Making sense of UN communiqués is never easy at the best of times, but it’s particularly hard when you are not involved in the process and so can’t decode the bland summit speak – a mind-numbing array of frameworks for action, toolkits, partnerships, dialogues and the like. So it’s hardly surprising that reading the draft ‘zero draft outcome document’ (what language do these people speak? – sure ain’t Shakespeare) for the Rio+20 summit in June made my head hurt. As far as I can make out, it is almost entirely made of up a series of vacuous ‘best endeavours’ non-commitments, roughly adding up to ‘we will do our best to save the planet, but no promises’.
Politically, that may be the best approach, even though the climate change clock is ticking, and won’t wait for political conditions to become more propitious. With US elections due later this year, and every Northern economy forced by austerity and fear of a double dip recession into a highly introspective and tight-fisted mood, no summit is likely to produce ambitious outcomes this year.
Which brings us to the proposed ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, discussed by Alex Evans in a new paper. The sudden rise to prominence of the SDG idea is partly down to energetic advocacy by the Colombian government – who first mooted the idea of SDGs – and also to negotiators’ desperate search for some kind of ‘announceable’ in Rio. At a recent ‘intersessional’ (UN speak again, sorry) everyone from Canada to Botswana weighed in to support the SDGs (although the BRICS and the US opted to remain silent (at least in the official proceedings). They also feature prominently in the zero draft outcome document, which proposes they be finalized by 2015, the date when most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) currently in place are due to expire.
At first sight, the SDGs seem an admirable idea. There is indeed a problem that the current MDGs neglected scarcity and sustainability and in general,- environmental solutions need to be equitable (e.g. secure access to natural resources for people in poverty; action by rich countries to cut their consumption footprint), so let’s bring sustainability and development together, right?
But Alex sees the SDG idea as fraught with political perils: to make sense they would have to apply to all countries, not just the developing ones (cue US veto); they might muddy the waters (and blur the poverty focus) as the UN tries to agree on the successors to the MDGs. At worst they could just add to the proliferation of meaningless sustainability language (see graph).
His conclusion? ‘While there are good reasons to explore a more comprehensive and integrated set of Goals beyond 2015, policymakers should use Rio+20 to focus on broad principles and on raising the level of ambition – not on attempting to rush into specifics without adequate preparation. This is a time to play a long game, not to go for quick wins that could all too easily backfire.’
In this case, kicking the can down the road might actually be the best approach.