What's your choice for global sustainability goals?

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Blog by
6 April 2011

IIED’s name brings together environment and development — both are essential for sustainability but they are often treated separately. Too often, we get bracketed as an environmental organisation rather than an organisation aiming for development that is consistent with long-term management of natural resources.

In a conversation last week with colleagues from the Overseas Development Institute, we began to think about how these two major strands of global action, funding and initiative could be better woven together. The starting point: what might be agreed at the next Earth Summit (Rio +20) in 2012, and what happens after 2015, the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?

Should Rio+20 come up with global sustainability goals? Should the MDGs continue along existing lines? Or could we come up with better combined goals, more fit for the challenges of the 21st century?

Redesigning global goals

The MDGs have had considerable impact as a set of targets around which to spur greater commitment from donors and developing country governments. But it makes sense for us to ask how we could improve on existing goals, and design a process for agreeing new targets that would create strong buy-in from different countries and interest groups around the world.

There are several key questions:

How comprehensive should these targets be? Clear, simple, measurable targets focused on a few achievables are good. But at IIED, we find that many of the most intractable issues concern questions of ‘governance’ — which is all about who decides what, when and how. The problem is that rights, institutions and transparency are much harder to monitor and track than investment in functioning water points, or the proportion of girls in school.

How ambitious should these targets be? I sometimes think that we will never agree true global sustainability goals because they would require such a major transformation of interests and inequalities that those with power today would never say “yes” to them. Does that mean we should lower our sights to second-best goals, which may move us in the right direction but do little to inspire the urgency we need for global action?

How broad should the targets be? Dating from the 1990s, the MDGs involved a compact between donor and recipient governments around the expectations that each held of the other. Fifteen years later, the world is a very different place. The neat divide between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries looks absurd, and many of the behavioural changes we urgently need to bring about greater sustainability involve hard targets for richer nations.

Which MDGs should we keep, and what should we add? Access to food and water is key, but should we add energy? Empowering women through better health and education must stay high on the list, but what about other dimensions of inequality? Can we get buy-in to greater equality at national and global levels — what would such a target look like, and how would we measure it?

Tell me what you would like to see in the next great global goals.