Rio+20 Countdown: Sustainable Development Goals Cannot Wait

This is Part 23 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.


Today was a busy day and a long night of negotiations (still in a state of limbo while I am writing) and any of the hope for progress from yesterday was lost and only an active civil society Twitter storm to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies showed significant movement.

Raphael Azeredo, Brazil, facilitator of the discussions on SDGs
Source: IISD

The result was that it appears right now the result is going to be 1. A week Rio agreement with lots of weak words not requiring any action for which governments can be held accountable and 2. Much of the specifics on the issues where there is likely to be breakthrough will be postponed for later meetings.  Ocean progress looked positive today, although issues of marine biodiversity remain contentious, institutional framework changes look like they will be vague, although many sources hinted at possibility of a breakthrough, and who knows where the civil society pressure to end fossil fuel subsidies will end up.   Sérgio Abranches, who is covering the Rio+20 negotiations, wrote that today’s negotiations appeared to put off all decisions for a later date when any commitments will evaporate.

But one area that could be the most important outcome from Rio+20 Conference is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  It appears (this is tenuous and text is not finalized as I write) the Rio+20 Outcome on SDGs will be 1. A set of environmental themes, with social and development aspects, established at Rio+20, 2. These will be goals that will follow-up when the Millennium Development Goals lapse in 2015, and 3. Between now and 2015 the goals will be given specifics.  NGO communities appear to find this outcome particularly troubling, with Oxfam writing today that:

“The current proposal on the table in Rio would effectively create a second process for global goals in the post-2015 period. A separate process focused on the environment will not provide the solution urgently needed to end poverty and inequality while protecting the planet… ‘Ending poverty and protecting the environment are inextricably linked and cannot be addressed in isolation. The current proposals are a recipe for diluted commitment, duplicated effort, and dispersed focus,’ said Antonio Hill of Oxfam.”

I wrote this morning that I thought the delay in giving specifics of Sustainable Development Goals was something I was less than excited about.  One of the best people covering the Rio+20 Conference, Pippa Gardner, part of a delegation for World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and who runs Speak Out, Reach Out, Camp Out in the U.K, asked me a very fair question:

To be honest, there is a lot of issues on the table, and it may be very smart for the negotiators to agree on some broad plan of action but to put the work until later.  At the first Rio Conference (1992) this is exactly what the negotiators did with desertification.  They agreed to work on it and a few years later the UN Convention Concerning Desertification opened for entry into force as a result of the negotiations.  Oceans progress out of Rio+20 will largely be on the agreement for a formal treaty to come out of future negotiations.  So, seriously if we give them a good start, can’t they take the year, get informed and adopt really significant Sustainable Development Goals?

I believe that if the SDGs are not given specifics at the Rio+20 Convention they are likely to be even weaker than the Millennium Development Goals.  The reason behind this lies in the various biodiversity goals that are set at Big conferences, given systems to develop specifics and pathways to these goals, don’t because the attention isn’t there and then fail to meet these goals.

Nothing illustrates this better than the 2010 Biodiversity Target.   10 years after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the original Rio+0 treaties,  had entered into force, it was generally recognized that no requirements had been made on the central objective of reducing the alarming loss of biological diversity.  Unlike its sister treaty on climate change, which had at least developed the Kyoto Protocol to ratchet up the requirement on states, the CBD had not agreed to a significant, central protocol on its mission.  And so, in 2002 (before Rio+10 in Johannesburg), the Conference of the Parties agreed that “Parties commit themselves to a more effective and coherent implementation of the…objectives of the Convention, to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level.”  This was the big biodiversity decision presented at Johannesburg for biodiversity and affirmed by world leaders at that conference.  It became a crucial part of the Goal 7 of the Millennium Development Goals.  States developed clear indicators for possibly assessing this goal at the next Conference of the Parties.  And then what….

Nothing really.  The target came and passed with only a few states even coming close to slowing the loss of biodiversity.  Studies showed that around the world, states failed to meet the target, failed to deal with underlying drivers, failed to push for significant upgrading of the issue.  Big framework set while the cameras and civil society are there, some follow-up while the people still remember, and then the issue fizzles. Most importantly, it is not a lack of information that prevents state negotiators from agreeing to things, it is lack of political will.  It was clear in 2002 exactly what were the underlying causes of biodiversity loss around the world: 1. Habitat destruction, 2. Habitat disruption, and 3. Climate change.  But political will to deal with these in a meaningful fashion did not support any of these issues.  So, it fizzled.

I hope what happens with Sustainable Development Goals proves me wrong, but if there is not specifics agreed to while civil society is there and the press is there, I am cynical skeptical uncertain about whether states will later agree to strengthen an agreement.  The whole idea of the Big Global Conferences is to turn attention to the issue and use that attention and focus to get agreements–not to simply make broad statements and then push them off to a later time when they won’t be dealt with seriously.  That is a recipe for future problems.

Picture of #EndFossilFuelSubsidies Protest in Rio. Source:


2 thoughts on “Rio+20 Countdown: Sustainable Development Goals Cannot Wait

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

  2. Pingback: Rio+20 Report Card « Lullaby of the Commons

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