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Officials meeting at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) next month must take decisions that help progress on sustainability and iron out the politics that could jeopardise proposals for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), argues Claire Melamed, head of Growth, Poverty and Inequality at the Overseas Development Institute.

Of the 420 paragraphs of the 'Outcome Document' — completed by the UN preparatory committee in New York last week — 400 have yet to be agreed.

"The level of ambition of those outside the Rio process is not matched by those within it," notes Melamed, with concrete agreements looking unlikely.

Sustainability and development are necessary objectives but difficult to reconcile, she says, and although negotiators have seized on SDGs as the solution, they are finding that politics stand in the way.

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

Some countries are worried that SDGs are underhand attempts to impose limits on resource use and development; some that a focus on sustainability will push commitments to poverty reduction into the shadows; and others worry that commitments will demand countries "spend money they don't have".

The Rio+20 negotiations won't solve this problem, argues Melamed, but they could send signals and help create goals that can push sustainable development in the right direction.

She suggests that commitments to climate finance would be important, as countries can use these funds to invest in clean energy, transport and agriculture — a strategy that contributed to Ethiopia's plans to reach middle income country status by 2025 while keeping carbon emissions down.

Improving information on countries' environmental resources to help inform government decisions would help too.

Finally, sustainability goals "have to be right", says Melamed, and the UN's High Level panel of Eminent Persons, which will take over from Rio negotiators, should bear this in mind. She argues that the SDGs must be well defined, have political weight and focus on a few problems and attainable targets.

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This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20