Is it time for Sustainable Development Goals?

From MDGs to… SDGs? That’s one of the ideas swirling around in discussions ahead of the Rio 2012 sustainable development summit next year, anyway.

You can see the attraction. With less than a year to go, there are precious few concrete ideas on the table for what the summit might produce, especially in the area of “institutional framework for sustainable development”, one of two key themes for the event (sure, there’s much talk of a new World Environment Organisation, but colour me very unconvinced of the case for that). So might SDGs help to fill the gap?

Well, that would depend on what they cover. The government of Colombia has set out a proposal for SDGs that would cover various sectors – atmosphere, climate resilience, land degradation, sustainable agriculture, biotech, waste and so forth. This would mainly be about ‘reaffirming’ (that awful word – who, other than diplomats, ever ‘reaffirms’ anything?) commitments made at Rio 1992. But you have to wonder: important though delivery of existing commitments undoubtedly is, is ‘reaffirmation’ of stuff agreed 20 years ago really going to set any pluses racing outside the sustainable development priesthood?

Much more interesting, on the other hand, is the idea that SDGs could provide an institutional foundation for the nine planetary boundaries identified – and quantified – by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (see also this previous GD post). The core idea in the boundaries approach is to define a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ – and, of course, the global economy. So if you’re looking for a serious synthesis of environment and economic development, this is ground zero.

Of course, a host of questions would still need to be answered. One would be about what timeline the SDGs would span: 25 years, like the MDGs’ 1990-2015 timescale, or much longer than that?

There’s also the small question of which countries would be covered, and how. The MDGs were basically about developing countries (Goal 8 notwithstanding) – an approach that clearly wouldn’t be possible with SDGs, given the huge sustainability impact of consumptions levels in rich countries. So would the SDGs apply globally, but not to specific countries – leaving them open to the charge that they’re rhetorical aspirations, not serious engines of change? Or would they apply to individual states – opening up the issue of how to differentiate countries’ commitments?

Then, of course, we’d need to know how the SDGs would relate to the MDGs. Some (greens, especially) would like to see SDGs replace MDGs beyond 2015. But lots of developing countries would be deeply suspicious of any perceived dilution of focus on poverty reduction, or anything that looked like it might ‘pull the ladder up after developed countries’ by denying them space to develop – and large and influential aid donors might well agree.

And we’d need to figure out an institutional home for the Goals, too. It would be crucial for them not to be ‘owned’ by the environment priesthood – if SDGs became seen as UNEP’s baby, they’d be stillborn at birth. Instead, it might be interesting to set up a new, independent, scientifically based international institution to monitor planetary boundaries – kind of like a global Congressional Budget Office for planetary boundaries. (Normally, I’m adamantly opposed to creating new international institutions, given how many we have already – but here, I think there’s a compelling case.)

Finally, there’s the question of process. It’s almost certainly too late to define any set of SDGs in time for Rio. Instead, the best option now would be for Rio to provide a launch pad for a process to define a set of SDGs – perhaps leaving open, for now, how they might relate to post-2015 MDGs further down the line. This would create valuable time for some serious outreach, above all to developing countries – though not too much time, given that you’d want to have the SDGs finalised before the US slides back into Presidential election mode from 2015 onwards. 12-18 months would probably be about right – with the Goals signed off at a UN summit in, say, spring 2014.