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Publications archive - Ecologically Sustainable Development


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

An Overview of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development

December 1992

What is ESD ?

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development, in a report titled Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report), recognised that sustainable development meant adopting lifestyles within the planet's means. The report also clearly identified that the current patterns of economic growth could not be sustained without significant changes in attitudes and actions. Australia's response has been to adopt and further refine the concept of sustainable development, taking into account our unique natural environment, the aspirations and values of the Australian people and the prevailing patterns of economic production and consumption. The result is Ecologically Sustainable Development - ESD.

Put simply, ESD means using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained and quality of life for both present and future generations is increased. It requires changes in the nature of production and consumption so that they can better satisfy human needs while using fewer raw materials and producing less waste. The key to ESD is integrating environment and development considerations in decision-making.

Development of the National Strategy

In 1989 the Australian Government released a public discussion on a proposal to develop a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD). The process was extensive and, over a period of two years from 1990 to the end of 1992, involved consultation and negotiations between key interest groups from industry, the community, conservation groups, scientific organisations and all levels of government.

Working Groups in nine key areas were established:

Each Working Group developed a comprehensive report which fed into the National Strategy. Intersectoral issues, such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, urban development, employment, economic diversity and resilience and international considerations, were the subject of a special report by the chairs of each of the Working Groups. The intersectoral report also provided a basis for the National Strategy.

Australia's three tiers of Government, Commonwealth (Federal), State and Local, adopted the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in December 1992 at a meeting of the Heads of Government of each jurisdiction.

The ESD Principles

The 1990 Discussion Paper defined five key principles of ESD.

These principles were adopted in the National Strategy and each of the 33 chapters identifies the Goal, Strategic Approach and Objectives adopted to ensure the application of the principles to the sectors and inter-sectoral issues covered by the Working Groups.

Links to International Action

From 1990 to 1992 the United Nations was developing its own global action plan for sustainable development. This plan, Agenda 21, was adopted at a Heads of Government Conference - The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also called the "Earth Summit" - in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The Conference also saw the signing of two new global Conventions, on Climate Change and Conservation of Biological Diversity and the adoption of a Declaration on the principles of sustainable development.("The Rio Declaration")

Agenda 21 sets out actions that nations, communities and international organisations can all take to contribute the goal of global sustainability in the twenty-first century. The Conference also lead to the establishment of a new UN organisation, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) which meets annually to review progress in the implementation of Agenda 21.

The links between Australia's National Strategy for ESD and Agenda 21 are clear. Each seeks to provide a framework for the development of environmentally sound and ecologically sustainable decision-making at all levels. While Agenda 21 takes a global perspective, it is also very much focused on the actions that individual governments need to take in order to ensure that development is sustainable. The two plans are seen as entirely compatible and complementary, and Australia's commitment to, and implementation of, its own National Strategy fulfils the obligation it entered into in Rio De Janeiro to implement Agenda 21.


At the national level, implementation of the National Strategy for ESD has involved the development of a range of detailed policies, usually through mechanisms similar to those used to develop the National Strategy itself. For example, A National Greenhouse Response Strategy was developed in parallel with the ESD Strategy and also adopted by all levels of government in December 1992. National level strategies or ESD consistent policies now exist for Forests, Waste Management and (currently in draft form) Biodiversity and a draft National Strategy on Rangelands Management is being prepared.

Each level of Government, and each individual jurisdiction, has responded to the recommendations of the National Strategy for ESD according to its own needs and priorities. For example, the Commonwealth Government has taken measures to ensure that ESD principles - such as the precautionary principle, intergenerational equity and the conservation of biodiversity - are taken into account in its own decision-making processes. Legislation and government programs increasingly stress ESD objectives and principles. The Australian International Development Assistance Program - which delivers Australia's Official Development Assistance - is also guided by ESD principles.

At the State and Local Government levels, planning and development legislation increasingly reflects a commitment to ESD and the National Strategies. With some Commonwealth Government assistance and support, but largely from within their own resources, these governments are tackling issues such as waste minimisation and cleaner production, land use and transport planning and natural resource management against a background of the national strategies.


Monitoring and reporting are key elements in ensuring implementation. The National Strategy for ESD, along with the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, is the subject of continuing dialogue between the three levels of government. An Intergovernmental Committee on ESD (ICESD) monitors implementation and reports to Heads of Government. The ICESD will conduct a review of the National Strategy during 1995. A National ESD/Greenhouse Roundtable, involving peak industry, conservation and community groups was also convened in June 1994 to examine progress with implementation. The system of annual national reporting to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) is also considered an important element in monitoring progress.

Current priorities

Apart from the implementation of the agreed strategies, current priorities include the development of intergovernmental cooperation and coordinated policies for the sustainable management of Australia's extensive coastal zone, the establishment of a comprehensive system of State of the Environment reporting, greater use of economic measures and instruments in environmental policy and finalisation of a national rangelands strategy.