What is ecologically sustainable development?

Ecologically sustainable development (ESD) is an important concept in environmental law

ESD is a long-standing and internationally recognised concept. The concept has been affirmed by the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development and has been included in over 60 pieces of NSW legislation. Australia's National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (1992) defines ecologically sustainable development as: 'using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased.' ESD is also defined in the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 (NSW) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), and is referred to in many other environmental laws.

ESD requires the effective integration of economic, environmental, social and equity considerations in decision-making processes. ESD aims to provide for the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 (NSW) defines the principles of ESD:

The precautionary principle

If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. Public and private decisions should be guided by careful evaluation to avoid serious or irreversible damage to the environment wherever practicable, and an assessment of the risk-weighted consequences of various options.

Inter-generational equity

The present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment are maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations,

Conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity

Conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity should be a fundamental consideration in environmental planning and decision-making processes. Biodiversity refers to the variety of all life. Environmental and species impact statements are one way that this principle is enacted.

Improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms

Environmental factors should be included in the valuation of assets and services, such as:

  • polluter pays – those who generate pollution and waste should bear the cost of containment, avoidance or abatement,
  • the users of goods and services should pay prices based on the full life cycle of costs of providing goods and services, including the use of natural resources and assets and the ultimate disposal of any waste,
  • environmental goals, having been established, should be pursued in the most cost effective way, by establishing incentive structures, including market mechanisms, that enable those best placed to maximise benefits or minimise costs to develop their own solutions and responses to environmental problems.

These principles are implemented at the State level through a number of decision-making processes, including the regulation of pollution, and development assessment and approval regimes.

For more information about how the principles of ESD are implemented at the national level, visit the Australian Environment Department.


This project has been assisted by the New South Wales Government through its Environmental Trust.


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