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Strategy for sustainable development

The European Union has formulated a long-term strategy to dovetail the policies for economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development, its goal being sustainable improvement of the well-being and standard of living of current and future generations.


Commission Communication of 15 May 2001 ‘A Sustainable Europe for a Better World: A European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development’ (Commission proposal to the Gothenburg European Council) [COM(2001) 264 final – not published in the Official Journal].

Commission Communication of 13 December 2005 on the review of the Sustainable Development Strategy – A platform for action [COM(2005) 658 final – not published in the Official Journal].


This strategy provides an EU-wide policy framework to deliver sustainable development, i.e. to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It rests on four separate pillars – economic, social, environmental and global governance – which need to reinforce one another. The economic, social and environmental consequences of all policies thus need to be examined in a coordinated manner and taken into account when those policies are being drawn up and adopted. The EU also needs to assume its international responsibilities with regard to sustainable development, whose various aspects – including democracy, peace, security and liberty – need to be promoted beyond EU borders.

This strategy, which complements the Lisbon Strategy, shall be a catalyst for policy makers and public opinion, to change society’s behaviour. It is built around measures covering the main challenges identified, as well as cross-cutting measures, adequate funding, the involvement of all stakeholders and effective policy implementation and follow-up.

The strategy is based on the following guiding principles: promotion and protection of fundamental rights, solidarity within and between generations, the guarantee of an open and democratic society, involvement of citizens, involvement of businesses and social partners, policy coherence and governance, policy integration, use of best available knowledge, the precautionary principle and the polluter-pays principle.

Measures for responding to the key challenges

The strategy identifies seven unsustainable trends on which action needs to be taken. This strategy lists a whole range of operational and numerical targets and specific measures at EU level to attain these objectives. These measures were updated and developed in the 2005 strategy review.

The first long-term specific objective of the strategy is to limit climate change and its effects by meeting commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and under the framework of the European Strategy on Climate Change. Energy efficiency, renewable energy and transport will be the subject of particular efforts.

Limiting the adverse effects of transport and reducing regional disparities is another long-term objective, for which there is a need to break the link between economic growth and transport growth and do more to develop transport that is environmentally friendly and conducive to health. The strategy envisages, among other measures, infrastructure charging, promotion of alternatives to road transport and vehicles which produce less pollution and use less energy.

To promote more sustainable modes of production and consumption the link between economic growth and environmental degradation needs to be broken and attention paid to how much ecosystems can tolerate. With this aim in view, the EU must among other things promote green public procurement, define environmental and social performance targets for products in cooperation with stakeholders, expand the distribution of environmental innovations and environmental technologies and produce information about and appropriate labelling of products and services.

Sustainable management of natural resources is also an objective. From now until 2010 overexploitation needs to be avoided, efficiency of natural resource use improved, the value of ecosystem services recognised and loss of biodiversity halted. In particular the EU must make efforts in agriculture, fisheries and forest management; see to it that the Natura 2000 network is completed; define and implement priority actions to protect biodiversity, and make sure that aspects associated with the seas and oceans are duly taken into account. Recycling and re-use must also be supported.

Limiting major threats to public health is another of the strategy’s objectives. Food safety and quality must be ensured throughout the food chain. Threats to health and the environment posed by chemicals must be removed by 2020 and research into the links between health and pollutants must be developed. Issues relating to epidemics, resistance to antibiotics and lifestyle must be tackled, in particular to prepare for a possible pandemic and combat HIV/AIDS.

In order to combat social exclusion and poverty and mitigate the effects of an ageing society, the EU must promote active ageing and make efforts to ensure the viability of pension and social protection systems, integrate legal migrants and develop a Community immigration policy, improve the situation of families – especially of children – and promote equality between men and women.

The revised strategy also provides for strengthening the fight against global poverty, monitoring global sustainable development and compliance with international commitments. To achieve this, the EU must in particular increase the amount of aid provided to less favoured countries, improve the coherence and quality of development aid policies and promote better international governance.

Intersectoral measures

The Knowledge Society must be the driving force behind sustainable development. Special efforts need to be made in education and training for the greatest number of participants, so as to bring about a change in behaviour and give the public the necessary skills to meet the objectives laid down in the strategy. Scientific and technical innovation also needs to be stimulated, especially through framework programmes of research and development and in association with universities, research institutes, businesses and government officials.

Financial and economic instruments are another way to engender a market that offers less polluting products and services and to change consumer behaviour. Prices therefore need to reflect actual environmental and social costs, whereas fiscal measures should be applied to energy and resource consumption and/or pollution. In addition, financial support from European funds must be coordinated between the Commission and Member States to optimise efficiency.

Better communication will help involve businesses and the public. Stress is laid on the importance of systematic dialogue with consumers and of consulting other countries in order to mobilise the efforts of all parties. The different parties, including public administrations (European and national), businesses and the public (including non-governmental organisations) must establish partnerships among themselves.

Formulation of policies and review of progress

Member States must draw up national strategies and regularly review progress accomplished. They must carry out impact assessments before adopting their policies or committing public funds.

All the instruments available to the public authorities must be used to contribute to sustainable development. This includes regulations, but also incentives or market based instruments.

The Commission evaluates the implementation of the strategy once every two years on the basis of sustainable development indicators that it has adopted and, where necessary, updated. This evaluation forms the basis of another, carried out once every two years by the December European Council. Other bodies and institutions also examine what has been achieved and establish links with Member States and the public if required. The strategy provides for a review of its objectives by Council decision no later than 2011.


The main lines of the strategy that the Commission proposed in 2001 were set out in the conclusions of the Gothenburg European Council of June 2001. It also formed part of the European Union’s preparatory work for the 2002 world summit on sustainable development (Rio + 10) held in Johannesburg. Before that summit the Commission presented another communication on how the Union should contribute towards sustainable development in the world; elements of that communication were incorporated into the strategy when it was reviewed.

A public consultation on the sustainable development strategy was organised following the appointment of the new Commission in 2004. The Commission also drew up a communication taking an overall look at the progress made thanks to the sustainable development strategy, referring to the main findings of the consultation and setting out broad orientations for review of the strategy.

For its part, the Brussels European Council of June 2005 reaffirmed both the key objectives of sustainable development and the guiding principles which need to underpin the renewed strategy.

In December 2005, the Commission adopted a communication in which it:

  • determines the main areas which require a fresh impetus in the years to come. It points out that these areas are interdependent and require responses based on cooperation and solidarity, on research and innovation and on the education of the population;
  • proposes to take more account of the impact of European policies on sustainable development at world level;
  • proposes methods to measure the progress achieved and regularly review priorities at national and Community levels;
  • recommends a permanent dialogue with the individuals and organisations – company heads, regional and local authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), etc. – involved in sustainable development.

This communication underpinned the adoption of a new EU Sustainable Development Strategy at the Brussels European Council of June 2006.


Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of 24 July 2009 - Mainstreaming sustainable development into EU policies : 2009 Review of the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development [COM(2009) 400 final - Not published in the Official Journal]. This Review reports on the policy developments carried out at European level following the adoption of the European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development. In this regard, the European Union plays an important role in the fight against climate change and in promoting a low-carbon economy.

However, progress in sustainable development still needs to be made and the Review opens a discussion on how the strategy can be improved. It should be better coordinated with other European policy strategies, particularly with the Lisbon Strategy on Growth and Jobs. The implementation of the strategy should be streamlined in order to improve its management and its actual results.

Commission Communication of 22 October 2007 ‘Progress Report on the Sustainable Development Strategy 2007’ [COM(2007) 642 final – not published in the Official Journal]. In this report the Commission considers that progress achieved on the ground has been modest, but great advances in EU and Member State policy development have occurred in many areas, in particular climate change, clean energy and health.

Commission Communication of 9 February 2005 ‘The 2005 Review of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy: Initial Stocktaking and Future Orientations’ [COM(2005) 37 final – not published in the Official Journal]. The Commission takes stock of progress since 2001, even though immediate results cannot be expected. The Commission also sets out the future orientations which should guide the review of the strategy, specifically:

  • reaffirming the new approach to policy making and policy coherence (impact assessment, stakeholder consultation, regulatory simplification, market-based instruments);
  • pursuing action on key unsustainable trends (assessment of these trends and the linkages between them);
  • setting new priority objectives and targets, together with intermediate milestones to measure progress;
  • reinforcing the monitoring of the strategy;
  • strengthening ownership of the strategy (awareness-raising and mobilisation) and improving cooperation with public and private actors.

Sustainable development indicators to monitor the implementation of the EU sustainable development strategy [SEC(2005) 161 - not published in the Official Journal]. The Commission presents a list of indicators for monitoring the implementation of the political priorities which were agreed at the Gothenburg and Barcelona European Councils or which relate to the commitments entered into by the European Union at the Johannesburg world summit on sustainable development. The list takes the form of a hierarchical framework of 12 headline indicators (corresponding to the main sustainable development themes identified at European and international level), 45 core policy indicators (corresponding to the key objectives of each theme) and 98 analytical indicators (corresponding to measures implementing the key objectives).

Commission Communication of 13 February 2002 ‘Towards a global partnership for sustainable development’ [COM(2002) 82 final - not published in the Official Journal].

Last updated: 18.12.2009