An IISD policy brief identifies several ways in which large intergovernmental conferences have advanced sustainable development and can continue to do so.
But their ability to catalyze concrete national action to advance on sustainable development targets is not clear-cut.
Online conferences may be even less effective in propelling government action.
The latest policy brief in IISD’s ‘Still Only One Earth’ series identifies several ways in which large intergovernmental conferences have advanced sustainable development and can continue to do so, while noting some important limitations.
“There is nothing like walking into a United Nations sustainable development conference,” write authors Ana Maria Lebada and Pamela Chasek. Such “mega-conferences” have the ability to capture global media attention, focus the energies of the world’s politicians, and can often secure political agreement on future priorities.
The authors add that the UN is the only institution with the ability to bring together all the world’s leaders alongside NGOs, the private sector, and civil society to discuss the global aspects of common problems. As such, these conferences provide the only global forum where wide-ranging and interconnected issues such as trade, poverty, environmental protection, and development can be discussed by a full range of stakeholders. Mega-conferences also create new institutional mechanisms for sustainable development governance. The brief recalls that the 1972 Stockholm conference created the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the 1992 Earth Summit created the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), and the 2012 Rio+20 conference created the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and upgraded UNEP.
More uncertain is the ability of mega-conferences to catalyze concrete national action to advance on sustainable development targets: “If each action plan results in lackluster implementation, are these conferences worth the effort, money, and carbon footprint?” By establishing common principles as a basis for action, the conferences can promote national and local actions and attitudes that can advance sustainable development. But conference diplomacy has its limits, the authors explain:
- Negotiations can resemble a “race to the bottom” more than attempts to move forward;
- In negotiating rooms, governments work to protect their own interests despite what they have said in public speeches; and
- With so many meetings and side events, there is little time to absorb and learn from the new and innovative ideas presented.
With in-person conferences recently replaced by online formats, the effects are different: more people can participate remotely, which could help energize civil society and the private sector to take action, but the events may not be as effective in propelling government and intergovernmental action.
The brief concludes that “many sustainable development challenges are global in nature and require international solutions. Without the necessary political will, mega-conferences alone will never be enough to ensure our future is a sustainable one.”
The ‘Still Only One Earth’ policy briefs are being published in the lead-up to Stockholm+50. Other briefs in the series focus on biodiversity, wildlife trade, sustainable energy, finance and technology, climate change, plastic pollution, poverty eradication, measurement approaches, private sector action, public health, blue economy, gender equality, extended producer responsibility, regional governance of seas, biosafety, transport, and coral reefs, among other issues. [Publication: Do Mega-Conferences Advance Sustainable Development] [Still Only One Earth policy brief series]