Building on Rio+20 To Spur Action for Sustainable Development

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By Derek Osborn, President, Stakeholder Forum

For 40 years the world has been struggling to come to terms with the growing need to protect our environment and the natural systems that support all life. During that time, the focus has gradually shifted from specific and local environmental problems and challenges to a holistic appreciation of the need to attend to the operation of planetary processes and geosystems on a global basis and the way in which the totality of human activities affects them. This requires attention to the whole global economy and the way in which it could operate more sustainably.

Several United Nations Conferences have been milestones on this journey of transition toward a more sustainable global economy, and there will no doubt need to be more before the journey is complete. The Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (“Rio+20”), was the latest step in this long march and has launched a number of important new initiatives that need to be brought to fruition in the years ahead.

Significant commitments from Rio+20

  • The launch of a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and converge with the post-2015 development agenda
  • The launch of a program of work in the area of measures of progress to complement gross domestic product in order to better inform policy decisions
  • New guidelines on green economy policies
  • Adoption of a 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • An ongoing process to promote sustainability reporting by companies
  • The launch of a process to prepare options on a strategy for sustainable development financing
  • Establishment of a new higher-level political forum for sustainable development in the United Nations to replace the CSD
  • Strengthening of UNEP

The conference also took forward-looking decisions on a number of thematic areas, including energy, food security, oceans, and cities, and decided to convene a Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in 2014.

The Rio+20 Conference also galvanized the attention of thousands of representatives of the United Nations system and major groups. It resulted in more than 700 voluntary commitments and witnessed the formation of new partnerships to advance sustainable development.

Universal Sustainable Development Goals to Complement and Broaden MDGs

One of the most significant outcomes of the summit is the decision to establish a new set of universally sustainable development goals for the world. The MDGs that were established by the Millennium Summit in 2000 have played a valuable part over the last decade in focusing the efforts of the development community on a set of specific and concrete goals for reducing poverty, relieving hunger, and providing access to fresh water, among other actions. By focusing on this limited set of specific goals, the MDGs have enabled better use of available resources, and significant progress on the eradication of poverty in several developing countries, while avoiding the diffuseness and incoherence of some earlier development efforts.

Looking forward, there is a general desire to maintain the advantages of this focused approach in the next period of effort after 2015. At the same time, however, the Rio+20 outcome shows that there is a general desire to broaden the approach so that efforts focus on promoting sustainable development (i.e., development taking account of impacts on the environment and the needs of future generations, as well as the present) and on what needs to be done in every country of the world (not just the developing countries) to make their economies operate more sustainably. That is the purpose of the new Sustainable Development Goals that the summit has called for.

New Measures of Progress Beyond GDP

The 2012 summit also called for new yardsticks of progress from the United Nations Statistical Commission. Ultimately, moving beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress should help to dethrone GDP from its central place as the key economic objective.

This is a key target for sustainable development because GDP does not measure the right factors to give us a true picture of the well-being of society and its progress toward sustainability. economy-ticker-300So we need a better means of assessing and measuring what constitutes the true well-being of a society that can then be used to set more desirable goals for the management of national economies and the global economy. Finance and economics ministers are perhaps more in need of this new set of measures than anyone, so that they can recalibrate their goals and objectives toward the advancement of true well-being.

Although the conference did not reach substantial agreement on how national economies should be progressively transformed in a greener or more sustainable direction the creation of sustainable development goals and of new measures of well-being should in due course be powerful pointers in the right direction. And the guidelines for a green economy and the new program of work on sustainable production and consumption that were agreed to give a helpful push toward the kind of fiscal and economic policies that will be needed.

Finance and Economics Departments Cautiously Stepping Up to the Plate

As the thinking about the crucial elements of a greener, more sustainable economy gradually mature, there appears also to be a gradual broadening of participation in the debate from the environmentalists and environment departments who dominated the debate about sustainability years ago. Economists and finance and economics ministries are gradually taking more of an interest. The Stern report on the economics of climate change reinforced this shift partly because of its intellectual quality but equally importantly because its author was a leading economist from the UK Treasury carrying access and influence with the World Bank and world economic leaders.

Taking this evolution further, one of the preparations for the Rio+20 summit was a meeting of leading finance ministers, and they will no doubt be much involved in the development of the new strategy for financing sustainable development that was agreed upon at the meeting. The guidelines for greening the economies of the world are also strongly oriented in their direction. Although progress may be slower in these circles, it has the potential to be more solidly based because finance and economics ministers have more of the levers of real influence for change in their hands.

If this shift is to deliver its full potential it will need to be reflected at national levels. Many of the sustainable development strategies developed over the past 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit have been created and led by departments of the environment and have focused primarily on the environmental dimension of sustainable development. As the economic and social aspects of sustainable development come into sharper focus, it is becoming clearer that this is no longer an adequate approach to sustainable development and that sustainable development will need to be led in a more integrated way from the center of governments with the full involvement of economics and finance ministers, those responsible for social policies, and environment departments. The involvement of a wider range of leaders should also be reflected in the composition and working of the new United Nations high-level process to be established to replace the CSD. This forum could and should be conceived as an opportunity for heads of government supported by economics and finance ministers, as well as environment ministers, to keep the progress of sustainable development under active review.

In parallel with this new forum, the conference also decided to strengthen UNEP by giving it universal membership and an enlarged mandate. Some would have liked to go further and give UNEP the status of a United Nations agency, but even without this the changes agreed upon, the shift represent a significant strengthening of its capacity to monitor changes in the global environment, to build strategies and policies to help guide the world to a more sustainable future, and to develop its work on the greening of the global economy.

The laboriously negotiated words of the outcome document are by no means the whole outcome from the summit. Rio+20 was not just one intergovernmental negotiation leading to one set of conclusions. It was a whole collection of parallel discussions among countries and many other actors such as business and trade unions, parliamentarians, local and regional governments, the scientific and educational communities, and NGOs of all shapes and sizes. These groups are not active just as lobbyists of governments, but as major players in their own right, meeting together in their own events and reaching conclusions on their own way forward to sustainability.

Thus, some 800 business leaders from around the world meeting separately under the auspices of business and sustainable development committed themselves to further action to strengthen their own sustainability strategies and actions and to improve corporate accountability and reporting on these issues. Just as governments need to bring sustainability to the heart of their economic and financial polices, so businesses and the financial community will increasingly need to bring sustainability much closer to the heart of their corporate goals and strategies.

The 3,000 parliamentarians of the world meeting separately in Rio under the auspices of GLOBE agreed on a Legislators Protocol and plan to enhance the role of parliaments throughout the world in holding their governments to account for the progress of sustainable development in their countries.

One thousand four hundred local government representatives meeting separately in Rio reinvigorated their “strategy of supporting cities on the pathway to becoming resilient, resource-efficient, biodiverse and low-carbon, to turn their urban economy green and build smart infrastructure, with the ultimate goal of ensuring a healthy and happy community.”

Scientists meeting in Rio under the auspices of the International Council for Science (ICSU) launched a new 10-year international research initiative (Future Earth) that will develop the knowledge for responding effectively to the risks and opportunities of global environmental change and for supporting transformation toward global sustainability in the coming decades. Future Earth will mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policymakers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20.

Meanwhile, higher education institutions from around the world committed themselves to a new initiative to embed sustainable development more centrally in their practices and teaching.

Considerable energy and enthusiasm was built up in these parallel processes and has been taken home to many parts of the world. One test of the Rio legacy will be how to maintain this energy and commitment in the years ahead.

All of these initiatives by the United Nations and others will require intensive analysis and follow-up negotiation in the years ahead both at the United Nations in New York and elsewhere. The year 2013 will be crucial for getting many of these new initiatives on the road. And 2015 is seen by many as being the next major opportunity in the United Nations to take stock of the overall situation to launch an updated set of MDGs geared specifically toward development and to link them coherently to the new universal, more broadly based sustainable development goals.


No one could describe Rio+20 as a resounding success in itself. But it would be quite wrong to write it off as a total failure, or still more drastically to use its modest results to query the very goal of sustainable development and the crucial role of the United Nations in advancing it. Achieving a more sustainable global economy remains a crucial objective, and the United Nations will always be one of the key arenas for advancing this cause. Viewed from a 40 year perspective, Rio+20 can be seen as another modest but significant step in the process of greening the global economy and mainstreaming sustainable development into the responsibilities of those institutions and leaders principally responsible for the management of the global economy.

The task now for everyone concerned is to engage vigorously with the follow-up actions at local, sectoral, and national levels and with the follow-up negotiations at the international level to ensure that the initiatives started at Rio bear fruit in 2013 and beyond. The challenge of sustainability is more urgent than ever, and new possibilities for carrying the battle forward are constantly emerging both in the United Nations and in many countries around the world.

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