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Experts Discuss Substance, Process of SDGs at UNGA Debate on Rio+20

22 May 2012: One month before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) convenes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a high-level thematic debate of the UN General Assembly discussed two key issues for the “Road to Rio+20 and Beyond.” The proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) and potential role for the UNGA following Rio+20 were explored by participants in the event at UN Headquarters in New York, US, on 22 May 2012.

Opening the debate, UNGA President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser said poverty reduction must be at the heart of any outcome on SDGs and the post-2015 development framework. Key to solving our problems, he added, is the role of women in sustaining family and community welfare. Their direct ownership and engagement is crucial for success in addressing poverty.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the seven “priority themes” for Rio+20. He said that, while they provide an opportunity for agreement and bold action, the use of those opportunities depends on action today. Ban suggested that negotiators have been blinded to the big picture and warned against “microscopic examination of text.” Ban said the Conference should agree to strengthen UNEP, in addition to deciding on an institutional framework for sustainable development. On SDGs, he noted that clear and measurable targets and indicators will be an essential part of the post-2015 global development framework.

Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Under Secretary General for Environment, Energy, Science and Technology, Brazil's Ministry of External Relations, said nothing will be achieved without inspiring civil society. "Governments alone can do very little,” he said. He called for reiterating the international commitment to full achievement of the MDGs.

Kim Sook, Co-Chair, UNCSD Bureau, urged negotiators to concentrate on the “essentials,” citing the creation of an enabling environment for sustainable development, in particular.

Erkki Tuomioja, Finland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, said only a few decades remain, at best, to change the unsustainable way we live. “To be frank,” he said, “I'm not sure this is any longer possible.” He also said the empowerment of women and their inclusion in all spheres is “the key – to almost anything we desire in the world – but particularly for sustainable development.” He suggested that Nordic countries have set a good example in this regard.

Jean Asselborn, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luxembourg, conveyed his country's views on SDGs and the institutional framework for sustainable development, and noted Luxembourg's increasing level of official development assistance (ODA) over the past 20 years.

The first panel discussion focused on the SDGs. Moderator Olav Kjorven, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Bureau for Development Policy (BDP), UNDP, explained the incipient process to create a framework for the UN's post-2015 development agenda. He noted it would be guided by any agreements reached in Rio.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute, urged States to agree to the SDGs as the core organizing principle for the coming years, rather than losing time negotiating a long, binding text. A set of SDGs would engage society, as the MDGs have done, and teach the concept of a “triple bottom line.” If this can be agreed in Rio, the Conference will be historic.

Brice Lalonde, UNCSD Executive Coordinator, agreed that SDGs are the main possible outcome for Rio, would create excitement, and would be a “quantum leap in the story of the story of the UN.”

Martin Khor, Executive Director, South Centre, said goals are useful for galvanizing the public and stimulating aid, but most important is having a plan for implementation. This requires a new agreement on IFSD. Khor also recommended that while the SDG process should take the MDGs into account, MDGs should not be merged with the SDGs at this point.

Jose Manuel Mendoza-Nasser, CEO of Viridi International, spoke about Viridi's project on “smart, green, affordable housing in drylands.” Housing, he argued, is the way to resolve the investment bias in favor of cities and non-dry areas, and it can be the “kick start” needed to renovate the lives of millions while improving ecological health and promoting gender equality.

Helio Mattar, Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption, discussed sustainable consumption and production (SCP) in the context of SDGs. He highlighted the concept of the “society of wellbeing,” featuring the highest possible efficiency in the use of natural resources, as opposed to a “society of consumption,” in which consumption is an end in itself and surpasses reasonable needs. Mattar recommended three preconditions for SDGs: designation of consumer industries' advertising resources to fund awareness-raising on consumption's environmental impacts; social inclusion through shortening the work week; and consumption education.

In the discussion session, participants addressed: whether the MDGs should remain separate and parallel to the SDGs, or be integrated into a single set of goals; how and by whom the SDG process would be led; and the importance of promoting gender equality and empowerment of women for achieving sustainable development, inter alia.

The second panel focused on the UNGA's potential role in following up to Rio+20. Narinder Kakar, Permanent Observer of IUCN to the UN, served as the moderator, and the panelists were: Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of IPCC and Director-General TERI Institute; Steven Bernstein, University of Toronto; Felix Dodds, Director, Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future; Pat Mooney, ECT Group; and Rubens Born, Vitae Civilis. [UN Press Release] [UNGA Summary of Meeting] [Background and Programme] [Statement of UNSG] [Webcast of Thematic Debate, Opening and Panel 1] [Webcast of Thematic Debate, Panel 2 and Closing]