UNDESA Working Paper Highlights Limited Progress on International Cooperation, Sustainable Development

November 2012: The UN Division for Sustainable Development (DESA) has released the first issue of its UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) Working Paper series, titled “Development cooperation in light of sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Preliminary exploration of the issues.”

The paper examines the evolution of the sustainable development agenda and international cooperation from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to Rio+20 in 2012. Despite some progress on sustainable development since Rio, the paper highlights continued gaps in development and limited progress in renewable energy, mitigating carbon dioxide emissions and technology advancements. The paper concludes “action has fallen short of ambition” on both international cooperation and sustainable development.

The paper evaluates financing for a low-carbon economy transition and discusses financing concerns, including: the evolution of international assistance and development paradigms in isolation from sustainable development; and segmented international assistance dominated by instrument or sector based financing. It recommends, inter alia: private investment for sustainable development; eliminating unsustainable subsidies; and implementing innovative financing to fund global ecosystem conservation such as payments for ecosystem services (PES), reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) and taxes on airline travel, carbon currency and financial transactions and global arms trades.

The section on SDGs considers the Rio+20 agreement to develop the SDGs, the role of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a catalyst for development cooperation and questions whether the SDGs could provide a framework for international cooperation for sustainable development. The paper discusses three differences between the MDGs and the SDGs. First, while the MDGs enjoyed broad consensus among countries, agreement on the ways and means to achieve sustainable development is weaker, particularly on compatibility between environmental sustainability and sustained global economic growth. Second, the paper raises collective action and enforcement concerns, citing examples of failed collective action on climate change, fisheries and transboundary pollution. Third, the paper notes concerns related to common but differentiated responsibilities.

 The paper concludes that challenges exist in adopting the SDGs as a guide for international cooperation for sustainable development and that integrating development and sustainable development agendas would require “deep change” and convergence of institutions and processes from international to national levels. The Rio+20 Working Papers are preliminary papers posted on UNDESA's website to stimulate discussion and comments. [Publication: Development Cooperation in Light of Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Preliminary Exploration of the Issues]