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Conceptual Outcomes: The Evolving Sustainable Development Narrative

Global narratives about the environment and sustainable development play an important role in shaping country priorities at the national level. Before the groundbreaking Stockholm Conference in 1972, for example, environmental ministries existed in only a handful of countries. The creation that year of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as the anchor institution for the global environment provided the conceptual vision and the support mechanism that enabled countries around the world to establish and equip such ministries.

Importantly, the prevailing view at the time saw protection of the environment as a precondition for development. Even though development was a clear priority for many countries, especially those that had recently gained independence, governments agreed that “the protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world; it is the urgent desire of the peoples of the whole world and the duty of all governments.” Over the ensuing decades, however, the focus shifted from environment as a precondition for development to development as a precondition for environmental protection.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 confirmed sustainable development as the new aspiration, moving the needle of political priorities to the development dimension. Subsequent international summits—the Millennium Summit in 2000 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002—shifted the focus further in the direction of development as a precursor to environmental protection. At Rio+20, in 2012, governments stated that “eradicating poverty [is] the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development,” rather than poverty alleviation being an outcome of sustainable development. They also committed, however, to a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, opening the door to a rethinking of priorities.

The Sustainable Development Goals will likely enter into force at the end of the 15-year period of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which governments adopted in 2000 and which have shaped the human development agenda in the UN system. The eight MDGs address multiple dimensions of human well-being—with the main goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger—and incorporate policy areas ranging from education and health to gender equality, environmental sustainability, and the creation of a global partnership. (See Table 13–1.) One of the eight goals (#7) is related to environment; however, because it is articulated separately from the rest and in very broad terms that are difficult to monitor and measure, it reinforces the false dichotomy of environment versus development rather than promoting an integrated, holistic approach to sustainable development.

The MDGs illustrate the power of global goals to provide meaning, purpose, and guidance, which can then translate into political attention and action. By offering a structure to focus advocacy, spur motivation, and target investment, the MDGs have improved the ability of countries to meet many of the targets. For example, extreme poverty has been reduced across all regions, including sub-Saharan Africa; worldwide, the share of people living on less than $1.25 a day dropped from 47 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2008, reflecting improved economic conditions for some 800 million people. The share of people with access to improved sources of water increased from 76 percent in 1990 to 89 percent in 2010, achieving the MDG target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

Yet the MDGs also highlight the challenges that global goals present. The narrow focus on a limited set of goals restricts attention to only a select few issues and might distort risk and investment preferences. For example, the main focus of the MDGs is on traditional socioeconomic development, and the goals do not explicitly recognize the interconnections among the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental). The environmental goal, #7—to “ensure environmental sustainability”—is not only distinctly separate from the other goals, but it includes only three environmental issues as targets—biodiversity, water, and urbanization.

The MDGs also have become the overarching development strategy steering investment (through official development assistance or other funds) into sectors identified as important in these eight global goals. Other country priorities therefore might be neglected. Moreover, because the MDGs apply only to developing countries, they do not recognize the monetary and

Table 13–1. UN Millennium Development Goals and Targets

moral responsibility of industrialized countries and offer a weak approach to addressing issues of social justice, equality, vulnerability, and exclusion.

With the MDGs set to expire in 2015, the Rio+20 conference engaged governments in debates about the post-2015 development agenda. Governments reaffirmed their commitment to sustainable development as the overarching goal but, in a positive step, shifted to a more integrated vision of what this entails. The Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, substituted the traditional definition of sustainable development as having three distinct “pillars”—environmental, economic, and social—with a new narrative of the three “dimensions” of sustainable development. This change recognizes the fluidity and interconnectedness among these aspects, and opens up opportunities for more integrative forms of governance.

Still, there are problems. Close analysis of the text of The Future We Want reveals that the environment has almost disappeared as an independent concept. The term “environment” (and its multiple variants) is mentioned 70 times in the 50-page document, and 21 of those mentions occur in the catch-all descriptor “social, economic, environmental.” “Development,” on the other hand, appears 635 times, 239 of those in the phrase “sustainable development.” The environmental discourse is therefore absorbed by, rather than integrated into, the development narrative.

The “green economy,” one of the framework themes of Rio+20, fueled expectations for a radical restructuring of the global political economy that would reconcile economic growth with planetary boundaries, account for natural capital, and ensure planetary stewardship. The concept, however, elicited criticism both from countries striving toward capitalism (which regarded the “green economy” mandate as a threat to their national development strategies) and from countries rejecting capitalism (which saw it as the commodification of nature). While The Future We Want mentions the green economy as one tool among many in the quest for sustainability, it also acknowledges the need to move beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of human well-being. Thus, ideas about new indicators of progress and prosperity gained ground and legitimacy.

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