Sustainable development: weasel words or the heart of policy making…

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe will publish twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs.  This post considers whether the Parliament has taken up the sustainable development role that some hoped it would 2 decades ago. It is based on a piece originally written by Ishani Erasmus, a PhD researcher, embedded in the Scottish Parliament to make change and analyze it.

Back in 1999, as the Parliament was being reconvened, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar received a report from his Advisory Group on Sustainable Development, outlining 10 Action Points for the Scottish Parliament.  It recommended that:

‘Priority should be given by the Parliament to put sustainable development at the heart of its policy making’ (p.3).

Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it?  On the other hand, ‘sustainable’ is considered by some as a weasel word, that is, not specific enough to be useful. Certainly one of the first things that the early parliamentary debates on sustainable development show, is that people seem to understand sustainable development in different ways.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Weasel

Image: Mustela nivalis (least weasel) – British Wildlife Centre

Looking at the words themselves can help us to understand the term as a whole:

Sustainable – something that can be borne, or can continue.

Development – the opposite of envelopment – an ‘unfolding’, or evolution.

In other words, evolution that we can bear: sustainable development is about how human society evolves, and whether that evolution leads to conditions that can be supported by the planet and humanity into the future… or not.

Part 1: The doughnut of development.

Sustainable development’s about saving the planet… isn’t it?
As that most weaselly of weasels, Sir Humphrey Appleby, was fond of saying, yes and no.  In Big History and the Future of Humanity, futurologist Dr. Fred Spier writes that, based on his research:

‘it seems fair to assume that life has a bright future on this planet, even though humanity is currently causing a major extinction event.’  But ‘It is up to us and our offspring to determine whether humanity will survive in the longer run in reasonable prosperity, or whether we will eliminate ourselves as a result of our unbridled activities.’

Life on Earth seems likely to continue, partly because of the nature and location of our planet, which happens to be in a Goldilocks zone – among other things, not too hot, not too cold – just right for life.  The fate of humanity, however, is less certain.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Goldilocks

Image: “Goldilocks and the three bears” by Esther Diana is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

A safe operating space for humanity:
Even on this hospitable planet, conditions vary significantly, and there are life forms in the most surprising places.  Some of these can persist in extreme environments.  The 1mm-long tardigrade, for example, can survive in extreme temperatures ranging from -200ᵒC to 150ᵒC, without water and oxygen, and even in boiling alcohol!

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Water Bear

Image: Water bear (tardigrade), Hypsibius dujardini, scanning electron micrograph by Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden

Not so humans.  Our comfort zone is much narrower, and is maintained by planetary systems.  These are huge global systems, like the water cycle.  They govern conditions here on Earth, and are created and maintained by the interaction of living organisms with each other and with their non-living environment.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Water Cycle

Image: Diagram of the Water Cycle, showing how water is stored and transported across the planet, Ehud Tal

Earth scientists have looked at some of the meta-systems that create a safe space for us on this planet, as shown below.  The inner green ring is an estimate of extent to which we can safely impact each of the nine planetary systems shown.  The dark orange wedges are an estimate of how much we have disrupted them already.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Crossing the boundaries

Image: Stockholm Resilience Institute: Crossing the boundaries in global sustainability:


See Science Magazine for the full article. 

Planetary systems are interlinked, and disrupting one of them can disrupt others.  For example, as human activities release more and more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, the climate gets warmer.  This means that ocean temperatures are also increasing.  In addition, the oceans are absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere, which makes them more acidic.  These changes are affecting organisms that live in the ocean.  For example, coral reefs are under increasing stress.  They provide habitats for an estimated one million species, and the loss of reefs leads to the loss of biodiversity.  In the end, this affects humans, placing at risk the benefits we gain from reefs and the ecosystems they support.  These include risks to livelihoods based on fishing, and protection from storm surges, which could increase in some places due to climate change.

In other words, human society and planetary systems are highly interdependent.  In fact they can be thought of as a single ‘social-ecological’ system rather than as two separate systems.  Our wellbeing is closely linked to the wellbeing of planetary systems, which provide us with breathable air, drinkable water, soils in which we can grow food and so on.

You might by now have concluded that for human development to be sustainable our environment should not be disrupted so much that it threatens our own future.  This is the first essential condition for sustainable development.  But we also depend on each other to meet our needs, and the second is equity, or fairness.  These two conditions (or principles) are shown as the top line of the UK Shared Framework for Sustainable Development:

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Shared SD Framework

Image: One Future, Different Paths – Sustainable Development Commission / Defra.

Fair’s fair – I promised you a doughnut, so here it is:

Dr. Kate Raworth has turned these two principles into – you guessed it – a doughnut.  Its outer edge consists of the planetary boundaries, which if breached, present a risk to our wellbeing.  The inner edge represents the minima we need to live decent lives, and in between them – the actual doughnut itself – is what Raworth calls a ‘safe and just space for humanity’- perhaps a better way of expressing sustainable development.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Raworth Doughnut


Part 2: Rising to the challenge

This Parliament’s role in making development sustainable appears to have been discussed since the first formal discussions about this institution.  Pre-devolution, the Scottish Constitutional Convention – the group convened in 1995 ‘to draw up a scheme for a Scottish Assembly or Parliament’ – envisioned a Parliament that would play an active role in ‘a future that is fair and sustainable’.  This was to have included working with others to develop ‘an integrated strategy for sustainable development.’

At the time, there was a huge buzz around sustainable development, as the Earth Summit had just been held in Rio.  Certainly key Scottish Office players in the devolution discussions seem to have been actively working to ensure that a new parliament would help to shift Scotland’s development onto a more sustainable pathway.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Economy_Sustainable Development Earth Summit 1992

Following Labour’s Westminster victory in 1997, the bill that would later become the Scotland Act 1998 was drafted, and Donald Dewar, soon to become Scotland’s first First Minister, set up a Consultative Steering Group to look at how a new Parliament would operate.  It was chaired by Henry McLeish, who succeeded Dewar as First Minister.  Its report, Shaping Scotland’s Future, emphasised the need for a new parliament to be able to deal with ‘cross-cutting issues’, including ‘environmental sustainability’, rather than looking at policy issues in isolation.

Dewar had also set up the Secretary of State’s Advisory Group on Sustainable Development, and Lord Sewel, (yes, he of Sewel Convention fame), instructed it that:

‘Sustainable development must be kept to the fore in the preparations for a Scottish Parliament’ (Scotland the Sustainable: 10 action points for the Scottish Parliament, p.4).

He tasked the Group with producing a report: ‘on the issues, priorities and structures needed to keep up the momentum [on sustainable development] now so evident in Scotland’ (ibidem).

Four of the ten action points formulated by the Group pertained specifically to the Parliament:

  • Set up a sustainable development committee;
  • Establish an expert panel;
  • Promote sustainable development in all its activities;
  • Require public bodes to produce sustainable development strategies.

Has the Parliament risen to the challenge?
Things started off on an idealistic note, with the Parliament committing to putting sustainable development at the core of its work in 2000, 2001 and 2002.  However, looking at what MSPs said during the debates shows that interpretations of sustainable development vary quite a lot.  The idea of sustainable development came about because some people, including natural and social scientists, had concluded that economic growth was causing environmental and social ills.

For example, one MSP defined it as being:

‘about making decisions with all the issues on the table, ensuring that we understand the implications for the three arms of sustainable development— economic growth, social justice and the environment’ (3.02.2000).

But another argued that:

’human activity threatens our ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…  unprecedented growth is altering the face of the earth and the composition of the atmosphere. The air and water are being polluted, waste is accumulating, forests are being destroyed, soil is being eroded, fisheries are being depleted and the ozone layer is being damaged. That threatens the survival of humans and thousands of other living species… The current ideology of growth has captured humanity’s imagination to the degree that we continue to believe that more of the same resource-intensive and pollution-creating economic growth is the best way of serving the common good’ (28.02.01).

So maybe ‘sustainable development’ can mean all things to all people?  Environmental law expert, Aylwin Pillai found that the Scottish Executive’s interpretation became increasingly ‘economistic’ over the first three parliamentary sessions, eventually morphing into ‘sustainable economic growth’.

Nevertheless, Session 2’s Environment & Rural Development Committee spent some time looking at how sustainable development could be ‘mainstreamed’ into parliamentary scrutiny.  But a report produced by the Commission on a Sustainable Scotland in 2004 emphasised that while the Committee could hold the Environment & Rural Development Minister to account, it couldn’t do the same to other Ministers, suggesting that the cross-cutting scrutiny needed for sustainable development was not possible under the system of setting committee remits to mirror ministerial portfolios.

The Environment Committee’s recommendations to its successor committee included:

  • Training Parliament staff on sustainable development;
  • Developing an sustainable development checklist to support the appraisal of legislation;
  • Improving its scrutiny of the Executive.

The consultant who carried out the research for the Committee observed that:

‘There is no systematic mechanism for integrating sustainable development into legislation’ (para. 103).

In Session 3,  Scottish Parliamentary staff followed this is up by producing some options for mainstreaming sustainable development, but there doesn’t appear to have been any significant progress until the Sustainable Development Commission was shut down in 2011.  By then the notion of sustainable development was fading off the agenda.  This may have been partly due to the financial crash in 2008, and the shift of the policy narrative to ‘jobs and growth’.  Nevertheless, the Scottish Executive approached the Parliament to see if it could take on some of the defunct body’s role in scrutinising its performance on sustainable development, and seconded a civil servant to the Parliament to work on it.

However, the Parliament has not (so far) met any of the recommendations of Donald Dewar’s Advisory Group on sustainable development.  It has never had an sustainable development committee or expert panel, and it doesn’t promote sustainable development in all its activities.  But, it did in 2009 pass a piece of legislation – the Climate Change (Scotland) Act – in which there is a section, inserted by the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, that requires every Scottish public body, including itself, to act ‘in a way that it considers is most sustainable’ (s.44(1)(c)).  While this doesn’t actually require them to produce sustainable development strategies, it does mean that they should be carrying out their work in accordance with the principles of sustainable development.  For the Parliament, this would mean considering environmental limits and social equity as part of scrutiny.

What is sustainable development thinking, and how is it being used?
Since 2012, the Scottish Parliament has had a small and intermittent amount of staff resource, starting with the secondee from the Scottish Executive.  It’s been working towards integrating SD thinking into the Parliament’s activities, including developing and trialling ways in which this can be done.  It has developed a training workshop, and a discursive tool, which supports users to engage with all the issues relating to a bill or policy in a holistic way.  It’s not a checklist, which can end up being used to do a tick-box exercise.  In fact, those who helped to test it a few years ago, said that it even made them question their own assumptions!

All Members’ bills are now assessed for sustainable development using our tool, and it’s recently been being tested to see if it can be used to make internal policies and procedures more sustainable.

Latterly sustainable development scrutiny support work has been carried out, in collaboration with the University of Stirling, by a PhD researcher. This role will end soon.

What does scrutiny for Sustainable Development do?
Something that doesn’t appear to be very well known is that  Scottish Parliamentary staff carry out a lot of  background support on scrutiny.  They provide individual MSPs and committees with information for their scrutiny work, and can do things like suggest which witnesses committees could call on to give evidence.  By incorporating sustainable development considerations into committee papers, suggested witness lists, etc., scrutiny can in fact be improved.  Providing MSPs with the information they need to question Ministers and civil servants on issues beyond the immediate scope of a bill can help committees carry out the cross-cutting scrutiny originally discussed by the Consultative Steering Group.

What does the future hold?
While it can’t be said that the Parliament has risen to the challenge set out 20 years ago, it is finally making some real progress on mainstreaming sustainable development.  It has training workshops and modules, and  shown that it can improve scrutiny for sustainable development.  The staff of the Parliament are considering how the institution can work on integrating sustainable development thinking into its operational and scrutiny work, so that the way it delivers its services – procurement, finance, IT, and so on – as well as its scrutiny support processes – is in line with sustainable development.  A new Climate Change (Scotland) Bill has just been passed, which beefs up the 2009 Act requirement to act sustainably, additionally making reference that activity should ensure“the achievement of the United Nations sustainable development goals”.

Others are watching our response. A recent analysis of progress towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals – carried out by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and reported in their winter 2019 magazine – stated that:

“The Scottish Parliament […] has a role to play in ensuring that all new legislation and policy is scrutinised independently through a ‘sustainable development lens’”.

With some hard work, we might just be the first parliament to embrace sustainable development thinking in how we run our business and how we do scrutiny!

If you’d like to find out more about our work, or have any comments or questions please email the SPICe inbox at