Sustainable development after Rio+20 is 'in limbo'

The weak wording of the Rio+20 summit agreement and delays in setting up the UN working groups on sustainable development have left progress on some of the post-Rio+20 agenda in limbo, according to a science officer at the International Council for Science (ICSU), which represented the scientific community at the summit.

The scientific community is unsure how to proceed towards setting up the new sustainable development goals agreed at the summit and expected to be finalised in 2015, and is uncertain on what its role within such work might be, Peter Bates told http://SciDev.Net.

Also, not all developments at the Rio+20 summit – which took place last June – were positive, according to a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) perspectives report, 'Rio+20: A new beginning, released on 24 December.

For example, the summit saw the stalling of progress towards a convention to protect marine biodiversity in international waters, as well as the failure to secure support for a global agreement on improving access to environmental, scientific and societal data.

To top this off, the vague language of the summit's agreement provides "very little detail on how to go forward", said Bates.

And as the UN only agreed this month on the composition of a working group to take the sustainable development goals forward – the group was meant to have been formed last September – the effect has been a state of limbo, he added.

"At the moment, it is difficult to move forward and rally scientists around this idea [of sustainable development goals] because there has not been a clear indication from the UN about exactly what role science will play and what mechanisms will be put in place to facilitate this," said Bates.

This lack of cohesion is hampering ICSU's efforts, although good progress is being made on coordinating scientists to produce an interdisciplinary research paper that lays out a foundation for what the sustainable development goals should contain, he added.

While agreeing that the unspecific language of Rio+20’s outcome document is a concern, Felix Dodds, a fellow at the Tellus Institute, a US-based not-for-profit research and policy organisation and a co-author of the UNEP report, sees the post-Rio+20 environment in a more positive light.

As the report highlights, pledges to remodel UNEP's science-policy interface and replace the outdated Commission for Sustainable Development with a new high-level political forum will provide a significant boost to the global governance of sustainable development.

And some of the developments on the sidelines of the summit may have been more important than those documented in the official agreement, according to Dodds.

For example, nothing within the document has as big a potential to guide future policy as Future Earth, a 10-year research initiative to develop the science of environmental change, launched on the summit's sidelines.

"The Future Earth platform will help to maintain the visibility of science from Rio and provide effective lobbying," Dodds said.

The decision by world leaders to develop the sustainable development goals was a "game changer", he added. It gives the scientific community a central position at least until 2015 – when the goals are due to come into effect – as science will be essential for developing the new targets and indicators.

The process has already started, with expert-led discussions on water and human settlement targets and indicators, among others, under way. "Science had a huge psychological impact on the [Rio+20] negotiations and will play a significant role going forward," Dodds argued.

* This article by Jan Piotrowski, “Sustainable development after Rio+20 is 'in limbo'”, was first published by on 17 January. It is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.