Rio+20 Countdown: What are Sustainable Development Goals? Why Are they Important?

This is Part 10 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22.  The full series is available here.


What are Sustainable Development Goals?

As the Rio+20 global sustainable development conference approaches, negotiations have seen some serious blockages, some disputes about minute insignificant wording (for instance, a dispute yesterday between using “follow-up” or “monitoring”, with neither term defined), and ideas that receive large support but then fizzle.  However, one area that appears to have general agreement is that a key outcome of the Rio+20 conference should be the creation of support for certain Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  What exactly would these be?

Sustainable Development Goals would be negotiated universal goals for progress around with clear national indicators of progress.  Paula Caballero Gómez, a delegate from Colombia, made the point clearly writing that: “The development of each SDG requires quantitative, time-bound targets and a dashboard of descriptive indicators that countries can put into practice according to national circumstances — a one-size-fits-all approach would obscure specific priorities and needs.  SDG indicators will need to be tailored to different national capacities, institutional structures and mandates if they are to catalyze domestic efforts towards more integrated approaches to sustainability.”  Sustainable development goals then are universal requirements on key issues of sustainability (including social, economic, and environmental) with clear targets and applicable ways for the diverse countries of the world to meet the requirements.

As currently proposed, the SDGs aim to be an extension of and supportive of an earlier effort of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  At the 2000 Millennium Summit, states agreed to the development of millennium development goals to be achieved by the year 2015.  Beginning in 2002 and spearheaded largely by the U.N. Secretary General, the MDGs consist of 8 different goals for the world to work toward.  The 8 goals are quite ambitious like eradicating extreme poverty and ensuring environmental sustainability.  Follow-up meetings, namely the 2010 MDG meeting, set clear goals to meet: reduce extreme poverty below 23% of the global population, increase educational spending by this amount, etc.  Although the MDGs have made progress, it is unclear if they have made progress different from if they had never existed at all.  The most significant cut in global poverty levels is largely a result of China’s rapid growth since 2000 and the extremely poor countries have not seen a significant increase in living standards or foreign assistance.  TB and AIDS efforts largely preceded the MDGs and it is unclear if they had any impact.  The 2011 progress report highlighted that although there has been progress, it has largely neglected the marginalized, extremely poor, and disadvantaged.  The increased focus on these 8 goals though may lapse after 2015 and a new center of focus will be necessary.

Sustainable development, defined in the key Brundtland Report as “ development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs“, presents an ideal opportunity to reshape the MDGs while retaining their core aspects.  Sustainable development in most discourse entails meeting the needs of all people on earth, hence social and economic issues are crucial with short term environmental pollution and vulnerability, while not doing so at the expense of future peoples being able to meet their needs, making long term environmental damage a key problem.  Sustainable development then often includes poverty reduction, health, gender equality, access to resources along with environmental protection.  They will thus be highly complementary of the MDGs.

However, any agreement on Sustainable Development Goals will involve a changed focus prioritizing environmental concerns and using them to justify bringing individuals together.  Negotiators at Rio+20 will have to decide whether they want to have a clear set of 8-10 goals or whether they instead want a open-ended process that allows specifics to develop through political wrangling.  The Background Paper by the Conference organizers includes this approach to developing SDGs:

Others have proposed a structure similar to the MDGs with 8-10 goals clearly articulated around problem areas.

Sustainable Development Goals will be broad general requirements to strive for with each state having different priorities and strategies for achieving.  As Brundtland and Cardoso noted: we need universal requirements but with unique applicable national components.

Although there appears to be consensus that SDGs will be a core outcome of Rio+20, it is not yet clear how deep will be the agreement.  Based on the last round of informal negotiations and the current one, it seems likely that there will be agreement on the broad areas of focus, unclear language on most aspects (particularly when it comes to agriculture, gender equality, and any technology or financial transfer from the North to the South), and a timetable (probably by 2014) for hashing out the specific goals they want to reach.

Why are SDGs Important?

As argued repeatedly on this blog, SDGs represent a ‘small’ outcome of the Rio+20.  This does not mean weak or unimportant, but rather simply that the SDGs are a governance outcome that focuses on changes in individual action without a clear treaty or agreement structure.  As opposed to the first Rio summit in 1992, there are no treaties or broad agreements up for discussion: instead, the position by many (including the U.S.) is for a Conference that spurs action by individuals, businesses, and governments with civil society empowered to help and criticize when these actors take problematic actions.  SDGs is exactly this type of a broad-based, civil society dependent outcome that is likely at Rio+20.

They are of crucial importance because they will largely set the agenda for the next decade of global attention and social spending.  If an issue is ignored in the SDGs, that won’t relegate it to irrelevance, but it will make it much more difficult to raise its profile and prominence.  Similarly, inclusion of an issue can raise its profile and direct significant public and private efforts towards the problem.  This raises the stakes and groups are certainly struggling for the strongest inclusion of their issue in the discussions: for example, do we include food security?  Nutritional security?  Social opportunities for rural subsistence farmers?  Each casting of the issue will significantly change the articulation.

Although they will set the focus of the global policy agenda in the post-2015 era, their largest possible impact will be in the creative engagements they create between different groups (linking nongovernmental organizations with businesses, international organizations with cities, etc.).  An effervescent network of informed, autonomous actors is crucial for the small agenda at Rio+20 to work.  This is the big question mark for negotiations at the Rio+20 conference:

  • Will SDGs foster such a network?  The Millennium Development goals seemed to have given rise to some of these activities, but in general it appears to be relatively limited.  The Global Compact was crucial in this aspect (for evidence, look at the trend lines on Google Trends for both terms).  Clear goals with clear standards can empower these networks, but the effort must go deeper.  The details and progress of development will be key in this respect, but currently I do not see a plan on how to move beyond simply giving these networks the relevant tools to fostering a situation where they thrive and play a significant role.
  • What institutions can play a role?  We’ve gone about as far as we can with UN Secretary General sponsored engagements, such as the Global Compact.  I think Rio+20 might be the high water mark for impact of stakeholder forums (if it wasn’t a few years ago).  Strengthening UNEP or creating a ECOSOC type Council on sustainable development at the UN might be great, but the first is dead in the water and the second won’t work if it doesn’t get UNEP under it (which is not even close in negotiations).  I skeptical about the proposals and none seem adequate to the task of actually getting the SDGs to work.  I don’t think we need overhaul, but we do have to think creatively about really expanding the institutional space.

The importance of SDGs is unlikely to be fully developed at Rio+20, but pay attention (of course I’ll write about it) for the issue areas that get included and any institutional decisions made at Rio+20.  A set of 8-10 problem areas for focus, clear goals, and the creation of a Council level body at the UN  is probably the best possible outcome for SDGs at Rio+20.  A set of 20-30 problem areas for focus, goals to be worked out later, and creation of a new governance body without a clear mandate is probably the worst possible outcome for SDGs at Rio+20.


3 thoughts on “Rio+20 Countdown: What are Sustainable Development Goals? Why Are they Important?

  1. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: Brundtland and Cardoso Make Plea for Progress « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: A funny thing happened on the way to Rio+20…[Negotiation Update June 17, 2012] « Lullaby of the Commons

  3. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown Review: The Impacts of the Identity Crisis at Rio+20 « Lullaby of the Commons

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