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Rio+20: Moving Ahead with the Sustainable Development Goals

As the global summit in Rio approaches, negotiations are still in flux, but some ideas that could advance the global sustainability agenda are gaining momentum.

One such idea is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are emerging as a potentially significant outcome with global policy implications for the post-2015 development agenda. With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, the idea is for governments to launch a process in Rio to develop broader SDGs that would complement or succeed them.

The MDGs have had a laudable impact on reducing the proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty. But they have also been criticized– fairly – for failing to address some key drivers of poverty. These include environmental issues—such as climate change and resource scarcity—that disproportionately impact the poor and most vulnerable, as well as the inequitable distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has led calls for the international community to adopt a post-2015 development road map based on “a new generation of Sustainable Development Goals to pick up where the MDGs leave off.” The summit’s draft declaration, which heads of state and government will be expected to endorse in Rio, includes a commitment to craft such goals by 2015. And a high-level panel, appointed by Ban Ki-moon and chaired by the leaders of Great Britain, Indonesia and Liberia, is poised to start work on the post-2015 development agenda right after the summit.

The prospect of SDGs offers a huge opportunity for sustainability to move from the margins to the mainstream of global economic and development policy and investment. If concrete goals and targets could drive development decisions, concepts such as “sustainable development” and “green economy” could be translated into on-the-ground impact. But for SDGs to be influential, governments must first address some important questions.

3 Key Questions:

1. What should be the main focus of a post-2015 agenda, and what specific issues should Sustainable Development Goals embrace?

The governments of Colombia and Guatemala initially proposed SDGs and have put forward a core set of issues for debate. These include sustainable food production and access to food and nutrition; water management for sustainable growth, energy, and safe and sustainable cities; healthy and productive oceans; sustainable consumption and production patterns; and enhanced employment and livelihood security. Poverty, gender, equity, and education are included as “cross-cutting” issues to address within each goal. This is an already ambitious agenda, but as preparations for Rio+20 have advanced, the list of issues proposed by various parties has grown considerably longer.

The result is the risk of an overly broad, unfocused agenda for which it would be hard to rally support and implement on the ground. The MDGs were effective in part because they set clear targets for a limited number of goals. Some of these have already been met, such as halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day (according to recent data from the World Bank).

Tackling poverty in its various manifestations must remain the central focus of any post-2015 development agenda. Worldwide, around 2.4 billion people still scrape by on less than $2 a day. New goals must also address underlying causes of poverty, including the loss of natural capital and ecosystem services— the so-called “GDP of the poor.” Resolving this central question will be a key challenge for the post-2015, high-level panel.

2. Should the new goals be applied universally?

While the MDGs put the burden of action on developing countries, many argue that all countries should be bound by SDGs. Poverty today is pervasive, afflicting countries at all income levels. Yet, the lion’s share of blame for global environmental problems lies squarely with the developed world.

3. How does the process move forward within the UN? Specifically, will the development of SDGs be merged with the post-2015 process, or proceed on a separate negotiating track?

We believe the latter, twin-track approach would be a missed opportunity to put sustainability and equity at the center of the global development agenda. Therefore, we believe that a single-track process is preferred.

All of this will take time to sort out. So what would be a good start at Rio? We are looking for four key outcomes:

  • First, Rio delivers a strong, clear mandate on the need for SDGs;

  • Second, this mandate calls for a single-track, post-2015 development agenda and a UN-led process that integrates MDGs and SDGs;

  • Third, “guiding principles” for SDGs are agreed upon. These convey that the SDGs should be more universal than the MDGs, while reflecting the principles laid down by the UN climate convention of “common but differentiated responsibility” among nations; and

  • Fourth, Rio clearly signals that SDGs and the post-2015 agenda will be developed through an inclusive, participatory process that engages civil society and the private sector.

Achieving “the future we want” will require economic development that addresses not only poverty, but ecological limits. If a strong mandate on SDGs emerges from Brazil, world leaders will have set a promising course toward global action that reflects our increasingly complex and interconnected world.

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