Skip to main content
Printable page generated Wednesday, 27 September 2023, 10:32 AM
Use 'Print preview' to check the number of pages and printer settings.
Print functionality varies between browsers.
Unless otherwise stated, copyright © 2023 The Open University, all rights reserved.
Printable page generated Wednesday, 27 September 2023, 10:32 AM

Climate Change and Sustainability


It is now universally recognised that human-induced climate change could have major adverse consequences for the world’s ecosystems and societies. Climate change is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, which trap long-wave radiation in the upper atmosphere and consequently raise atmospheric temperatures. This also produces other changes in the climate system. Carbon dioxide is the most important of these gases and its atmospheric concentration has increased exponentially since the beginning of the industrial revolution as a result of fossil fuel combustion and land-use change. In 1800, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was about 280 parts per million; today it is about 350 ppm and rising. Similar increases have been observed for other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Most ‘solutions’ to combating the effects of climate change usually focus on restricting emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. However, such policies intended to tackle climate change through restrictions on greenhouse gases are almost certainly not sustainable – they bear significant costs and have minimal impact on the climate and will most certainly bring about poverty, making it more difficult for the poor to adapt to climate change. Meanwhile, foreign aid to poorer countries targeted at technological adaptation is unlikely to do anything to prevent problems in the future and may even be counterproductive.

Indeed, attempting to control climate change through global regulation of emissions alone will not work or could be counterproductive. Sustainable development is the way forward and can only be led by government and come through the adoption of institutions which enable people to engage in activities that generate wealth and lead to technological progress and innovation.

This introduction explains what sustainable development is and considers the connections between climate change, poverty and vulnerability. It also looks at the linkages between climate change and other kinds of environmental change.

Unit authored by Mo Telford

Learning outcomes

By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  • build a basic understanding of sustainable development;

  • gain a basic understanding of the links between climate change, poverty and vulnerability;

  • gain a general understanding of the linkages between climate change and other kinds of environmental change.

1 Sustainable development

1.1 Consumption patterns and the environment

The past 20 years have seen a growing realisation that the current model of development is not sustainable and that we are living beyond our means. From the loss of biodiversity with the felling of rainforests, or overfishing to the negative effect our consumption patterns are having on the environment and the climate, our way of life is placing an increasing burden on the planet. The increasing stress we put on resources and environmental systems such as water, land and air cannot go on indefinitely, especially as the world's population continues to increase. This is not sustainable.

The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations.

Unless we start to make real progress toward reconciling these contradictions we face a future that is less certain and less secure. We need to make a decisive move toward more sustainable development. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in our own long-term best interests. It offers the best hope for the future. Whether at school, in the home or at work, we all have a part to play. Our small everyday actions add up to make a big difference.

Activity 1

Explore the UK government’s view of sustainable development at the website of its Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

1.2 Defining sustainable development

The Brundtland Report, also known as ‘Our common future’, alerted the world in 1987 to the urgency of making progress toward economic development that could be sustained without depleting natural resources or harming the environment.

Published by an international group of politicians, civil servants and experts on the environment and development, the report provided a key statement on sustainable development, defining it as:

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Brundtland Report was primarily concerned with securing a global equity, redistributing resources towards poorer nations and at the same time encouraging their economic growth. The report argued that equity, growth and environmental maintenance are simultaneously possible and that each country is capable of achieving its full economic potential whilst at the same time enhancing its resource base.

The report also recognised that achieving this equity and sustainable growth would require technological and social change. The report was instrumental in the forming of the first Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.

You can find the Brundtland Report at the Center for a Word in Balance website.

A simple summary can be found at the Atmosphere, Climate & Environment website (supported by Defra).

The Forum for the Future (a charity committed to sustainable development) defines sustainable development as:

‘sustainable development’ is a dynamic process, which enables all people to realise their potential and improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life-support systems.

The Sustainability Practitioners Association argues that sustainability offers an alternative vision for the future – one that recognises environmental, economic, social and cultural elements of our society, the need for a long-term view in decision-making and the collective responsibility we all have toward leaving a bright and prosperous legacy for future generations. Their website discusses sustainability and provides a discussion of what is happening internationally.

The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives is an association of over 1000 local governments from 67 countries that are committed to sustainable development.

1.3 Sustainability and climate change, biodiversity and poverty

Climate change and sustainable development is explored by the Sustainable Development Network. The Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and Ecosystems Committee Newsletter reviews diverse legal and policy issues related to climate change reflecting the range and complexity of the intersections between climate change, sustainable development and ecosystems.

Biodiversity and sustainable development is explored in the following papers from Green Facts (a non-profit organisation that aims to bring complex scientific consensus reports on health and the environment to the reach of non-specialists):

Green Facts – Biodiversity: what is it, where is it, and why is it important?

Green Facts – Why is biodiversity loss a concern?

Green Facts – What factors lead to biodiversity loss?

Other web-based sources:

UK government report from Defra – ‘Targeted monitoring of air pollution and climate change impacts on biodiversity – Final Report’

European Environment Agency’s report on ‘Biodiversity loss and climate change: the need for an ecosystem approach’

The European Commission GREENSENSE project considered the impacts of air pollution, climate change, biodiversity, resource depletion, toxic substances, urban environmental problems, waste and water pollution.

Climate change and poverty are explored in the following papers:

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation explores the impact of climate change on poverty in the UK in its paper ‘Climate change and poverty’. The Climate Change and Poverty Programme supports the development of socially just responses to climate change in the UK.

This briefing paper by the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Poverty and Vulnerability Programme explores the question ‘What is the connection between scale and food system scenarios?’

The Climate Change Knowledge Network paper ‘Vulnerability and adaptation to climate change’ also considers the relationships between poverty, vulnerability and climate change.

Finally, a good website to visit for information on this topic is Global Environmental Change and Human Security (GECHS).

2 Climate change, climate justice and future generations

2.1 What is climate justice?

Global warming is an issue of human rights and environmental justice. With rising temperatures, human lives, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, are increasingly affected by poor health, financial burdens and social, cultural and environmental disruptions.

These communities are the first to experience the negative impacts of global warming, such as poor air quality, heat-related illness and death, respiratory illness, infectious diseases, unaffordable or unsustainable rises in energy costs, and extreme natural disasters (e.g. erratic floods, hurricanes, mud-slides and so on).

Undoubtedly, they bear disproportionate burdens from the impact of climate change and from ill-designed government policies to prevent climate change and the side effects of the energy systems that cause it. Critically, those who are most affected are generally the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Climate justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change. As a form of environmental justice, climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination.


Climate justice can be explored through these web-based resources:

The website of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, USA, provides a discussion of what climate justice is from an American as well as from a global perspective.

An article entitled ‘Climate justice and equity’ by Anup Shah, January 2008, can be found on the Global Issues website.

An article entitled ‘Africa: Climate justice – turning up the heat’ by Collins Cheruiyot, June 2009, can be found at

The questions ‘What is climate justice?’ and ‘Who is climate change affecting the most?’ are posed and answered at EarthBlips.

Details of the charity CAFOD Climate Justice Campaign can be found on the CAFOD website.

‘Mobilization for Climate Justice’, a North American grassroots resistance to the UNFCCC corporate climate agenda says:

The Mobilization for Climate Justice is a North America-based network of organizations and activists who have joined together to build a North American climate justice movement that emphasizes non-violent direct action and public education to mobilize for effective and just solutions to the climate crisis.


A report entitled ‘Climate change and human rights’ is available from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission of Australia website.

Various media and press releases about climate justice from around the world can be found on the Climate Justice website:

The Climate Justice Project is a student-led campaign advocating Contraction & Convergence – an international framework for reducing global carbon emissions; we believe that it is the fairest and most effective solution for curbing climate chaos.



The links (URLs) to third party sites in these units are provided for ease of access only and The Open University does not authorise any acts which may breach any third party rights, including copyright. You should abide by any terms and conditions on any third party sites which you visit from this site. The Open University does not guarantee the accuracy of any linked materials, nor does the Open University endorse any products which may be advertised on third party sites. Please see Terms and Conditions.


Unit authored by Mo Telford

Unit image: Getty photodisc


All links accessed 27 November 2009.