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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

Wednesday, 30 May 2007


By Felix Dodds and Jennifer Peer, Stakeholder Forum

Full Article

The fifteenth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 15), held earlier this month, ended in disappointment. After two years of work, governments failed to negotiate an outcome on the critical issues related to energy for sustainable development and climate change. At the fatal closing plenary of CSD 15, the EU rejected the compromise text presented to governments because they felt that it “neither addresse[d] the identified challenges nor [met] international expectations.” Similarly, Switzerland rejected the text on the basis that “it did not add value, and weakens previous language.”

Reflecting on the outcomes of CSD, debate is emerging over the reasons behind the apparent demise of the CSD’s so-called ‘energy’ cycle. Is the CSD, with its accompanying institutional weaknesses, to blame? Or, should fingers be pointed at governments, who seem at times to lack the ability or will to move beyond narrow national interests in search of common ground? Whether you chalk the outcomes up to politics, institutional failure, or both the debate is, in fact, missing the point. 

In the face a warming climate, increasing energy demand, rising food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and other sustainable development challenges, the world needs strong systems of governance to advance the implementation of sustainable development commitments. Yet, both governments and the UN are failing to address the need to integrate environment and development into decision making. As the High Level Panel on System-wide Coherence rightly concluded, “the international community is still falling short in implementation and needs to improve the institutional framework for sustainable development”. 

As the outcomes of CSD 15 (and the Water, Sanitation and Human Settlements cycle that came before) reveal, there are fundamental problems with the functioning of the UN’s highest level forum on sustainable development. This includes, quite significantly, the fact that the CSD has not yet been able to become the forum where national interests are overcome and addressed, through a global lens, for the benefit of all. This is not to say, however, that the CSD is a failure and should be written off. The CSD has over the years proved to be an important ‘home’ for keeping the broad sustainable development agenda under active review, and has been instrumental in launching a number of new initiatives and securing intergovernmental cooperation. Furthermore, despite the dramatic conclusion, some positive signals did emerge from CSD 15, in the form of agreement on air pollution and industrial development- although unfortunately not in the form of a negotiated outcome. Clearly though, this is not enough. Clearly, the CSD can do better.

This was precisely the message six former Chairs1 of the CSD sent to Member States at CSD 15. In an open letter to delegates, the Chairs endorsed a dialogue on the subject of sustainable development in the context of UN reform. The event – organized by Stakeholder Forum, the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service, ANPED Northern Alliance for Sustainability, and the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development, and attended by representatives of government, Major Groups, and the UN system – signalled the beginning of a process of reflection on sustainable development governance and the role of the CSD in particular.

A paper prepared by Stakeholder Forum, exploring how to address the current challenges related to international governance for sustainable development (IGSD), provided the basis for the conversation (available at http://ieg.stakeholderforum.org/). The paper annexed nineteen recommendations from a report that Stakeholder Forum had produced after a previous workshop of governments, UN Agencies and major groups.2 The paper proposed launching a two-track sustainable development initiative to enhance ‘confidence building’ between industrialized and developing countries in an effort define the areas where the UN’s institutions, and the CSD in particular, could make a distinctive contribution to the implementation of sustainable development. The paper proposed two options for creating this much needed space for discussion:

  • the establishment of an incremental process under the CSD, in the form of an open-ended Ad Hoc Working Group to focus mainly on the future and role of the CSD, including through a stocktaking process of the first two cycles; and, as a complementary step,

  • an incremental process under the auspices of the General Assembly (GA) to identify the building blocks of a more robust intergovernmental framework for sustainable development.

During the discussion, participants expressed a range of opinions on IGSD with a clear majority agreeing that a stocktaking exercise on the role of the CSD, in order to make its work more effective and impact greater, would be a useful exercise. Several speakers noted the need to ensure that any such process is demand-driven and avoids the formality of negotiations. Participants generally felt it was too early for a process under the GA and that the discussions on the Panel recommendations could provide an appropriate opportunity to address the sustainable development architecture across the UN system. 

The call for strengthening the CSD was also heard at the Ministerial level. According to some sources, these issues were raised and generally supported in the closed ministerial “straight talk” sessions held at the CSD. Furthermore, in his closing plenary statement, the German Minister stressed the need to improve the CSD decision-making process, noting that the relevance of the Commission is at stake. The South African Minister called for a “frank and honest engagement on the persistent question of how we could strengthen the global institutional arrangements for sustainable development,” emphasizing that “in the context of UN reform, this is central to enhancing the CSD’s political authority.”

In light of these initial signals of support, what is needed now is a concerted effort to explore how the UN’s highest level forum on sustainable development can be revitalised to fulfil its crucial role in the intergovernmental system. Stakeholder Forum’s paper offers two options on how governments could proceed. What is needed now is political will and drive to turn words into action.

1 B�rge Brende, CSD Chair 2004; Valli Moosa, CSD Chair 2003; Bedrich Moldan, CSD Chair 2001; Juan Mayr, CSD Chair 2000; Simon Upton, CSD Chair 1999; Henrique Cavalcanti, CSD Chair 1995

2 Strengthening the Johannesburg Implementation Track: Considerations for enhancing the Commission on Sustainable Development’s multi-year programme of work http://www.stakeholderforum.org/CSDAprilReport.pdf (March 2006)

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