Sustainable development goals won't have a chance if the pre-summit debate pretends problematic politics don't matter
In the runup to June's Rio+20 Earth Summit, sustainable development goals (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.
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