The future of sustainable development: rethinking sustainable development after Rio+20 and implications for UNEP

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in June 2012—commonly referred to as Rio+20—left many perplexed. If a number of advances were made, the results fell well short of what is needed to redirect the global economy onto a sustainable course. Given that 20 years have passed since the Earth Summit, and 25 since the Brundtland Commission launched the notion of “sustainable development,” clearly something is not working. It is time for the sustainable development community to ask itself some tough questions: Why is sustainable development not “selling”? How might we re-envision the concept for the world of today? And what does this imply for organizations like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose mission both contributes to, and depends on, the realization of sustainable development? To explore these questions, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) organized an informal meeting in Abu Dhabi on December 2–3, 2012, with a handpicked selection of leaders and experts from around the world. This paper draws heavily on ideas that were raised during the meeting, to offer a vision of how sustainable development might best be pursued in a post-Rio+20 world. In the first part, it proposes strategic ideas on how sustainable development in general might more effectively be catalyzed. In the second, it considers how UNEP in particular might best respond to the post-Rio+20 world.