Commission on Sustainable Development: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Felix Dodds, Fellow at the Global Research Institute UNC and Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute
I cannot believe that today will see the twentieth meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and its final session.
I write as a member of a very small group of people that attended the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and all of the CSD meetings to date, giving me a relatively unique perspective.
It should be remembered that the CSD was a compromise between the UK and USA, in particular, who did not want any UN institution for sustainable development, and Maurice Strong (Secretary General of Rio 1992), Norway and some developing countries who wanted to either transform the Trusteeship Council to an Ecological Security Council or create a new Council of the General Assembly. It was in fact a group of NGOs who came up with the compromise, handing the suggestion that this new body be a functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to the great Malaysian Ambassador Razali, who then persuaded the G77 to support the creation of the CSD.
The first CSD was held under Ambassador Razali’s chair-ship and hopes for what the new body could achieve were high, not least regarding the delivery of new and additional resources for sustainable development. However developed countries were going through a recession in 1992 (sound familiar?) and so said they could not provide funds for the delivery of Agenda 21 (one of the main outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit) at this point but would oblige in the future. Maurice Strong had estimated the cost of implementing Agenda 21 to be $625 billion a year, with $125 billion to be transferred from developed to developing countries. Yet at the Rio Summit official development aid was only around $60 billion, and it fell after the Summit, not returning to that figure until 2002.
But the first cycle of the CSD (1993-1997) was nonetheless seen as a success. Particular achievements included the push for new conventions on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedures for hazardous chemicals, and the creation of what has become the UN Forum on Forests - something that has ensured continual work on the forest issue ever since.
The second cycle from 1998-2001 also had some successes, mostly under the directorship of the wonderful Joke Waller Hunter. Twelve hours of negotiations were set aside at the beginning of the CSD for an interactive dialogue with stakeholders on the key policy issues that governments would be deliberating. The second cycle also saw some genuine progress regarding the adoption of national consumer guidelines on sustainable consumption, first by the CSD and then by the General Assembly (GA). It also saw the first UN-level discussions on sustainable tourism. On oceans, the CSD set up a GA process under CSD rules, thereby allowing for the far greater engagement of stakeholders than is normally possible under GA rules, increasing the normalisation of this practice.
The period of the last cycle (2003-2013), however, has seen two CSDs fail to deliver a substantive output, something which can be linked to a number of mistakes regarding the Commission’s modalities. First, cycles should never be longer than five years due to the inevitable and quick loss of momentum. Second, the removal of mandatory reporting by national ministries on the delivery of sustainable development meant that government participation tailed off or saw them send only low level officials to participate. In addition, the agenda of the CSD did not allow for a change in direction or the adding of emerging issues, therefore seeing it locked into a cycle that was destroying its credibility year by year.
There have been valiant efforts by the UN Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) Directors Tariq Banuri and Nikhil Seth to push the CSD back in the right direction but the time had come to reconsider the UN body we need to take sustainable development forward in this next phase as the major driving force for poverty eradication.  As the CSD’s successor, we hope that the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) will allow the dream of Rio in 1992 and Stockholm in 1972 to become a reality..
Originally published in Outreach 20th of September 2013


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