Rio+20: Salvation is here

Will Sustainable Development Goals save Rio+20? Maybe. But everyone must buy into them.

Salvation for the UN Rio+20 Summit may come in the form of universal Sustainable Development Goals. Without them the summit risks becoming a flop.

But what are the Sustainable Development Goals? To date, little has been written about them and few people, it seems, have an idea what goals to choose, who will choose them or how they will operate.

Columbia and Guatemala were the first to propose the idea of a new set of goals and it has quickly gained momentum. Recently, several hard-hitting reports have backed the idea including Ban Ki-moon’s Global Sustainability Panel report and the State of the Planet Declaration published by the scientific community published at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference. Civil society organizations have also got in on the act.  Indeed it is the civil society organizations who have gone further than any others to identify new goals.

Any new set of goals will probably work much like the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) but be broader, potentially encompassing all aspects of global sustainability.  193 nations and 23 international organizations voluntarily signed up to MDGs, which are due to finish in 2015.

A significant difference this time round is that goals for sustainable development must be universal — they must apply to all nations. This might be an ask too far for the United States. But to achieve genuine sustainable development rich nations must change their habits.

There are several ideas for Sustainable Development Goals on the table but let’s start with the orignal MDGs:

  1. Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

The Columbian government has proposed a new set of eight goals:

  1. Combating poverty
  2. Changing consumption patterns
  3. Promoting sustainable human settlement development
  4. Biodiversity and forests
  5. Oceans
  6. Water resources
  7. Advancing food security
  8. Energy, including from renewable sources
In September 2011 a UN conference for civil society organizations (lines435-625) identified 17 goals:
  1. Sustainable consumption and production
  2. Sustainable livelihoods, youth and education
  3. Climate sustainability
  4. Clean energy
  5. Biodiversity
  6. Water
  7. Healthy seas and oceans
  8. Healthy forests
  9. Sustainable agriculture
  10. Green cities
  11. Subsidies and investment
  12. New indicators of progress
  13. Access to information
  14. Public participation
  15. Access to redress and remedy
  16. Environmental justice for the poor and marginalized
  17. Basic health

Surprisingly, these goals fail to explicitly mention the number one priority for many nations: poverty eradication. Gender issues and equality are strangely missing too. The report’s goal for sustainable agriculture is woefully off target: “By 2030, global agricultural production is transformed from industrial to sustainable.” If we are to feed 9 billion, food production will be industrial.

It is clear a more thorough analysis is needed.

Planetary boundaries and sustainable development goals

In 2009, a group of researchers suggested if we respect nine “planetary boundaries” we will go a long way to creating a safe operating space for humanity.

While some Earth-system scientists are critical, others have latched on to it as a useful foundation for international policy, even suggesting the boundaries concept could form the basis of Sustainable Development Goals. Oxfam has taken the boundaries concept one step farther and developed a set of social boundaries based, it says, on human rights. Taken together, Kate Raworth, a senior researcher at Oxfam, suggests this could be the starting point for discussions on new goals.

What could happen at Rio?

One potential outcome could be:

  • Initiate Sustainable Development Goals
  • Create a Sustainable Development Council or other such body to oversee goals.
  • Develop a Sustainable Development Assessment or Outlook report to monitor progress and provide early warnings of new global and regional challenges.

Roadmap to Sustainable Development Goals

The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan has suggested a potential timeline for action on Sustainable Development Goals:

  1. At Rio+20 agree to develop Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. UN Secretary General establishes a mechanism to define goals.
  3. Select some overarching themes such as food security and energy and set up a few test-drive groups of countries with different circumstances or capabilities to trial some of these targets, take measurements, then share the experiences.
  4. Develop measurements or indicators beyond GDP, taking into account the result of these test-drives.
  5. Adopt SDGs at the 68th UN General Assembly in 2013.
  6. Integrate SDGs into a post-2015 development agenda.

Where to next?

The large London Planet Under Pressure conference in March organized a World Cafe-type session to kickstart a fresh dialogue between the scientific community and policymakers on a new set of goals, indicators and targets. The aim was not to come up with a set of goals but to start doing a lot more thinking on the whole idea. This could form the nucleus of a mechanism to define goals.

What the scientists say:

We need a lengthy dialogue will all concerned to develop a comprehensive suite of goals that takes into account all the interconnections and trade-offs between goals. In addition we need a universally accepted definition of sustainable development and a full suite of metrics and indicators to measure progress. In short, goals need to be quantitative to reduce the risk of failure.

What the rest of the world may say:

Let’s dash off a list that looks like it covers all the bases.

Bottom line

As everyone who has tried to lose weight or give up smoking knows, setting goals does not always work, particularly if it requires changing habits of a lifetime. The wording of new goals is critical If it means altering people’s core values and beliefs.

Finally, it would be a mistake to impose goals on people. Everyone needs to buy into the idea. This should be the biggest outreach project of all time.

Further reading

RIO + 20: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): A Proposal from the Governments of Colombia and Guatemala

Issues Brief 6 – Current Ideas on Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators, UN-DESA

IGES: What are Sustainable Development Goals?

Planetary and social boundaries: A starting point for designing Sustainable Development Goals?

Oxfam: Sustainable Development Goals: easy win or slippery slope?

Oxfam: Sustainable development goals: Earth scientists respond to the doughnut

Is civilization really at risk of collapse?

“In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization.”

This incredible quote is from  Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act, a report from laureates of the Asahi Blue Planet Prize, published 20 February. It sounds like the climax of a Hollywood disaster movie.

Is there enough evidence to back such a statement? Authors of the report, who include NASA’s James Hansen, and also Susan Solomon, Paul Ehrlich, Hal Mooney and Bob Watson, the chief scientific advisor to the UK’s environment ministry, DEFRA, think so.

Below are links to 19 published peer-reviewed research papers that may explain why many scientists are so concerned.

Beyond natural boundaries. This is an 800,000-year record of carbon dioxide, methane and temperature illustrating the Earth system's natural cycles. Top right: recent carbon dioxide and methane levels are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years, possibly 15 million. Modern humans first emerged 200,000 years ago. Source: International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, modified after Loulergue et al. ( Nature 2008) and Lüthi et al. (Nature 2008).

  1. Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation (2012, Nature)
  2. Past extreme warming events linked to massive carbon release from thawing permafrost (2012, Nature)
  3. The geological record of ocean acidification (2012, Science)
  4. Determining the natural length of the current interglacial (2012, Nature Geoscience)
  5. Climate sensitivity in the Anthropocene (2011, Earth System Dynamics)
  6. Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks (2011, Geophysical Research Letters)
  7. Sea-level rise and its possible impacts given a ‘beyond 4°C world’ in the twenty-first century (2011, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A)
  8. Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications (2011, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A)
  9. Early-warning signals for critical transitions (2009, Nature)
  10. September sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean projected to vanish by 2100 (2009, Nature Geoscience)
  11. Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles (2009, Nature Geoscience)
  12. High-resolution carbon dioxide concentration record 650,000–800,000 years before present (2008, Nature)
  13. Orbital and millennial-scale features of atmospheric CHover the past 800,000 years (2008, Nature)
  14. Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system (2007, PNAS)
  15. How fast are the ice sheets melting? (2006, Science)
  16. Global consequences of land use (2005, Science)
  17. Abrupt climate change (2003, Science)
  18. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems (2001, Nature)
  19. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model (2000, Nature)

Feel free to suggest other papers.