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A Brief History of Sustainability

Updated: May 21, 2023

To learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course, this is not total freedom - we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better that none.

Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari

Starting our journey here, let's first look at the story of Sustainability. Do you remember when you first heard about climate change? Or the first time you worried about whether you'd see the world end?

Taking a stroll through the annals of environmental impact, let's spotlight key milestones that have made a significant difference globally:

1990 BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) launched

In 1990, the UK saw the launch of BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), the world's inaugural tool for assessing new office buildings' environmental impact. BREEAM set the gold standard for third-party green building assessment, prompting numerous countries to develop their own green building rating systems.

1993 US Green Building Council founded

Fast forward to 1993, when the US Green Building Council was founded by Rick Fedrizzi, David Gottfried and Mike Italiano, This marked the genesis of the global sustainability movement.

As the world's premier Green Building Council, it pooled professionals with shared aspirations, forging a network encompassing Government Authorities, Clients and Developers, Consultants and Contractors, Product Suppliers, Technology Innovators, Educators, and others with a vested interest in Sustainability and Climate Change.

The Green Building Council shoulders a critical duty in combatting Climate Change and facilitating the translation of climate change policies into their respective national development plans.

1995 Conference of the Parties, COP 1

The United Nations Climate Change Conference held annually, serves as a platform for evaluating progress in tackling Climate Change. Incepted in 1995 in Berlin, Germany, the conference has seen 25 iterations until December 2019 in Madrid, Spain.

With its utmost effort and capacity, the conference has significantly propelled the climate change agenda forward. Key milestones include:

  • COP 3 saw the birth of the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark international treaty for climate change mitigation. At COP 6, expectations were dampened when George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001, leading to the US delegation's withdrawal from related discussions. However, the conference still concluded with agreements on flexibility mechanisms, carbon sinks, compliance, and financial issues.

  • COP 7 aimed to set the Kyoto Protocol in motion, striking an agreement for international emission trading and the realization of emission targets. COP 9 marked the decision to utilize the Adaptation Fund to aid developing countries in adapting to climate change and enhancing their capacities through technology transfer.

  • The Buenos Aires Plan of Action was the key achievement of COP 10. COP 11 was notable for being the largest intergovernmental conference on climate change ever held. The Montreal Action Plan, agreed upon during this conference, sought to prolong the Kyoto Protocol beyond its 2012 expiration date and to negotiate more substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

  • COP 15, held in Copenhagen, attracted significant global attention, but the results were largely viewed as unsatisfactory. COP 17, however, saw progress in the creation of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which aimed to distribute $100 billion per year to aid developing countries in climate change adaptation.

  • COP 18 occurred in the same year as the Kyoto Protocol's expiration and resulted in The Doha Climate Gateway, which established a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from 2012 to 2020. Notably, the US and China, the world's leading emitters and economies, were absent from the commitment list.

  • Finally, COP 25, initially slated to be held in Brazil, then Chile, eventually took place in Spain. The conference resulted in minimal commitments, prompting scientists to issue urgent warnings about the need to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Dec 1997 Signing of Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement connected to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, came into effect on February 16, 2005. This groundbreaking treaty, adopted at COP3 after extensive negotiations, established legally binding targets for the reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions - specifically Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), and Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6). The Protocol acknowledged the long history of industrialization, and placed a greater responsibility on developed nations for their contributions to high levels of GHG emissions.

While the Kyoto Protocol faced criticism for its ambitious standards and for not delivering the expected impact in combating climate change, it was nevertheless a crucial first step in addressing this global issue. Questions were raised about the effectiveness of carbon trading and its real impact. However, as the world's first legally binding agreement on climate change, it served to raise global awareness and encouraged leaders and citizens alike to consider the impact and potential consequences of climate change.

Aug 1998 First version of LEED launched

The initial version of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was a pilot, which is no longer available for download on their website. Developed in collaboration with the Federal Energy Management Program and the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), this pioneering version drew inspiration from the UK's Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and Canada's Building Environmental Performance Assessment Criteria (BEPAC). This synthesis of global insights led to the creation of the U.S. variant of the third-party green rating tool.

The strength of LEED lies in its completely online assessment process, enabling the promotion and recognition of green initiatives worldwide. Furthermore, the system invites project teams to contribute and co-create submission materials, fostering a community-oriented approach to sustainable building practices.


2002 World Green Building Council founded

Established officially in 2002, three years after its inaugural meeting in California, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) has become the premier platform for advancing the Green Building movement. By bringing together professionals and enthusiasts alike, the WGBC is devoted to transforming our built environment towards a healthier, more sustainable future.

Oct 2006 Oscar Winning documentary: An Inconvenient Truth.

Al Gore, once a contender for the US presidency, transformed a simple slideshow into a powerful documentary that enlightened millions about the realities of global warming and climate change. By using striking statistics and visuals, Gore unveiled the truth about our changing climate. Since his revealing presentation, awareness about global warming has become widespread.

Oct 2009 Singapore Green Building Council founded

Singapore, a developed nation graced with a tropical climate, is leading the way in bridging public and private sectors. This unity is fostered through comprehensive certification programs, continuous education, and informative publications.

Dec 2009 COP15, Copenhagen Accord

The close of the Kyoto Protocol ushered in the globally recognized COP 15 conference in Copenhagen, serving as a catalyst for numerous climate change initiatives and campaigns. While the conference fell short of establishing a binding long-term action agreement, it marked a significant milestone by securing the inclusion of the US and China in a "Political Accord." This development symbolized an essential step towards global cooperation on climate change, despite the conference's shortcomings.

Dec 2015 COP 21, Signing of Paris Agreement

Over 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, are party to the Paris Agreement. This agreement was formed with the understanding that the goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees, would merely mitigate the most severe impacts of climate change. Despite this consensus, in June 2017, President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the agreement.

In studying the history of sustainability, we learn not to predict the future, but to liberate ourselves from the past and envision new possibilities. We've traced the path from the birth of green building assessment methods like BREEAM and the formation of the US Green Building Council, to pivotal moments in global climate action such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Through this journey, we see that our progress, while significant, has often been met with setbacks. This reminds us of our responsibility to learn from these experiences and strive for a sustainable future. We may not have total freedom from the past, but even some freedom is a step towards creating alternative destinies. The story of sustainability is still being written, and we each play a part in shaping the chapters to come.




  2. Prof. Yuval Noah Harari’, Homo Deus, (Sep 2018).

  3. Megan Rosa, "Looking back: LEED History". Sustainable Investment Group (SIG), (Aug 2016)

  4. Richards, Jennie. “Green Building: A Retrospective on the History of LEED Certification”. Sustainable Industry Sector Retrospectives. Institute for Environmental Entrepreneurship (IEE). 2012. July 2016.


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