The Sustainable Development Goals: Ambitious global targets or Rio’s safety net?

18 June 2012

Keen to avoid a political non-event at Rio+20, some cautious parties have pinned their hopes on an agreed set of goals that aim to provide a viable framework to help implement measures crucial to international and national support for sustainable development. The so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) broadly aim to secure political commitment for sustainable development. The targets are designed to provide a concrete approach to making measurable progress toward achieving balanced sustainable socio-economic growth in tandem with sustainable sourcing of natural resources.

For some, the SDGs represent a glimmering hope for a summit that has questionable chances of producing an outcome that will meet the challenges facing the world. Indeed, unlike its predecessor, Rio+20 claims instead to look at implementation measures and the framework by which to achieve sustainable development. The original United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 saw the adoption of a number of important multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) as well as Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development adopted. It seems unlikely that Rio+20 would match the achievements of the original Rio conference.

The world's current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted in 2000, aim to coordinate efforts around the world to ameliorate the lives of the world's poorest. The eight goals ambitiously seek to halve extreme poverty, halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, and provide universal primary education with a target end-date of 2015. But some have been critical of the world's efforts in achieving the MDGs, and the SDGs could be a way to take stock of what has worked and what has not and more forward in a more realistic way. "Let us develop a new generation of sustainable development goals to pick up where the MDGs leave off," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a 21 September 2011 speech.

The politics surrounding the SDGs make it likely that their launch will only be agreed at the very last minute in Rio. The ‘New Co-chair's Suggested Text' (NCST) of the Zero Draft Document published on 22 May 2012 before the third round of "informal informals" offers little in the way of substantive contribution for the future direction of the SDGs saying that they should be, "focused on priority areas" for the achievement of sustainable development. Possible areas of interest of the SDGs include energy, water, food security, as well as cross-cutting issues such as equity and social inclusion. The negotiations in the course of the third round of informal informals only reinforced this point as countries played with the NCST list, by adding and deleting different ‘priority areas' as can be seen from the 2 June consolidated Zero Draft text.

Designing the goals

Colombia and Guatemala were the first countries to propose a set of SDGs in the run-up to Rio+20. The two countries' joint-proposal outlines a set of SDGs that are similar and supportive on the MDGs. They suggested that the goals be designed to contribute in a concrete manner to the advancement of balanced, sustainable socio-economic growth.

The other major contribution was that of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, which submitted 17 different objectives, complete with detailed targets, contained in the Bonn UN Department of Public Information Declaration. These goals are supported by 1,400 NGOs and were created by a group of experts from both developing and developed nations.

Keen to capitalise on the success of the SDGs, the best articulated negotiating positions have been that of the governments of Colombia, Peru, and the United Arab Emirates, which together prepared a so-called "non-paper" to facilitate the Rio+20 negotiation process. This "non-paper" succinctly summarised the various proposals that have been put forth with regards to the SDGs and identified a number of overlapping proposals.

The co-chairs of the UN Secretary-General's High-level Panel of Eminent Persons to advise on planning for post-2015 has already been announced: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia; President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom. The full panel will be announced following the Rio+20 Conference whose task, as it currently stands, will be to flesh out the bare bones of a mandate granted at Rio+20. A further process related to the SDGs may well end up on their plate.

The balancing act

The main objectives of the MDGs remain fundamentally important. The goals aim to free people everywhere from hunger and poverty, ensure that they can live healthy lives, have access to basic education, sanitation, and clean drinking water, and that men and women are guaranteed equal rights. As the goals are ideologically and politically neutral, both developed and developing countries will likely be able to find common ground. Specifics of the individual targets, however, will be hotly debated.

While there has been much agreement on the basic principle of the SDGs, the simplistic text of the Zero Draft belies the multitude of difficult discussions that remain to be resolved if the goals are to be established in a way that allows for their meaningful implementation. The contentious task is to design a set of goals that are able to integrate the three pillars of sustainable development - the economic, social, and environmental - in a meaningful and equitable way that doesn't place undue burdens and conditionalities on developing countries.

The principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), as outlined in the 1992 Rio Declaration Article 7, is an acknowledgement of the historical actions of developed countries in their role in global environmental degradation and the shared responsibility all states to the future protection of the earth. One particular tension in the negotiations of the SDGs has been with regard to the role CBDR plays in a framework that stresses the importance of equity for all. Paragraph 7 in the section on the SDGs in the NCST of the Zero Draft currently attempts to address this disparity.

"Progress towards the SDGs should be measured by an agreed and appropriate set of indicators and assessed on the basis of specific targets that could be differentiated depending on countries' levels of development and national specificities." However, the framework must be able to meaningfully address not only inequality within countries but also between countries.

Ban Ki-moon has sought to persuade negotiators to move beyond such discussions, pushing for the establishment at Rio+20 of a broad mandate for the SDGs. "We cannot let a microscopic examination of text blind us to the big picture. We do not have a moment to waste," Ban said in an address to the General Assembly in New York exactly one month prior to Rio+20. "It is time for ambitious leadership. It is time for us to focus on what really matters. It is time for common ground, for the sake of our planet and our children."

Yet the basis for the SDGs argues for nothing less than a fundamental paradigm shift in our understanding of how to measure development and economic progress. Their apparent simplicity belies the magnitude of division between crucial stakeholders. A key point in the negotiations will be establishing consensus on how to measure progress towards sustainable development. There are a number of rival GDP+ metrics that have been developed, with individual nations as well as international organisations all trying their hand. Reflecting this, NCST Zero Draft recognises, "the limitations of GDP as a measure of well-being and sustainable development", but offers little in the way of viable alternatives.

SDGs versus MDGs in the post-2015 framework

Sources close to the talks say that a likely outcome would see a process to define the SDGs between 2012 and 2015, in order to coincide with the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) programme. But with the UN Secretary-General supporting the creation of the new set of SDGs, the question remains - where does that leave the MDGs? Indeed, many of the ambitious goals remain nowhere close to being achieved more than 12 years after their inception.

The wide array of objectives that have been outlined by the UNCSD Zero Draft - such as sustainable consumption and production patterns, oceans, and decent work and social inclusion - will make designing coherent targets, should the SDGs be organised along the same lines as the MDGs, difficult. Although broadly complementary, there are glaring gaps between the two agendas which are particularly noticeable in the fields of health, education and gender equality. There will undoubtedly be much work to do in these fields beyond the MDGs' 2015 expiration date.

Nonetheless, the post-2015 relationship between the MDGs and the SDGs requires further clarification both at Rio and beyond. What must be avoided is an inefficient and wasteful division of labour between competing sets of goals as some seek to extend the MDG framework post-2015 while others seek to build on the mandate established for the SDGs at Rio+20.

Particularly interesting is the similarities in timeframe between the UNFCCC outcome at Durban last year. Parties to the UN climate change convention agreed that by 2015 they would establish binding emissions rules that will be implemented by 2020. The 2015 common marker is notable and, while the negotiating platforms of sustainable development and climate change have remained separate, bringing these goals together would provide a more integrated approach to the world's environmental challenges.

Unprecedented opportunities

Evidently, much of the substantive work remains to be done for the SDGs, yet the most exciting aspect of the SDGs comes from the potential of its unifying power. Not only will it attempt to integrate the three pillars of sustainable development, its wide-ranging mandate could also give it the power to incorporate a large number of pre-existing initiatives from both within and without the UN-system from the local to international level. The acknowledgement of the differing levels of development that exist between nations could lead to a set of dynamic goals that would benefit not only every individual on the planet but rather the planet and all of its inhabitants, human or otherwise.

The SDGs could build on the broad support enjoyed by a number of international and national initiatives. Examples of these, among many others, are the Secretary-General's Sustainable Energy for All initiative and the World Bank's Global Oceans Alliance. By supporting these complementary but disparate processes, the necessary synergies could be made so as to achieve meaningful and concrete steps towards sustainable development.

George Riddell
Independent Consultant

This article is published under
18 June 2012
Members of the World Intellectual Property Organization's Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) met recently to engage in a text-based negotiation on an international instrument relating to the...
18 June 2012
After two weeks of backpedalling, quarrelling, and stonewalling on some issues and constructive negotiating on others, parties attending the UNFCCC's mid-year negotiating session in Bonn, Germany...