TWN Update on Sustainable Development Conference 2012 (May12/04)
7 May 2012
Third World Network

Debate on “sustainable development goals” and thematic issues

Geneva, 7 May (Meena Raman) – The second round of informal negotiations on the draft outcome document for the ‘Rio+20’ Conference saw intense debate and divide among countries in several areas.

Over the 2 weeks (23 April to 4 May), apart from divergent exchanges over the ‘Green Economy’ and its roadmap and the institutional framework for sustainable development (see separate articles on these subjects dated 2 May and 7 May), discussions were also interesting as regards the framework for action and follow-up on some of the thematic areas such as water, energy, agriculture and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Some highlights are provided below.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Following inputs from member states, the Co-Chairs (John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda and Kim Sook of the Republic of Korea) provided the following “New Co-Chairs’ Suggested Text” (NCST) for their consideration – paragraph NCST 105 quint: “We affirm that SDGs should be guided by the following principles and characteristics :

a) Build upon the foundation of the Millennium Declaration;
b) Complement the MDGs and renew and strengthen commitment towards their achievement;
c) Achieve poverty eradication;
d) Contribute to advancing the other two overarching objectives of sustainable development as agreed in the JPOI (Johannesburg Plan of Implementation), namely, changing consumption and production patterns and protecting and managing the natural resource base for economic and social development;
e) Integrate in a balanced manner the three dimensions of sustainable development;
f) Be consistent with the (1992) Rio principles;
g) Advance the implementation of Agenda 21 and JPOI, and the outcomes of all UN major summits in economic, social and environmental field;
h) Respect the sovereignty of States over their natural resources in accordance with the UN Charter and principles of international law, without causing damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction;
i) Be applicable to all countries consistent with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR);
j) Take into account different national realities, capacities and development priorities;
k) Rely on government driven implementation with involvement of all relevant stakeholders;
l) Contribute to the monitoring of fulfilment of developed countries' international commitments especially those related to financial resources, technology transfer and capacity building;
m) Shall include means of implementation for developing countries, including under each goal;
n) Give special attention to countries in special situations and to disadvantaged and vulnerable people;
o) Not place additional restrictions or burdens on developing countries or dilute responsibilities of developed countries;
p) Contribute to fulfilling the right to development and achieving equity at all levels;
q) be aspirational in nature;
r) be concise and readily communicable;
s) limited in number and focused on priority areas.”

Pakistan, speaking for the G77, said that it wanted the above paragraph retained in its entirety. It stressed that there should be no doubt that this paragraph underlying the principles must be the basis of anything coming out on the SDGs or there will be nothing. The principles are key and form a main red line for the G77. Achieving the goals would not be possible if it did not include the means of implementation and the CBDR principle and respect for the sovereignty of countries over their natural resources.

In relation to the CBDR principle reflected in (i) above, Canada, Switzerland, US and Norway called for its deletion while the EU wanted the correct quotation of Rio Principle 7 if specific references to CBDR were necessary here.

As regards the need for the SDGs to contribute to the fulfilling of the right to development and achieving equity at all levels in (p) above, Switzerland wanted references to the “right” to be deleted, while adding the reference to “development” to include “sustainable”. The US, New Zealand and the EU wanted the entire sub-paragraph in (p) to be deleted. The EU and Liechtenstein also wanted the addition of the following as a principle viz. “promote democracy and strengthen rule of law, as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.”

On the process to develop the SDGs, the G77 wanted the establishment of “…an intergovernmental process on SDGs under the UN General Assembly that is inclusive, transparent, and open to participation of all stakeholders. This process needs to be coordinated and coherent with the processes considering the post-2015 UN development agenda (CST 106 alt 2, i.e. the original Co-Chairs Suggested Text).

The EU on the other hand wanted the “UN Secretary General to launch and coordinate a process to elaborate SDGs, which will include reporting to the UN General Assembly, drawing on expert advice and evidence before their adoption by Member States. This process should be inclusive, transparent, and open to the participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as fully coordinated and coherent with the process considering the post-2015 framework.” (CST 106 alt 1)

The Co-Chairs last week then proposed the establishment of “… a country-driven intergovernmental process on SDGs under the General Assembly that is inclusive, transparent and open to participation of all relevant stakeholders, including the UN System, and that draws on relevant expert advice and evidence. The UN Secretary-General should provide all the necessary support to this process. This process will need to be fully coordinated and coherent with the MDG review process considering the post-2015 development agenda in order to allow a smooth integration of SDGs into this agenda. We also propose that any SDGs be internationally agreed by Member States.” (NCST106)

In response to the Co-Chairs’ text, The EU wanted the retention of its own proposal. The G77 asked the EU to reconsider its proposal and said that the Co-Chairs’ proposal was closer to the G77 approach. It stressed the need for an intergovernmental process and said there was scope for the use of experts. The G77 wanted its proposal to be reflected as an alternative proposal.

The US expressed concern over the SDG process being coordinated with the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) review process which implied two processes. It wanted a unified set of development goals and proposed that the Secretary General launch and coordinate a process on the post-2015 UN-development agenda which integrates the three dimensions of sustainable development.

Canada also did not want two processes, reflecting the sentiments of the US. Co-Chair Ashe in response said that the post-2015 process (re: the MDGs) was already launched.

The US, reacting to Ashe’s statement, said that it did not want two sets of goals as resources are limited and there will be competition (for the resources if there are two sets of goals). It therefore proposed that the three pillars of sustainable development be incorporated into the process that the Secretary General has launched.

The G77 stressed that financial resources were crucial for the achievement of the SDGs.

On the Co-Chairs’ proposal in NCST 107 which reads “We further propose that a list of indicative thematic areas can help to guide the process to develop the SDGs and we underline that any preliminary list of SDGs would not limit nor prejudge the work undertaken through the process described above, which will be driven by Member States,” most of the countries, including the G77, US, Japan, EU, Switzerland and Norway called for its deletion.

The G77 said that the proposal went too far as countries had not even agreed on the basis of the SDGs.

The EU preferred the earlier proposal by the Co-Chairs where member states agree that the SDGs address key priority areas such as energy, food security, water, sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The US did not want the thematic areas to be identified for the post-2015 development agenda.

Switzerland said that countries should work towards an indicative list of priority areas and the criteria to identify the priority areas could be if the SDGs have a global impact (equally important for all groups); if it was relevant; provide leverage to promote sustainable development; and concrete themes with impacts and are problem solving in nature. Norway supported the idea of an indicative list of priority areas.

Japan said that there was no time to agree on specific areas before the Rio Summit (in June).


On the right to safe and clean drinking water, the Co-Chairs had made the following proposal: “We reaffirm our commitments regarding the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights. We commit to the progressive realisation of universal access to safe and clean drinking water and basic sanitation, with a particular emphasis on people living in vulnerable situations.” (NCST67)

Canada was the only country that wanted the entire paragraph deleted, saying that the human right to water was not codified under international law and there was no consensus on the scope of the right.

The US wanted the term “clean” in reference to drinking water to be bracketed as it could not understand the terminology and it also wanted brackets around the words “essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”.

While expressing satisfaction with the proposal, the EU said it was not convinced that the proposal was concrete enough. It wanted more action oriented language and made the following proposal to be a goal: “By 2030 achieve universal, sustainable and equitable access to safe and clean drinking water and basic sanitation as necessary for poverty eradication and to protect human health as well as improve the well-being, particularly for the most vulnerable.”

The EU said that the goals (not just in relation to water but in other areas too) provided clear examples how the Rio Summit could go towards a more action-oriented spirit to realise sustainable development.

The G77 said that it was comfortable with the text proposed by the Co-Chairs as above except the reference to “universal access” and it wanted deletion of the word “universal”. On the EU proposal for a target, this was getting into difficult area as there are the SDGs, the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda and it was unclear how it all fit together.

The G77 asked the EU for the full list of its proposed targets, to which the EU said that it was not going to put a package on table but will introduce them as they go through the document.

The Co-Chairs had in NCST 68 proposed the following: “We commit to reduce water pollution from households, industrial and agricultural sources, reduce water loss, increase water efficiency and wastewater treatment, promote the use of treated wastewater as a resource, as well as other non-conventional water resources, such as desalinated water when appropriate. We reiterate the importance of integrating water in development and sectoral polices, particularly rural development, health, food and energy-related polices as well as the importance of ensuring transfer of technologies on mutually agreed terms and conditions.”

In response to the reference to “transfer of technologies on mutually agreed terms and conditions”, the G77 wanted deletion of “mutually agreed terms and conditions” to be replaced with the “transfer of technologies on preferential terms to developing countries in

The G77 stressed that a key message to its partners was that it would not accept the terms “mutually agreed terms and conditions” in relation to technology transfer and there was need to change the way developed countries were looking at this issue. (Throughout the outcome document, wherever there is reference to technology transfer, the US with no objections from other developed countries have insisted on using the words “transfer on mutually agreed terms and conditions”. This transforms previously agreed commitments to voluntary negotiated technology transfer.)


On the issue of energy, an interesting exchange took place over references in the Co-Chairs’ proposal (NCST pre 70 quat) to provide for “access to modern energy services” especially for the 1.4 billion people worldwide who do not have access to energy services. The EU wanted to replace the term “modern energy” with “sustainable energy”. The G77 on the other hand wanted the retention of references to access “modern energy” as opposed to “sustainable energy”.

In another paragraph (NCST pre 70 quint) relating to the need to mobilise “…adequate financial resources, to provide reliable, affordable, economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound energy services in developing countries”, the G77 wanted to replace “environmentally sound energy services” with “environmentally acceptable modern energy services”.

On the issue of phasing out of energy subsidies, the Co-Chairs proposed the following text:

“NCST. 70 bis – We recognize the need to consider, as appropriate, reforms that would lead to the rationalisation and gradual phasing out over the medium term of energy subsidies that inhibit sustainable development, taking fully into account the specific conditions and different levels of development of individual countries. We call for accelerating movement towards sustainable, cleaner and less polluting sources of energy. The reduction of subsidies must be accomplished in a manner that protects the poor, and eases the transition for affected vulnerable communities.”

G77 called for deletion of this paragraph. Pakistan, speaking for the Group said that the notion of economically harmful subsidies that inhibit sustainable development seemed to be a recurring theme in the discussion on the ‘green economy’. Referring to the provision of agricultural subsidies in the developed countries, it said that in certain parts of the world, a cow is richer than a human being in other parts of the world and that every time developing countries bring up the issue of such subsidies, it is vociferously countered by developed countries. The G77 said that these types of subsidies also harm sustainable development and there was need to address these other types of subsidies as well, and not just energy subsidies.

Sustainable agriculture and food security

On the right to food, the Co-Chairs proposed the following: “NCST Pre 64 – We reaffirm the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. We further reaffirm our commitment to promoting global food security and access to adequate, safe and nutritious food for current and future generations, and call upon the international community and the United Nations to support States in their efforts to ensure national food production, in accordance with national food security strategies.”

The G77 supported the proposal stressing the need to affirm the right to food.

The US however wanted deletion of reference to the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. The US, EU and Australia expressed reservations as regards the call on the international community and the UN to support efforts in this regard.

On the proposal by the Co-Chairs in NCST pre 64 bis on the need to “revitalize the agricultural and rural development sectors in developing countries in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner in order to increase agricultural productivity, improve livelihoods of rural communities and achieve food security”, the G77 supported the proposal while the
EU said that agriculture should be revitalised in all countries and not just in developing countries, and this was supported by Switzerland.

The EU proposed the addition of the following target: “By 2020, achieve an increase of access of smallholder farmers, especially women in rural areas to agricultural land, markets and finance, training, capacity building, knowledge and innovative practices.”

The G77, US, Canada, Australia and Japan reserved their position over the EU target. The G77 said that having targets at this stage was confusing in relation to the future work on the SDGs.

(In the first week of the informal negotiations, the EU had attempted to introduce the same target as an “illustration” in the green economy section of the draft outcome document. This and two other illustrations were withdrawn after objections from G77. Observers said that the EU approach is to ensure that its roadmap of goals and targets is incorporated whether it is via the green economy, SDGs or thematic sections.)

Negotiations will continue on 29 May to 2 June in New York.+