There’s no shortage of advice for the Heads of State and other officials meeting in Rio next month to discuss sustainable development. An internet search on ‘Rio+20 must’ turned up 45,000 results, with imperatives ranging from the top level (‘build a new economic order’; ‘empower the grassroots’; ‘guarantee a right to the future’) to the specific (address transport, land rights, innovation, job creation… and many other things, apparently).
The level of ambition of those outside the Rio process is not matched by those within it. The last round of negotiations on the ‘Outcome document’ finished in New York at the end of last week, and the signs are that concrete agreements will be hard to come by.
There are about 420 paragraphs of text in the current document, and apparently 400 are yet to be agreed. The UN has added more days on to the negotiating timetable between now and the start of the conference, but it’s not looking good for those wanting Rio to make tough new commitments (see here for a great summary of the discussions, and for daily reports on the last two week negotiating marathon as it unfolded).
Why is it so difficult? Contained within the innocuous-sounding term ‘sustainable development’ are two fundamentally different aims. To be ‘sustainable’, the human race as a whole – for which read richer people – has to consume less. But to get ‘development’, poor people have to consume more.
The demands of combining these apparently irreconcilable but necessary objectives threaten to test the global system to breaking point. Many negotiators have seized with relief on one idea which seems to offer a way out: the proposal for a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These would be linked in some as yet unclear way to the Millennium Development Goals which focus on poverty reduction, and to their successors after 2015 (they might, in some versions of the idea, be the successors to the MDGs).
The new MDG/SDG hybrid could, it is hoped, bring the same level of attention and political commitment to sustainable development as the MDGs brought to poverty, and together the two could provide guidance on how to marry consuming more in some parts of the world with consuming less elsewhere.
Are SDGs the answer that Rio+20 has been looking for? Maybe, but maybe not. Negotiators are finding that even shiny new goals won’t change the politics. Some countries are worried that SDGs are a back-door attempt to impose global limits on resource use that will limit countries’ ability to develop. Others worry that too much focus on the sustainability part of the equation will weaken the global commitment to poverty reduction. And still others are wary that a new agreement might involve them making commitments to spend money that they don’t have.
Current signs are that Rio won’t solve this problem. But it could send some signals that would give the process a push in the right direction:
First, money talks. Ethiopia’s ambitious green growth plan is based around the two objectives of keeping carbon emissions at 2012 levels while reaching middle income country status by 2025. Part of the reasoning behind this is the availability of climate finance to fund investments in clean energy, transport and agriculture. Big, but believable, commitments to climate finance could make a big difference.
Second, information helps. At the moment, governments make decisions with information about incomes and prices, and social indicators about health and education outcomes. They don’t know what’s happening to the environment. Better information about ‘natural capital’ – the environmental resources of a country and what is happening to them – would help governments to make and explain trade-offs between conflicting objectives.
Third, the goals have to be right. The MDGs show how goals – well defined and packaged, and given political weight through the actions of civil society and other groups – can focus political attention on a few problems. But it’s got to be done right, or the end result will be a list of unattainable aspirations that make the politics more complicated rather than less. This is lesson number one for the newly-announced chairs of the UN’s High Level panel of Eminent Persons, who are the next in line to resolve this conundrum, once the Rio+20 negotiators have packed up and left the beaches of Rio behind.
Blog by Dr. Claire Melamed, Head of Growth, Poverty and Inequality at ODI.