Sustainable development targets will work only if they engage with the realities of national politics, says policy expert Matthew Lockwood.
In the run-up to this month's UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil, much has been written about how to define sustainable development; the balance between environmental sustainability and human development; the kinds of goals and targets that might be adopted; and how these might then relate to goals that follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
These are important debates, but what matters more is the politics of development and the environment at a national and local level — to which we are not paying sufficient attention.
Why are national politics so important? Because looking back over the past 20 years, most progress on issues such as poverty, human development and climate change has been driven by national-level concerns, not by multilateral goals or agendas.
Rapid economic growth in China and India has driven much of the recent global reduction in poverty. But Asia's economic growth has come from deliberate strategies by national elites, not because of a UN agenda on poverty reduction.
This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20
Likewise, Brazil's reductions in inequality through the social welfare programme Bolsa Familia did not arise from the MDGs but a national political debate on the minimum wage.
Conversely, many Sub-Saharan African countries are off-target on the MDGs because their political elites have concentrated on staying in power rather than committing to policies that yield genuine development.
The picture is similar in the environmental sphere. The Kyoto Protocol had plenty of targets, but no effective mechanisms to ensure countries' participation or enforcement of those targets (Canada simply walked away from it last year).
But at the same time, the two largest clean energy markets in the world are in two countries that have no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol — the United States (which didn't ratify it) and China (which has no emission reduction targets).
What can we learn from this? Multilateral targets are much less important than often thought, and domestic politics much more important.
The reality is that targets must be politically 'owned' domestically to have traction. Even where targets are domestic (such as the UK's aim to eradicate child poverty by 2020) they will not be met if they are not politically owned.
From global to domestic
Proposals for sustainable development goals — such as those put forward for Rio+20 from Colombia, Peru and the United Arab Emirates — span three different kinds of issue. The first is the set of related challenges in income poverty, food insecurity and extreme inequality. These issues are already squarely on the political agenda, especially in emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India.
There is increasing domestic pressure for everyone in these countries to benefit from growth, and much debate about how to introduce universal welfare coverage of some sort. Multilateral goals may reinforce this pressure, especially if civil society organisations take them up domestically, but change will still happen without them.
The second set of issues is local environmental problems associated with rapid industrial growth, such as air and water quality. In political systems with any mechanisms for accountability, these problems are also on the agenda already, because people have an immediate interest in getting them addressed.
This isn't confined to democracies. Cases of protest about local pollution in China, such as lead contamination from battery plants in Shanghai, show how politically visible such complaints have become, and that authorities are taking them more seriously.
Again, multilateral goals may help, but the main drivers for change will come from domestic agendas.
But the third set of issues — protecting global public goods by tackling climate change or restoring biodiversity, for example — is different. While there are some domestic political drivers of sustainability, such as concerns about energy security, there are also political obstacles such as additional cost.
The problem here is that international targets alone will not help, as the experience of the Kyoto Protocol (or the Convention on Biological Diversity) shows. What is needed is an effective international agreement that actually changes incentives and ensures enforcement. We may get that through the Durban Platform process, but equally, we may not.
Engaging the real world
The one area where multilateral targets have made the most difference is in aid to the poorest countries. The MDGs played a significant role in shaping aid priorities, and have probably made a difference in some areas — for example, by increasing the proportion of aid going to primary rather than secondary education.
But for these gains to be truly sustainable, the aims of sustainable development have to be owned by governments and political elites in the world's poorest countries — we are back to domestic politics again.
Such ownership will not come about just because of multilateral agreement on definitions and targets. It will only come, in most cases, through a transformation of politics in those countries, and the emergence of political leaders genuinely committed to development. This will probably happen through different mixes of pressure from the grassroots and a change of perspective amongst elites.
If the debate at Rio+20 is to have any meaning, it must be a debate about whether and how multilateral summits and targets can engage with the real world of national politics.
Matthew Lockwood leads the climate change team at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, United Kingdom. He can be contacted at M.Lockwood@ids.ac.uk.
This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.