Sustainable Development as a Framework for National Governance

103 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2008 Last revised: 23 Jul 2015

See all articles by John C. Dernbach

John C. Dernbach

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School

Date Written: February 25, 2011


At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, the nations of the world committed themselves to an ambitious plan for achieving sustainable development (Agenda 21) and a set of principles to guide that effort (Rio Declaration). This Article addresses the meaning of sustainable development in three ways. First, it synthesizes Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration, and other texts into a conceptual framework for national governance. While these texts address international governance, they focus more on national governance. No such exposition of the sustainable development framework appears in the literature. Second, this Article argues that sustainable development provides a powerful and attractive set of tools for reinvigorating national governance. It would make governance more economically efficient, more socially productive and more environmentally protective. As a framework for governance, sustainable development also provides a response to many current trends that undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of national governments in general, particularly globalization of the economy and the free market ideology that has become more prevalent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Indeed, sustainable development provides an alternative to that ideology. Finally, the Article identifies unresolved issues in the sustainable development framework. These include the comparative responsibilities of developed and developing countries, high consumption of materials and energy by developed countries, the role of international trade, and the substantial commitment most governments already have made to unsustainable economic activities. Much of the framework's value is in the important issues it forces us to confront.

Keywords: sustainable development, Agenda 21, Rio Declaration, UN Conference on Environment and Development, Earth Summit, integrated decision making, precautionary approach, precautionary principle, intergenerational equity, polluter-pays principle, subsidiarity, public participation, environmental law

JEL Classification: K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Dernbach, John C., Sustainable Development as a Framework for National Governance (February 25, 2011). Case Western Reserve Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, 1998, Available at SSRN:

John C. Dernbach (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

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