It also aims to enable more scientific input into international policy in the crucial implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) after 2015.
Opening the forum's inaugural session in New York, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said it would be a key platform for examining global challenges in a "holistic and integrated manner".
"This forum can be the catalyst for a strengthened global partnership for sustainable development, providing political leadership grounded in solid science," he said.
John Ashe, of Antigua and Barbuda, the current president of the UN General Assembly, said the forum would play "a pivotal role in the elaboration and the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda".
Ashe also promised "a level of coordination, integration and coherence that until now has been lacking".
The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known more widely as the Rio+20 summit, called for a political forum to be established to push sustainable development to the top of the agenda at the highest levels of government.
The new body replaces the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which was formally wound up at a meeting at the UN on 20 September. The commission had operated for 20 years after being agreed at the UN's original Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
“This forum can be the catalyst for a strengthened global partnership for sustainable development, providing political leadership grounded in solid science.”
Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general
The forum would be a "more vibrant and robust" platform for sustainable development than the commission, said Fiji's prime minister, Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama.
But diplomats note that it is unusual for the UN to close or replace an organisation, adding that the commission worked well in its early years. Over time, however, the UN, its member states and various NGOs all "came to the conclusion that the Commission had progressively lost its lustre and effectiveness", according to a document released by the UN in February, entitled 'Lessons learned from the Commission on Sustainable Development'.
The commission was the first UN body on sustainable development at a time when it was a relatively new concept.
"The most important achievement of the Commission was that it provided a distinct home, where the sustainable development agenda was kept under active review," according to the 'Lessons Learned' document.
Among its successes, the commission fostered international agreements or treaties on energy, oceans and sustainable consumption. Notably, it led to the establishment of the UN Forum on Forests, which promoted sustainable forestry through the adoption of the 'Non-legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forest' — the first global agreement on sustainable forestry agreed in 2007.
The commission also served as the preparatory committee for the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.
More science in UN policy
Nikhil Seth, director of the UN division of sustainable development, said at the commission's final meeting that one lesson from its demise was the need to enhance the science-policy interface.
The CSD "had limited input from the scientific community", says Pamela Chasek, a professor of international relations at Manhattan College, United States, and author of the book Global Environmental Politics.
Scientists were present at commission meetings among NGOs and as members of the UN's 'major groups' through which researchers and other sectors of society were able to provide input on discussions on sustainable development. But the 'Lessons Learned' document said that member states felt policy decisions had "not been based on sufficient scientific findings since there was too little opportunity for scientists to interact with policymakers".
The new forum aims to remedy this. "A lot of delegates recognise that the process cannot operate successfully if it is divorced from science," said Chasek.
At its launch, Ban announced, to the surprise of some diplomats, that he would create a scientific advisory board under UNESCO (the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
It is still unclear how this board would work as part of the forum.
UNESCO would also host the board's secretariat at its headquarters in Paris.
"We must strengthen the interface between science and policy, so that the latest scientific findings are reflected in our high-level policy discussions," Ban said.
The Rio+20 summit agreed that an annual global sustainable development report would be produced. "It should be driven by science, and hopefully this scientific advisory board and the new scientific advisor [to the secretary general] will be in charge of that process," says Farooq Ullah, executive director of the Stakeholder Forum, an NGO.
“There is a need for a new international initiative to improve the quality of data on sustainable development. A true data revolution would fully integrate statistics into decision-making.”
Wu Hongbo, UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs
"It will be a key report that will go directly to the High Level Political Forum and enable it to set the agenda based on what the report is saying about the urgent issues on sustainable development," he tells SciDev.Net.
Wu Hongbo, the UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, said at the Forum inauguration on 24 September: "Rio+20 wisely calls on the high-level political forum to strengthen the science-policy interface. A global sustainable development report will help serve this important purpose."
He said that the UN had already "reached out to scientific communities" to identify the key messages such a report should contain and that scientists had identified priority issues including: unsustainable consumption and production; the nexus between climate, land, energy, water, development; increased wealth inequalities and the persistence of poverty; natural resource conflicts; and the growing pressures of human activities on the biosphere."
Higher political profile
The forum launch was boosted by the presence in New York of various foreign ministers and heads of state and government for the UN General Assembly session. It was also attended by International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim.
"They showed high-level political will in the level of participation at the launch," says Felix Dodds, a fellow at the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, United States. "CSD never had that at any meeting except at the five-year reviews."
Chasek says: "There is hope that raising the political profile and importance of these issues will lead to greater commitment from governments".
Ban and delegates from Japan and Europe admitted that one of the commission's shortcomings was its failure to fully integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Instead it was seen as mainly an environmental body.
"It became the provenance of environment ministers," says one diplomat. "We would be talking about agriculture, but no one from the agriculture ministries was there. We would be talking about mining or finance, but there were not the people from the ministries and departments that mattered."
Dodds, co-author of a book that charts the commission's role, Only One Earth: the long road via Rio to sustainable development, says that in the early part of the commission's existence, development ministers attended its meetings as it reviewed aid commitments, but then they ceased to come. "It was clear the institution no longer had the support of governments," he tells SciDev.Net.
Set up under the Rio Earth Summit's outcome document, the commission was never intended to be a negotiating forum. It was also hampered by being seen as a "lowly subsidiary" of the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), diplomats say.
"It should never have been that low in the food chain," says Dodds. "CSD was all that was possible at that time. But 20 years on, sustainable development is overarching, so we need to move it up into the higher echelons of the UN."
The 'Lessons Learned' document also said that the commission was unable "to respond with sufficient flexibility to new and emerging issues" and referred to a "cumbersome decision-making process", with high-level policy meetings held only once every two years.
The commission had "not been able to move with the times", Chasek says.
The CSD's work programme "wasn't able to adapt to the impact of the recent financial, energy and food security crises among other things, and their impact on sustainable development," she tells SciDev.Net.
Overseeing the SDGs
Diplomats say the new body is being set up prior to important decisions on the new sustainable development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Delegates at the forum's launch made it clear that they regarded oversight of the new development goals as one of its main functions.
"This forum will be a compass to guide us toward 2015," Japan's foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, told the inaugural session.
Dodds says the forum is likely to "tread water" until the new development goals are agreed.
But by setting it up ahead of global agreement on the post-2015 goals, it would be ready to implement them from 2016. "It will be the place where those new development goals will be reviewed," Dodds says.
The forum will convene every year at high level under the auspices of ECOSOC, but, unlike the commission, it will bring together heads of state and government every four years to provide extra momentum for decision-making.
Despite the commission's demise, there was plenty of optimism about the new body, delegates said. "Until everything is in place [under the forum] no one knows what the result is going to be," says Dodds. "But I am very optimistic."
But Wu, among other delegates, said that securing adequate financial resources could be the most important factor in the new body's ability to address emerging challenges.
The forum's next meeting at ministerial level will be in two years, coinciding with the adoption of the SDGs. In the meantime, its exact work will need to be defined.
Chasek says that the 24 September meeting was of an inaugural character. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions" about the forum's workings, she says.
Ullah says that only a skeletal structure is in place. "Over the next few months the processes will continue to be debated and the flesh will be put on the skeleton."
This time scale "may not express the kind of urgency that's really needed to deal with issues of sustainable development, but over the next two years the Forum has to be set up and ensure it is fit for purpose. It would be worse to rush into it and get a very badly organised new body," Ullah tells SciDev.Net.
CSD was a proper institution with its own secretariat and UN budget. "None of these things have been decided for the Forum yet," says Farooq pointing to its "exciting and innovative" hybrid structure partly under the General Assembly and partly under ECOSOC.
All that is known now is that it will be the "institutional home" for the post 2015 development agenda and the SDGs, he says.
See below for a video by the UN on the forum: