ten thousand years, an extraordinarily stable global climate has been the precondition for tremendous human progress; nevertheless, this stability is now threatened by human activities. Most importantly, as a result of fast population and economic growth, energy consumption has surged, resulting in unprecedented levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and anthropogenic climate change.

A state shift in the Earth’s biosphere is likely if greenhouse gas emissions, global population growth (millions), resource consumption, and habitat transformation continue at or above current rates, irreversibly changing the environmental conditions that have favored human development in recent millennia.

Human activity’s environmental impact and the looming sustainability issue it offers are inextricably linked to the megatrends listed above. It’s helpful to apply the ImPACT identity, which connects demographic, socioeconomic, and technical developments to their environmental impact, to dissect their total consequences and throw more light on the various interconnections.

ImPACT states that the total population product (P), world product per person or affluence (A), the intensity of GDP usage or consumption patterns (C), and producer efficiency indicated by technology (T) all work together to assess the overall environmental impact (Im).

These forces interact with one another in a variety of ways. Population dynamics have an impact on per capita income, and income levels have an impact on consumption habits and production efficiency, as well as the environment.

There is also substantial evidence that there are tipping thresholds for ocean acidification, the phosphorus cycle, and stratospheric ozone depletion, whereas the effects of environmental degradation may be limited to local and regional ecosystems in other regions.

The reliance on fossil fuels to power economic expansion, as well as industrialized types of agriculture, are driving these changes. These changes are required to feed a growing and increasingly rich global population. This has made it one of the top challenges to sustainable development.


In conclusion, the challenges to sustainable development cut across the key areas of human existence, and to tackle these challenges to sustainable development, all areas including political, economic, environmental, and even family must be on deck.

Challenges to Sustainable Development – FAQs

What are the Challenges to Sustainable Development in Africa?

The challenges to sustainable development in Africa include; extreme poverty, rapid population growth rate, rapid urbanization, deforestation, the environmental impact of extractive industries, rate of economic growth, increased insecurity, political turmoil, and the unwillingness of the government to build a sustainable country.


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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo to educate the public on the environment and her concerns.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.

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