Global Sustainable Development Negotiations and the Role of Europe

Although not as anxiously anticipated as that of Copenhagen 2009,[i] the outcome of Rio 2012[ii] may have equally disappointed many a citizen of the world, who expected more concrete outcomes for implementing sustainable development. The sense of disappointment may be even stronger among EU citizens and policy makers, who had hoped to see coming out of Rio a very strong endorsement of the concept and specifics of the Green Economy, along with the elevation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to an autonomous organization within the UN system.

This author, however, solemnly believes that reports of Rio’s failure are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the results may have not been as concrete as one would have liked. But the actual Rio+20 Outcome,[iii] the document approved by consensus among UN member states in Rio, has a lot to offer. Here are a few examples:

  • It clearly places sustainable development at the intersection of the economic, social and environmental spheres, with the highest priority given to poverty eradication. This balances a tendency to overemphasize the environmental dimension, which has made sustainable development implementation efforts rather one-sided since the first Rio conference in 1992.
  • Recognizes the importance and usefulness of setting a limited number of universally-applicable sustainable development goals (SDGs) for focused and coherent action on sustainable development. A 30-member, geographically balanced working group of UN member state representatives is mandated to make proposals on such goals to the UN General Assembly at its next session that starts in September 2013.
  • Establishes a universal intergovernmental high-level political forum to lead on the implementation of sustainable development, replacing the discredited Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The format and organizational aspects of the forum are to be decided through negotiations in the UN General Assembly, with a view to holding the first high-level forum in September/October 2013.
  • Recognizes the need to complement gross domestic product (GDP) with broader measures of progress, and requests the UN Statistical Commission, the intergovernmental body that brings together the statistical offices of the world and approves common methodologies and standards, to work on it.
  • Decides to establish an intergovernmental committee of 30 experts to prepare, by 2014, a report with proposals on a sustainable development financing strategy to facilitate the mobilization of resources and their effective use in achieving sustainable development objectives.
  • Invites the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution at its present session on strengthening and upgrading UNEP, among other things by making the UNEP Governing Council membership universal, increasing UNEP’s financial resources, and enhancing its coordinating role within the UN system on matters pertaining to the environment.

A special note on the Green Economy: There is nothing in the Rio+20 outcome that prohibits putting a Green Economy into practice, within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and taking into account the special circumstances and priorities of each country. If one accepts these caveats, avoids the temptation to turn the Green Economy into an ideology, and alleviates fears of “green protectionism” or “green conditionalities”, there is plenty of room created by Rio+20 to build on good practices, create tool kits for countries at various levels of development and use the emerging Green Economy arsenal as a means of moving closer to sustainable development.

These are no small achievements by any means. Yes, they could remain mere declarations on paper, or could lead to endless new negotiation processes with no concrete result. But that exactly is the challenge now and the opportunity for glory: to make sure that these Rio decisions are acted upon in a concrete, efficient and balanced way.

As the UN General Assembly gets down to business in New York, with the Rio+20 follow-up/post-2015 development planning high on the agenda, Europe needs to get its act together to play its part as effectively as possible. It has or will soon have its representatives on the intergovernmental working groups mentioned above, and in other relevant bodies like the Post-2015 Panel established by the UN Secretary-General.[iv] Could they be:

a)     Efficiently coordinated, without being fully absorbed by their own internal negotiations (the formulation of policies and the practice of EU external relations, in the UN context at least, leaves a lot to be desired);

b)    Substantive rather than representational, and covering all three dimensions of sustainable development, not only the environment (by coming from and being supported by experts from all relevant EU and member state ministries/DGs/agencies/offices);

c)     Open and inclusive internally (connecting with European professional associations, think tanks, NGOs, etc.) and externally (reaching out to other countries, including developing countries and emerging economies, and international civil society and private sector coalitions)?

d)    More cognizant of and publicly acknowledging the challenges of sustainability as they apply to the EU itself and its member states, from reliance on coal and energy infrastructure dependent on non-renewables for some time to come, economic and governance weaknesses affecting parts of the Union, etc.

If the EU representatives, member states and central EU institutions together, manage to do all this, they will play a leading role, make Europe’s positive mark and contribute to a better state of sustainability for Europe and the world as a whole in the years to come.

                                                                                                    Georgios Kostakos

                                                                                   Ixelles, 22 October 2012


[i] 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Copenhagen, 7-18 December 2009.

[ii] UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as “Rio+20”, Rio de Janeiro, 13-22 June 2012 (high-level segment/Summit on 20-22 June 2012).

[iii] See “The Future We Want”, endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 27 July 2012 through resolution 66/288 (document A/RES/66/288 of 11 September 2012).

[iv] The membership and terms of reference of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda were announced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 31 July 2012.

About Georgios Kostakos

Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS) and an independent consultant on global challenges and sustainability, governance and UN affairs based in Brussels, Belgium. He holds an MA and a PhD in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury (UK), and a Mechanical Engineering degree from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece. He served on the secretariat of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP) as Senior Adviser and Acting Deputy Executive Secretary, and on many other positions at UN Headquarters in New York, UN field missions, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the University of Athens. He is passionate about Europe and the World, and strives for human well-being in peace, prosperity and justice.
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