Operational Outcomes: Voluntary Commitments and Sustainable Development Goals

At the operational level, Rio+20 had two main outcomes. First, countries, companies, and citizens articulated a series of voluntary commitments to promote action around sustainable development. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the negotiated intergovernmental agreements as the “foundation” and the voluntary commitments as the “bricks and cement” in the global governance architecture, emphasizing the importance of both. Second, governments committed to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals to “address and incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their interlinkages.” Governments did not articulate the specific set of goals during the conference, but they stated in the outcome document the broad principles for global goal development. The challenge is to connect the articulation of the SDGs with the vision for followup to the MDGs after they expire in 2015.

Inspired by the system of partnerships that emerged from the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, Rio+20 introduced a new mechanism—voluntary commitments by governments, corporations, NGOs, and citizens—to encourage the implementation of sustainable development policies. The UN has begun to provide greater structure around this new set of unilateral pledges to action by launching the Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform and the Sustainable Development in Action Registry. Close to 700 commitments totaling more than $513 billion were made at Rio, and, as of September 1, 2013, the Action Registry included 1,412 voluntary commitments, partnerships, initiatives, and networks for sustainable development created since the 2002 World Summit.

In a comprehensive report assessing progress on these commitments, the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that about 58 percent were made by the private sector and civil society, 30 percent by governments, and 12 percent by UN organizations—with a total value estimated at $637 billion, nearly 1 percent of annual global GDP. This sum encompasses investments pledged in projects that are both internal and external to the actors making the commitments. For example, Microsoft committed to becoming carbon neutral by the end of 2013, an outcome it claims to have achieved. Bank of America pledged $50 billion in investments in renewable energy, energy access, and energy efficiency projects over a decade. The timelines for the commitments vary, but the majority—51 percent of the 1,412 commitments— aim to deliver results by 2015 or earlier, reflecting the goal of meeting the MDGs. The target deadline for another 16 percent of the commitments is 2022, a decade after Rio+20.

The highest number of voluntary commitments, close to 300, is in the area of education. This reflects the launch at Rio+20 of the UN's Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, which aims “to get institutions of higher education to commit to teach sustainable development concepts, encourage research on sustainable development issues, green their campuses, and support sustainability efforts in their communities.” The second most popular area for voluntary commitments is the green economy, where primarily governments have made pledges to action. In terms of resources, the most significant Rio+20 commitment was for sustainable transportation, where eight multilateral development banks pledged $175 billion in loans and grants to developing countries over 10 years to enhance sustainable transport in urban areas. A year after this commitment, some $17 billion, or 10 percent of the pledge amount, had been approved for projects.

Among the major challenges for voluntary commitments, both by governments and by other actors, are accountability and the assessment of results. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has proposed a voluntary accountability framework based on three pillars: 1) annual reporting, 2) updated registry, and 3) third-party independent review. Functional institutional arrangements will be critical. Moreover, an engaging public discussion about the voluntary commitments will make them more visible, likely leading to greater pressure for regular reporting and reviews and, ultimately, to their fulfillment at various levels of governance.

In another key outcome, Rio+20 resolved to establish an intergovernmental process to define a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, taking into account basic human needs, environmental sustainability, social equity, and governance tools. In doing so, governments recognized the relevance of development goals as useful instruments to frame action toward sustainable development. Although they did not elaborate on the specific goals, they agreed on a set of general characteristics—specifically, that the SDGs be comprehensive, universal, limited in number, ambitious, and easy to communicate.

A major point of contention, however, was the mechanism for goal formulation, with governments debating the need for an expert-driven or a political, intergovernmental process. To implement this mandate, the UN General Assembly established a 30-member Open Working Group to articulate a proposal for the SDGs and guarantee the opportunity for international organizations, stakeholders, civil society, and UN agencies to provide input during the process. Governments participating in the Open Working Group and analysts have suggested multiple topics around which the goals could be constructed. The concurrence with the UN's Post-2015 Development Process, however, raises the challenge of integrating the two agendas. Ultimately, the global goal is “to end extreme poverty in all its forms in the context of sustainable development and to have in place the building blocks of sustained prosperity for all.”

In this context, the SDGs emphasize explicitly that such prosperity cannot be achieved without safeguarding the ability of the planet to maintain the conditions critical to human well-being. An innovative proposal from Colombia suggests that governments should focus on defining adequate targets and indicators across issues and subsequently cluster them to arrive at common goals. Some targets could appear in various goals, even if the overall number of goals is low. As governments negotiate the nature and number of goals, it is critical to set up systems for measuring progress as well as support for implementation. Concrete measurement strategies and mechanisms provide governments and international organizations with the necessary data and science-based information to evaluate progress and take corrective measures as required. (See Box 13–1.) Implementation support systems would ensure that countries develop adequate baselines for measurement and adequate methodologies for data gathering, create the necessary policies to integrate the goals into national planning and strategies, and provide the necessary financial and personnel backing.

Importantly, obligations under the SDGs will be universal—they will extend to all countries, regardless of their level of development, unlike the MDGs, which apply only to developing countries. Contextualized, specific national and regional targets can be used to measure progress at the different levels, to complement the general approach of global goals. Ultimately, the definition and application of the new framework will require transparency, participation, and engagement from all groups.

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