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Big thinking and big ambition: but a rocky road to Rio

Written by Claire Melamed


In June this year 50,000 people will descend on Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  As it’s the follow up to a similar conference held in the same place 20 years ago, the event has, informally, been given the rather more digestible title of ‘Rio+20’.  It’s a big one, even by the standards of UN conferences, with over 100 heads of state flying in for the occasion.

Some clues as to what all these people will talk about for three days were provided last week, when the ‘zero draft’ of the summit declaration was published.  There’s a lot in there (the draft skips rather bizarrely from ‘mountains’ to ‘education’ in just a few paragraphs).  The draft is something of a shopping list of good things for the planet – with lots of aspiration, and a certain amount of vagueness about the tougher business of delivery. 

One thing was clear though.  It’s been expected for months that Rio+20 will fire the starting gun for the formal discussion on what might replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015.  The draft makes this real, with all roads seeming to lead to 2015.

As well as the widely-trailed proposal for ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs),  which the draft says should be agreed by 2015, there is also a suggestion to establish agreed indicators and monitoring on the green growth agenda by 2015.  In addition, specific commitments on energy are to be met by 2030 – the likely end-date for any future agreement, if the 15-year timetable of the current MDGs is retained. 

The bringing together of the environment and development agendas is something that many organisations have been calling for for a long time, and they will be delighted to see this convergence.  Of course there is a very compelling logic to the idea that goals on development and environment should be linked.  Some of the proposed SDG topics in the Rio draft make the case well.  Food security and sustainable agriculture is a policy area that overlaps both.  Water access and efficiency is crucial for both poverty reduction and sustainability.  Unless disaster risk reduction and resilience are taken seriously, gains made on the development side could be quickly undermined by crises caused by environmental impacts. 

But there is a danger to this approach – exemplified in the call for SDGs to also tackle ‘sustainable consumption and production patterns’.  This gets to the heart of what makes the whole issue of sustainability so politically toxic.  Sustainable consumption patterns would almost certainly mean some people on the planet consuming less so others could consume more.  Similarly on production – if developing countries are going to grow, and if technology doesn’t ride to the rescue, it’s at least possible that ‘sustainable’ might mean the rich world producing less. 

Some of the green growth agenda also edges into difficult terrain – technology transfer, for example, has been argued over by rich and poor countries in the WTO and in the UNFCCC for years without any resolution.  This isn’t surprising, as it pits the needs of developing countries against the commercial interests of companies keen to maintain their monopoly on knowledge.

At the moment, there is a great deal of consensus that a new post-2015 development agreement should have more to say about the environment, and that the SDGs are the way to do this.   On the basis of the Rio draft, this might prove to be a short-lived consensus.  While some parts of the Rio draft are fairly uncontroversial and could be quite easily slotted in to a post-2015 development framework, others are political flashpoints that could risk dragging development policy into the quicksand of climate and environment negotiations. 

Development and environment are both idealist pursuits.  It’s right to think big, and without ambition nothing ever changes.  It’s also right to push the agenda as far as it will go, and to try to expand the boundaries of what is politically possible.  But care and caution, and, as ever, compromise, will be needed if the negotiations on a post-2015 global development framework, started at Rio, are to be translated into something that actually starts to make people’s lives better.  This draft is just the beginning.