The SDGs have had a short but already intense life. Absent from the initial mandate for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development ‘Rio+20’, proposed by Colombia in 2011, they were seen by some as an alternative to the controversial green economy discussions, forecasted by others to be one of major outcomes of Rio+20. So, what was achieved, and what not? An answer, by way of three questions.
One future set of (sustainable) development goals, or two?
Rio+20 delivered a distinct process for sustainable development goals, but “coherent with and integrated into the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015,” i.e. the follow-on to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Given the interconnected challenges of poverty eradication, environmental sustainability, and equitable distribution of limited natural resources – as well as risks of duplication –, these two tracks must converge into a single future framework.
Who will define the goals, and how?
Rio+20 mandates an ad hoc working group to define goals that “incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their interlinkages” with focus on priority areas guided by the outcome document, through an “inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process” with initial UN expert input. Learning from the shortcomings of the MDGs, the success of the goals will depend on the extent to which this process engages women and men living in poverty and grappling with environmental degradation.
Who will be responsible for meeting the goals?
Rio+20 sets in motion goals that will be “universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development,” while committing states to “mobiliz(e) financial resources… to achieve this endeavour.” This lays the ground for addressing unsustainable consumption and production patterns established by industrialized countries. The Rio+20-mandated process towards a Sustainable Development Financing Strategy must bring structural mechanisms for reorientation away from harmful activity, towards sustainable and equitable purposes. Legal accountability for public and private actors in fulfilling or undermining the goals will need to be clarified.