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Rio+20: what do we want it to achieve on sustainable development?

 
Rio+20 conference logoRio+20 conference logo

So, that big UN conference on Sustainable Development you’ve heard so much about, Rio+20… What exactly do we expect to come out of it, you might wonder? A very good question, glad you asked.

One of the most concrete proposals getting wide political support from around the world is for a set of ‘sustainable development goals’ (SDGs, to use yet another acronym). These are like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) but place sustainability firmly at the heart of the development framework.

Sounds like a good idea to us. And we’ve been thinking about some vital principles:

  • Holistic – the goals need to balance environmental, social and economic objectives. For example, reducing poverty and environmental sustainability while tackling the gap between rich and poor.
  • Inclusive – the process for forming the goals must be open and participatory. Access to information and decision-making is the foundation of good environmental governance.
  • Equitable – making sure the targets achieve reductions in inequality both within and between nations.
  • Universally applicable – all countries, whether developed or developing, have interests, obligations, and accountability through an agreed global framework.

But it’s also important that Rio+20 realises there’s a whole global conversation on the post-2015 development agenda already taking place, and that Rio+20 is only one part of it. Whatever is decided at Rio has to leave space for learning from the MDGs.

It’s also interesting that when people talk about ‘Sustainable Development Goals,’ they often mean different things. Paul Ladd from the United Nations Development Programme coordinates the UN task team on post-MDGs and has defined the different interpretations as falling into three categories.

1) Environmental indicators – these are the goals that look at some of the really big problems facing the natural world, like land and soil degradation, biodiversity loss, oceans, forests, and mountains.

As an environmentalist, I think this is great – but where are the people? Development has to be about people too – because we’re looking for a world in which people and nature thrive. And we’ve already got a set of global goals on biodiversity and they haven’t gained the political will for us to make the major changes required for us to stop the devastating loss of biodiversity globally. Do you remember the Aichi targets and how we failed to meet them in 2010? No? Not many people do. I’m not sure another set of environmental goals would make much difference this time.

2) The half-way house. At the moment these centre around the areas that are relevant to both people and the environment – like food, water and energy. These have the potential to have both people and the planet in the picture, and to make progress on ensuring genuine progress on some of the most intractable global challenges.

3) The really people-focused ones. These look more at social equity, human-rights and gender equality. These are all vital to development but we need to make sure that there’s a balance between all three dimensions of sustainable development: environment, people and the economy.  I hate to say it but we need to look after the planet as well. After all, it’s what looks after us.

The lack of common understanding around the proposed Sustainable Development Goals make the political negotiations at Rio+20 for an international agreement much more difficult. What form the SDGs take will be decided by governments at the conference – but civil society organisations (like us) are making their voice heard to ensure that the outcome is the best result possible for all people and the natural world.

NB: This blog was written before Rio+20 took place. I’ll have a lot more to say (and hopefully a much clearer idea!) of what’s on the table afterwards. Watch this space.

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