rio+20 towards and beyond
Why one framework with a single set of universal goals will be crucial for sustainable development Post 2015
10 December 2012
Hayama, December 2012 - The process to elaborate sustainable development goals (SDGs) may be one of the most notable results of the Rio+20 conference. It provides an opportunity to incorporate lessons from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), devising a set of new goals that encompass both development and environment. Sustainable development requires the two concerns to go hand in hand, and comprehensive goals with environmental, social and economic targets will do just that.
Governance and Capacity Group
However, many decision makers still perceive environmental protection and development to be mutually exclusive. This perception has been institutionalised to the point that it jeopardises the creation of comprehensive development goals. The following paragraphs will explain this problem and suggest some solutions.
First, in relation to the Rio+20 outcome, governments are mandated to form an intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) to develop the SDGs. The group will work on defining a set of succinct, actionable and universal goals for the years following 2015. Second, the Post-2015 period relates to the Post-2015 Development Agenda (P2015A), a UN-led process initiated by last year’s General Assembly decision on forming a High Level Panel (HLP) to define the development framework after 2015.

Hence, the formal SDG and P2015A processes (and other informal contact groups) will define global development priorities for the period after 2015. It is reasonable to expect the P2015A to become an overarching framework embedding SDGs, indicators and targets. To be sure, differentiated targets should apply depending on countries’ development challenges; those should be decided by the OWG. Precisely how the SDGs will relate to the P2015A also depends on the OWG. Endorsing the HLP’s recommendations would be one way for the two processes to converge.

At the same time, the segregation between environment and development goes deeper than these parallel processes suggest, and pessimistic voices foresee a scenario of two separate sets of goals for developing and developed countries. In this day and age, where some developed countries risk becoming failed states and other countries are developing quickly, separate development frameworks defined by traditional north-south relations make little sense. In our globalised and rapidly changing world, one set of goals suggesting sustainable development pathways for all countries would seem more useful, especially if the SDGs are to guide development in the coming decades.

Moreover, facilitating just one global agreement on development is complicated, and the likelihood of separate processes to conclude successfully appears slim. However, much more is at stake if the agendas do not converge. A separation of environment and development goals will hinder an integrated approach to sustainable development. In this regard, separate institutional arrangements for both the P2015A and the SDGs processes jeopardise the likelihood of a single integrated development framework. The P2015A agenda is often placed in countries' development or foreign ministries, but responsibility for SDGs has typically been placed with environment ministries and directorates. Thus, the P2015A and the SDG processes are maturing in different offices overseen by different people reinforcing the divide between environment and development.

The SDGs should be designed with a view to overcome this divide. An important step in this direction would be for governments to mandate closer cooperation among the officers and civil servants in charge of these processes. This would increase the likelihood of integrating environment and development agendas, and should be a defining feature of the future development framework.

*** The contents of this commentary are the opinions of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of IGES.

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