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Despite protestation from all sides that there should be only one development agenda post-2015, the Rio process continues on what appears to be a parallel, overlapping track.  Not least that’s because the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are facing the same issue as the process to come up with new Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) –everyone with a sectoral agenda is arguing that their topic is vital to sustainable development.  Many of them are surely right.  But if poverty reduction, gender, infrastructure access, human rights, jobs and so on are all sustainable development issues that therefore should be in the SDGs, it is hard to see how what emerges differs from MDGs.

That may be why the organizers of Rio+20 are quietly suggesting the extent of progress towards SDGs may be limited at the summit –possibly just to saying there ought to be some, maybe to saying what broad areas should be covered.  Then an expert panel would recommend some as an input to the post-2015 process.  That’s probably good news for those hoping for a participatory process around the renewal of the MDGs, but surely a bit of a disappointment for those hoping for big news out of Rio.

It leaves the big hope for the summit being the commitments made by regional and national groupings of governments, the private sector and CSOs towards sustainable development.  A similar model worked for the UNFCCC Cancun Summit –when 80 countries made commitments on mitigation.  The difference there, however, was we knew what they were commitments against (the goal of keeping climate change below 2 degrees centigrade).  And so we knew how far the commitments got us (far, but not nearly far enough).    It isn’t clear what the commitments made in Rio will be against, which will significantly blunt our ability to say how important they are.  That’s not a plus when it comes to generating good news out of the Summit.

One potential solution: come up with a list of agreed targets from Nagoya, Cancun and other UN summits around sustainable development, and ask groups planning to make commitments which ones of these targets their commitments will help us get towards, and by how much.  That will allow for an accounting exercise at Rio and afterwards to say the event got us X percent towards the biodiversity goal, as it might be.  Otherwise the only headline out of Rio might be “no goals, meaningless commitments.”

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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 is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.