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A while ago, I blogged about the government of Colombia’s proposal for next year’s Rio + 20 Summit –that it should agree a set of “Sustainable Development Goals,” or SDGs for short.  That blog raised the concern that having a set of SDGs agreed only three years before a new round of MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) might be a little confusing to… well... everyone. 

But if the Rio Goals could be an input to a new round of MDGs, that might work out very well for all concerned.  After all, the last round of MDGs had ten years of UN thematic conferences to build upon and steal goal language from, while any 2015 round will have no such luxury.  Rio+20 could provide valuable inputs for (much better) language on the environment in any new set of MDGs.  Meanwhile, agreeing the Goals could provide an important outcome for a Rio summit that, at the moment, looks like it might be a little lacking in headline-worthy accomplishments (and has been ignominiously shunted so as not to clash with Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations).  

What is realistic to expect at Rio? Well, we know what isn’t: there will be no internationally-negotiated treaty with legally-binding commitments at the country level.  For example, as the Durban conference wraps up without much in the way of progress, no one is suggesting that a Kyoto follow-up could be presented to the leaders six months from now in Rio.  (six years, anyone?).   In fact, the Brazilian Governments have said that Rio is not the place do more negotiations on climate change.

But that’s the beauty of the MDG model.  The goals aren’t meant to set binding commitments at the country level –they are global and aspirational. World leaders can agree that the world as a whole should be heading in a certain direction without specifically committing to what they would do about it themselves. 

For example, at Cancun, national governments once again agreed to constrain global warming to a maximum temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels. It would be a reasonably small additional step for the leaders gathered at Rio to recognize the scientific view that keeping global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius also means that we must reduce global emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  So perhaps the Rio Declaration could set as a Sustainable Development Goal that “Global greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.”  This would be a global goal, not taken to apply at the country level.

What, one might ask, would be the point of such a goal?  After all, if it is purely aspirational, that means it has no legal force.  And greenhouse gasses are emitted by countries, not (significantly) by whales swimming in international waters.  If there are no binding, country-level targets, a global greenhouse gas emissions goal is just ink on paper.   The same criticism applies to the MDGs as a whole, of course.  And the answer is the same that applies to criticisms of the MDGs.  For all they have no legal force, they signal global concern in an issue, they provide a yardstick for measuring progress, a framework for discussion and a flag to rally around for civil society. And it is beyond doubt that the MDGs have influenced thinking about development over the past ten years, as well as policy frameworks and aid relationships.   They may even have helped foster progress in the Goal areas (of which more in an upcoming paper by Andy Sumner and me).

Brice Lalonde, Executive Coordinator of the Rio Conference, has suggested SDGs that focus in four areas: agriculture, energy, cities and social justice.   I’d be tempted to focus instead on ‘Earth Goals’ on global GHG emissions, global forest cover, global energy mix, oceans and fisheries, and biodiversity (building on, or perhaps just repeating, what was agreed in Nagoya).  That’s not least because a list of goals agreed at an Earth Summit that doesn’t cover the major global commons will look a little holey, while too many goals regarding broader wellbeing might be seen as constraining to a more inclusive process to develop an new round of MDGs over the next three years.

Earth Goals might have an additional attraction for the organizers of the Rio event –as a way of highlighting and aggregating the many national and regional commitments that are likely to be made during the summit.  Countries, companies, communities, and citizen groups – along with international agencies - appear set to repeat the kind of pledge-making which has begun a common feature of international environmental conferences in the decade since the last “Earth Summit” in Johannesburg.

If negotiators can ‘cap’ those pledges with a global Earth Goal, the Rio organizers can say the pledges made  on biodiversity, if implemented, will get us X percent towards meeting the biodiversity Goal, or the pledges on renewable energy, if implemented, will get us Y percent towards the energy mix Goal.  If those X’s and Y’s are large enough numbers, the Second Earth Summit will have created the metric to declare itself a success –and where better to celebrate than Rio?

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.