Sustainable development goals won't have a chance if the pre-summit debate pretends problematic politics don't matter
The UN General Assembly in New York debates sustainable development, a key theme of the Rio+20 summit in June. Photograph: Devra Berkowitz/UN Photo
In the runup to June's Rio+20 Earth Summit, sustainable developmentgoals (SDGs) are a hot topic. First proposed by the Columbian government, SDGs are now regarded by many as possible concrete outcomes from a conference whose prospects for delivering change otherwise seem gloomy at best. SDGs feature prominently in Rio's zero draft document and the recommendations of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. Others argue that SDGs should be signed in 2015, the deadline for the millennium development goals (MDGs), which have paid scant attention to environment and sustainability – confined to goal seven. A new set of SDGs could fill the MDG gaps and become a powerful successor global project that recognises the inextricable links between the environment and every dimension of development.
Fulfilling these powerful aspirations means, inevitably, doing politics. To date, the pre-Rio global debate has not fully grasped how deeply this is true, and at how many levels. Certainly, there have been calls for governments to show "political will" – to turn up and act at Rio and beyond, as well as demands for high-level political leadership on sustainable development, whether from reformed UN institutions or "leaders' summits". Others are looking to social and environmental movements to push for change. Yet all this is essentially about the politics of buying in to the concept of SDGs. Beyond this, there is currently little clarity on what SDGs should involve, who should set them, and how they can be realised in practice. This is where the really knotty politics begins.
The title of the Rio draft document and a catchphrase for the summit isThe Future We Want. It is now clear that this future must be radically different from the past and that the current business-as-usual approach won't do. We need ambitious goals, for instance on stabilising global atmospheric CO2 concentrations and reducing the number of people facing hunger and water stress – despite population growth. In low-income and Bric countries, anxiety is already emerging about how to share the burdens of meeting ambitious global goals. Whether SDGs imply the old, industrialised north putting the brakes on others' development while avoiding costly changes to their own lifestyles and economies will certainly be part of the politics at Rio. Can the world develop a global "we" that moves beyond this polarisation, so well-worn in recent climate negotiations?
More problematic still is the question of who "we" are when it comes to delivering on SDGs in real national and local settings. Here, there are multiple, disputed versions of "sustainable development" that imply different winners and losers. For example, in tackling water stress in India, does sustainable development mean addressing the needs of rapidly-growing urban populations and industries by building large dams? Or supporting the efforts of marginalised rural farmers and pastoralists to live with water uncertainties, through local knowledge and livelihood strategies?
When it comes to combating hunger in settings such as rural Kenya, does sustainable development mean improving nationalfood security through boosting agricultural productivity, using modern plant breeding and genetic engineering to roll out technical solutions at scale? Or does it mean tackling diverse local food insecurities shaped by ecological, market, social and institutional contexts, through farmer-participatory approaches?
Or, take the much-touted Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd) schemes – will these secure the livelihoods of forest users while enabling them to benefit from carbon markets? Or will they become "green grabs" that appropriate local resource rights in the interests of global environmental repair?
In reality, these choices are not so clear-cut. As our work at the STEPS Centre argues, multiple, diverse "pathways" will be needed to meet sustainable development challenges. The point is that not all of these can be pursued because there are inevitable trade-offs and competition between different alternatives. How these are resolved depends on power and politics, which are played out through the interactions of ministers and local government, corporations and businesses, citizens and users, NGOs and people's movements in specific, often highly-charged political settings.
Twenty years ago, following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the politics of sustainable development were downplayed. At that time, the widely-accepted Brundtland definition of sustainable development("development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs") valued equity in general, but paid little attention to particular, distinct needs and values. Throughout the 1990s, doing sustainable development often meant using approaches, frameworks, audit systems and evaluation protocols that were apolitical. The simplistic managerialism of many initiatives that were labelled "sustainable development" left many hopes of Rio 1992 unfulfilled, while the tendency of businesses and governments to pursue almost anything in the name of "sustainability" discredited the term.
In 2012, the stakes are too high for Rio+ 20 to go the same way. It is time to put the politics back in at all levels. We need to recapture sustainable development as a term that facilitates discussion of diverse goals and values. We need to foster inclusive, democratic debate – across south and north, among poor and rich – about which pathways to pursue and how. "The future we want" may not be one in which we all share all our sustainable development goals and values, but it can be one in which more of us have a say.