The Paradox of Sustainability

A Critique of the Modern World's Approach to Sustainable Development

An Indian woman stands on a hill of coal, wielding a sledgehammer above her head. Next to her is the text "Shorenstein APARC Working Paper," with the organization logo.


  • The sustainability narrative has become central to 21st-century development policy, but it resonates primarily with the population of the developed economies. The same narrative appears elitist for the remaining 84 percent of the global population focused on meeting daily needs.
  • The paradox of sustainability arises from placing equally high expectations on both developed and developing economies to achieve sustainable development. While developed countries are responsible for the vast majority of historical carbon emissions, developing countries attempting to modernize and feed themselves are under pressure to curb emissions and pursue low-carbon development trajectories.
  • An examination of the degree of electrification in developing countries demonstrates the difficulty of attaining carbon neutrality by 2050. Many developing economies, like Indonesia and India, are electrified only to around 1,000 kWh per capita, far below a “modern” level of electrification at 6,000 kWh per capita. At current levels of capacity building, most Southeast Asian countries will require more than 26 years to reach this level of electrification, with Indonesia requiring 121 years.
  • There are challenges facing the energy equation both on the demand and supply sides. The long-term demand for fossil fuels is not likely to decline, whereas, on the supply side, there are technological and economic challenges. Southeast Asian countries will need more than $1.8 trillion to build out renewable power generation capabilities — a Herculean task given their lack of robust fiscal spaces, low monetary supply availabilities, and limited ability to attract foreign direct investment.
  • To advance carbon neutrality for all, developed economies must increase their investment in clean energy opportunities in developing economies, channeling for this purpose the $100 trillion of liquidity funds they have generated under long periods of prosperity.
  • Southeast Asian countries, on their part, should focus on investing more in education to improve their economic performance and better inform citizens about the unintended consequences of detrimental environmental practices. They should also prioritize advancing a more robust political culture conducive to a stronger alignment between talent and power, thus encouraging capacity and institutional building as well as better prospects for meaningful regional and global collaboration.


This paper analyzes the paradox of sustainability that stems from the high expectations placed upon developed and developing nations' environmental and economic progress. Focusing on the coal-powered electricity sector, which has underpinned most of the world’s electrification, the author examines the time it took for Western European countries and the United States of America to modernize and the time it will take for developing economies, like those in Southeast Asia and India, to modernize while pursuing a quest for sustainable development. The author also proposes potential solutions, including renewable energy and multilateralism, to mitigate the challenges of achieving modernization and sustainability through greater collaboration among countries. The focus is on how developing countries must concentrate on increasing their renewable energy production capability. The paper does not address other elements of the sustainability narrative, such as reducing pre-existing carbon emissions, environmental protection, poverty, and hunger; responsible consumerism; or the circular economy.

Gita Wirjawan

Gita Wirjawan

Visiting Scholar