A Tale of Two UN Processes: The Global Sustainability Panel and Rio+20


Georgios Kostakos is currently an independent consultant specializing in global sustainability, governance and the United Nations system. From September 2010 to July 2012 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. More information on and opinions by Dr. Kostakos can be found on his blog. The views expressed in this article are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the GSP, its members or the United Nations. The GSP has expressed its views and recommendations in its report entitled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing”.

e-mail: georgios@kostakos.net

Abstract: This article examines two sustainable development-related processes that unfolded in parallel at the United Nations during the period 2010-2012. The first one, the Global Sustainability Panel, was established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and produced a report entitled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing” at the end of January 2012. The second one, the preparatory process for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, was an intergovernmental negotiation that culminated in the adoption of an Outcome Document entitled “The Future We Want” in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. Both processes and their outcomes dealt with a broad range of sustainable development issues. They both started with an understanding that implementation of sustainable development is lagging significantly behind in practice, especially in viewof major global challenges facing the world today, like climate change and food insecurity. And both attempted with their recommendations, which include the introduction of new sustainable development goals (SDGs), to shape a more effective sustainable development framework for the post-2015 period, that is after the year set for the completion of the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The article presents the two processes and their outcomes, analyzes the context in which they evolved, points to their commonalities and differences, and ponders on how their best elements can be combined towards the desired post-2015 sustainable development framework, on the basis of actions by all relevant stakeholders.

Key words: Sustainable development, United Nations, Global Sustainability Panel, Rio+20, MDGs, SDGs, post-2015 development framework.

Introduction and context

Sustainable development is not a new concept. It dates at least as far back as 1987 and “the Brundtland Report” (I) that prepared the ground for the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, which resulted in the adoption of “Agenda 21” (II). Why did it resurface at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and why was there another Rio summit, known as “Rio+20” or the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, in June of this year?

One could see many reasons for that, from rather “mechanical” ones to some very substantive. Yes, there is a ritualistic tendency to mark major conferences with new conferences, at the 5-, 10- or 20-year mark. Indeed, there was a Rio+10 conference too, the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, which resulted in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. These “conference series” work well for those who supported the holding of the initial conference and/or those who feel that got most out of it, in terms of issues raised and commitments made. So one can see why sustainable development advocates, environment ministries and activists from around the world, and the relevant parts of the UN bureaucracy, would like to see such a “reminder” conference twenty years after the original Rio.

At the same time, new awareness through scientific advancements, for example on climate change and other “planetary boundaries”(III), as well as the increasingly felt pressure of other emerging major challenges, like the food crisis of 2008 and the global financial meltdown of the same year, underlined the need to revisit development in all its aspects. In response, emerging new “ideologies”, which as usual combine an idealistic part with one more grounded in economic and other interests, like the Green Economy, wanted formal recognition and broad commitment to implementation through the decisions of a global forum.

A convergence of interests, after long negotiations and historic compromises, led to the UN General Assembly deciding to convene the “UN Conference on Sustainable Development” (UNCSD or Rio+20) with the objective “to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges”. The focus of the Conference would include two themes, namely “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development” (IV).

In parallel to the Rio+20 gestation process, the UN Secretary-General and his senior advisors, after more than two years of wholehearted efforts to bring about a major global agreement on climate change, had come to the conclusion that climate change was part of a broader package of global sustainable development challenges, and could probably be better addressed in conjunction with the rest. Moreover, a May 2009 report issued by the Commission on Climate Change and Development, which had been sponsored by the government of Sweden, urged the UN Secretary-General to convene “an independent high-level task force to articulate a vision for development that achieves the multiple goals of mitigation, adaptation, and meeting human needs” (V). Persistent pressure by the European Union, primarily moved by France and Germany, for upgrading the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) into an independent specialized agency of the United Nations and in support of a “Green Economy”, was also part of the mosaic. All this, and probably more, led to the announcement by the UN Secretary-General at the Climate Change Summit on 22 September 2009 in New York that he intended to “set up a high-level panel after the Copenhagen Conference to advise on how to better integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation into development”(VI). The disappointment with the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties held in Copenhagen in December 2009 only strengthened the determination and broadened the scope of this endeavour.

Eventually, the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, or Global Sustainability Panel – GSP for short – was announced on 9 August 2010, with a mandate to present its report and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General by the end of 2011. The Panel was co-chaired by the Presidents of Finland and South Africa, Tarja Halonen and Jacob Zuma respectively, and its membership included another twenty personalities from around the world, ranging from the legendary Gro Harlem Brundtland to the former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd, the Brazilian and Indian Environment Ministers Izabella Teixeira and Jairam Ramesh respectively, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, the European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, and the co-CEO of RIM (producers of Blackberry) Jim Balsillie, along with high-level personalities from Barbados, China, Japan, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Republic of Korea, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE and the US (VII).

The Rio+20 preparatory process and the GSP process were quite intertwined, in substance if not form. Some developing countries, most vocally those of the Alba Group (VIII), challenged the legitimacy of the Panel on the basis of its not having an intergovernmental mandate. Some actually suspected that the GSP was an attempt to bypass the intergovernmental process, in which all UN member states had a say, through a secretive process that would bring them before faits accomplis in Rio. Through extensive outreach to UN members states, as well as civil society and the private sector, the GSP managed to dispel initial suspicions and to influence/enrich the Rio+20 process and its outcome.

Each of the two sections that immediately follow presents one of these processes and its outcomes. The final section assesses their respective strengths, commonalities and differences, and ponders on how their best elements can be combined towards a more effective sustainable development framework for the post-2015 period, that is after the year set for the completion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), on the basis of actions by all relevant stakeholders.

GSP findings and recommendations

The report of the Global Sustainability Panel, entitled “Resilient Planet, Resilient People: A Future Worth Choosing”, was handed over to the UN Secretary-General on 30 January 2012. It contains 56 recommendations distributed under the three main chapters of the report, namely “Empowering people to make sustainable choices”, “Working towards a sustainable economy”, and “Strengthening institutional governance”.

People’s opportunities and choices are at the center of the GSP vision, which aims to: “eradicate poverty, reduce inequality and make growth inclusive, and production and consumption more sustainable, while combating climate change and respecting a range of other planetary boundaries” (IX).  The Panel puts special emphasis on integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, and argues for the introduction of a “new political economy” in order to achieve sustainability.

On people’s empowerment the Panel recommends, among other things, the following steps that need to be taken mainly by governments and international organizations (X):

  • Focus on education, with the establishment of a global fund to close the primary school education gap by 2015, and the provision of universal access to quality post-primary and secondary education no later than 2030, emphasizing the skills and knowledge needed for sustainable growth and jobs.
  • Advancing gender equality and women’s rights, including through equal rights to own and inherit property, equal rights in political participation, equality at the workplace, and universal access to quality and affordable family-planning services.
  • Advancement of “green jobs” and decent work policies as a priority in government budgets and sustainable development strategies.
  • Reducing the world food deficit through an “ever-green revolution”, promoting responsible agricultural, land and water investment.
  • Ensuring the sustainable management of marine resources through the establishment of regional oceans and coastal management frameworks, including regional fisheries management policies and practices.
  • Ensuring universal access to affordable sustainable energy by 2030 and providing citizens, especially those in remote areas, with access to universal telecommunications and broadband networks.
  • Access for all citizens to basic safety nets, with targeted social protection programmes and policies to manage the economic and social impacts of transition and enhance resilience, scaled-up humanitarian capacities to deal with increasing environmental stress and potential shocks, and increased resources for adaptation and disaster risk reduction integrated into development budgets and strategies.

On making the economy sustainable the Panel’s recommendations include:

  • Use by governments of price signals and other incentives – including through taxation, regulation or emissions trading systems, national and international schemes for payments for ecosystem services, fuels subsidy phase-out measures, targets for renewable energy or conservation – to guide towards sustainable consumption and investment decisions of households, businesses and the public sector itself.
  • Shift towards cost-effective sustainable procurement by governments, businesses, international organizations and other entities over a ten-year period, with annual public reporting on this from 2015 onwards.
  • Inclusion of long-term sustainable development criteria in investment and transactions conducted by companies, including financial transactions, and development of a framework for sustainable development reporting, which can be mandatory for corporations with market capitalizations larger than $100 million. Integration of such criteria into stock market regulation; the management of sovereign wealth funds and public pension funds; risk assessments by credit rating agencies, international organizations and governments; company boards of directors (fiduciary duty); etc.
  • Incentives for increased investments in sustainable technologies, innovations and infrastructures to be jointly developed by governments, international financial institutions and major companies.
  • Creation of a Sustainable Development index or set of indicators by 2014 to measure progress on sustainable development, supplementing narrow concepts of economic growth reflected in GNP/GDP.

On institutional governance, the Panel’s recommendations include:

  • Ensuring the rule of law, good governance and citizens’ rights as the basis for sustainable development.
  • Enabling young people’s participation in decision-making processes at all levels, also by incorporating voices from non-conventional networks and youth communities, such as Internet forums and opinion-making blogs.
  • Adoption by governments of whole-of-government approaches, under the leadership of the Head of State or Government and involving all relevant ministries, for addressing sustainable development issues across sectors. Moreover, inclusion by governments and parliaments of the sustainable development perspective into relevant strategies, legislation and budget processes.
  • Strengthening the environmental pillar of sustainable development by strengthening the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • Development of a set of universal sustainable development goals, covering all three dimensions of sustainable development, as well as their interconnections, to galvanize individual and collective action and complement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in a post-2015 framework.
  • Preparation of a regular global sustainable development outlook report assessing the state of key economic, social and environmental indicators and their interlinkages, making use of cutting-edge knowledge across all relevant sectors. The report should be put together by a range of key international organizations and private sector entities, under the overall direction of the UN Secretary-General and in close cooperation with the global scientific community.
  • Creation of a global sustainable development council to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development and improve the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development, address emerging issues and review sustainability progress, bringing together, in addition to governments, other relevant stakeholders, including intergovernmental organizations and representatives of civil society, the private sector and science.
  • Making full use of the United Nations as the world’s meeting place, with the UN Secretary-General convening periodic high-level exchanges to set the agenda and address emerging sustainable development issues, bringing together Heads of State or Government, heads of international institutions and representatives of civil society and the private sector.

These were some key recommendations made by the GSP to the Secretary-General, who had established the Panel and had asked for its advice. The follow-up was left primarily on the Secretary-General to pursue. He in turn brought the Panel’s report and recommendations to the attention of the UN member states as they were finalizing preparations for the Rio+20 conference (XI).

The Rio+20 outcome

The outcome document of Rio+20 (XII), entitled “The Future We Want”, was finalized in Rio under the strong leadership of Brazil and was approved by consensus among UN member state leaders.  Despite widespread disillusionment, initially at least, because of a perceived lack of specificity and focus, the document has a lot of gems in its 283 paragraphs (XIII). Among them:

  • In terms of common vision, it clearly places sustainable development at the intersection of the economic, social and environmental spheres, correcting an imbalance in favour of the environmental pillar that has been evident since Rio 1992, and puts poverty eradication at the centre.
  • 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.
  • Considers the green economy, in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development, which could provide options for policymaking. However, it should not be a rigid set of rules and should not be used to impose green conditionalities or trade barriers.
  • In terms of institutional arrangements, it establishes a universal intergovernmental high-level political forum to lead on the implementation of sustainable development, replacing the 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 such forum in September 2013.
  • 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.
  • After reviewing the existing intergovernmental framework for action and advising for further follow-up in several issue areas – including poverty eradication, food security and sustainable agriculture, sustainable transport, sustainable cities, health and population, employment and social protection, oceans and seas, disaster risk reduction, climate change, sustainable consumption and production, and education – the Rio+20 outcome document 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. To that end it mandates a 30-member, geographically balanced working group of UN member state representatives to make proposals on such goals to the UN General Assembly at its next session that starts in September 2013.
  • In terms of means of implementation, 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.

In addition to the formal Rio+20 outcome, a significant number of voluntary commitments were made by governments, businesses and other civil society partners in the lead-up to Rio and at Rio itself. The UN registered over 700 such commitments amounting to almost US$400 billion (XIV). What next?Sustainable development implementation remains elusive. Not that sustainable development can ever be achieved once and for all, in a static way, with nothing further to do. By the very nature of things the pursuit of sustainable development is a never-ending process, the specific goals of which get redefined according to the times, the people and their/our needs. But did we move closer to some degree of implementation because of Rio+20? Did the Global Sustainability Panel play a role in it and does it have, through its report and recommendations, anything more to contribute in the post-Rio+20 phase? As was mentioned in the introduction, there are many parallels between the GSP report and recommendations, on the one hand, and the Rio+20 outcome, on the other. The two processes informed each other, and in a way the GSP worked as an informal support group and testing ground for many of the things that eventually made it to the Rio+20 outcome. It helped, no doubt, that a geographically representative group of members was chosen for the GSP, including the Brazilian hosts of Rio+20. Beyond the GSP members themselves, their “Sherpas”, or senior advisers, were actually often wearing a second hat as negotiators of Rio+20 and/or other intergovernmental processes, like climate change, ensuring a two-way flow of information between the Panel and those processes.

At this point, at the intergovernmental level the way forward is determined primarily by the Rio+20 outcome. Beyond what it has already offered, the GSP can inform the Rio+20 follow-up with some deeper thinking contained in its report on several issues, and with some concrete proposals, especially on the economy. The latter does not get covered in any specificity in the Rio+20 outcome document, beyond the political adoption, with several caveats, of the Green Economy, and the work mandated on beyond GDP. Despite the unfortunate absence of economy or finance ministers or experts as such from the GSP membership, the Panel realized early enough the importance of radically transforming the global economy as a prerequisite for moving towards greater sustainability. The Rio+20 follow-up should involve key national and international actors in economics and finance, much more than this was the case in the lead-up to Rio.

There are positive signs in that regard, at least if one judges by the number of members with economics/finance background on the Post-2015 Panel established by the UN Secretary-General to support work on the post-2015 development agenda (XV). Hopefully the members of the working groups to be established by the UN member states on issues like the SDGs will also reflect that. Moreover, the high-level political forum due to be convened for the first time in September 2013 is an opportunity to bring together all actors that can make sustainable development work in practice. Participation should extend from the various branches of member state governments, under the leadership of the respective Head of State or Government, to the Bretton Woods Institutions, other IFIs and UN system agencies, representatives of the private sector, civil society and science. This may eventually lead to a new kind of representation at multilateral fora that goes beyond Foreign Ministries to experts in other ministries, the private sector, scientific unions, etc., with a focus on finding solutions rather than scoring diplomatic points.

Civil society can help bring those who really matter into this process, from the experts to the end users, be it farmers or health providers or women’s groups, etc. And it is not only at the UN level and in summits that the bet of sustainable development will be won or lost. At all levels of human organization, from the global to the regional, the national and the local, there has to be mobilization and a problem-solving approach to address the challenges of sustainability. May the high-level political forum, once it is established in a hopefully productive way, be replicated at the other levels too, bringing together the people that matter at each level, and mobilizing the public at large.

Among the things that the public has to keep a keen eye on is the various commitments made at and around Rio+20. Together with the numerous partnerships established to further specific aspects of sustainable development, these commitments and those who made them have to be kept honest through scrutiny by civil society and the public at large. Otherwise, commitments can be made cheaply when they are not followed up, or they can be “resold” several times in different fora for political or commercial purposes. Accountability is an important companion on the road to sustainability.

Finally, a thought for another article that may be written in the future. This article and the processes that it covers have been talking about sustainability and sustainable development almost interchangeably. It may well be so, if so defined. But to the mind of this author, the concept of sustainability is somewhat broader, and includes human security, as well as peace and security at large. Treating these comprehensively, along with the rule of law and human rights, which have already been mentioned, is a major undertaking, but may be the only way to really achieve something stable in the long run.

We may have to wait till 2015 and beyond to find out whether Rio+20 and its follow-up have been successful. And even then things will probably not be absolutely clear, as multilateral affairs and their outcomes seldom are. But the years leading to 2015 are very important and need everybody’s attention and active engagement.


  1. See “Our Common Future”, report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, contained in UN document A/42/427.
  2. Agenda 21 was adopted by UN member states at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992.
  3. Note the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued in 2007, and the award to IPCC and Al Gore of the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. See also 2009 article on “Planetary Boundaries” published in the magazine Nature by Johan Rockström et al.
  4. See General Assembly resolution 64/236 (A/RES/64/236) of 24 December 2009.
  5. See report of the Commission on Climate Change and Development entitled “Closing the Gaps”.
  6. See Closing Remarks by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
  7. The titles used here correspond to those that the GSP members had at the launch of the Panel. Several members changed capacities during the time span of the Panel but remained Panel members nonetheless.
  8. The ALBA Group of countries includes Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela,
  9. GSP report, para. 6.
  10. GSP recommendations below are merged and summarized for the purpose of this article, inevitably leaving out several of their elements and nuances. For the full text of the recommendations collected in one place see Annex I of the GSP report.
  11. The Secretary-General circulated the GSP report to the UN member states with a note of his own urging implementation; see UN document A/66/700 of 1 March 2012.
  12. 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).
  13. The Future We Want” was further endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 27 July 2012 through resolution 66/288 (document A/RES/66/288 of 11 September 2012).
  14. See relevant page of the UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.
  15. 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.

This article was published on October 17th: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in Global Education Magazine

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