India will head to the Rio+20 summit in Brazil with a negotiating brief focussed on defending the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR) and preventing any attempt to pin down specific goals or targets regarding sustainable development.

On Thursday, the Union Cabinet approved the strategy to be followed by Indian negotiators at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as Rio+20 due to the first such summit held in Rio de Janeiro two decades ago. While the June 20 to 22 meeting at the Brazilian city has been billed as the launch-site for a new set of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), India is one of the countries that prefer an “aspirational,” rather than a mandatory or “prescriptive” approach.

According to the strategy approved by the Cabinet, one of India's primary objectives should be to ensure that the firewall erected in the original Rio conference between the obligations of developed and developing countries – that is, the CBDR concept – is maintained.

“We will be negotiating to make sure that the [original] Rio principles are reaffirmed…Sustainable development has to be viewed with the approach of equity and common but differentiated responsibility so that developing countries can have their share of development,” said Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan who will be leading the Indian negotiating team to Rio.

Without any agreed definition of a “green economy,” India plans to insist that any such concept does not lead to trade protectionism which could affect the livelihoods of vulnerable Indians.

With regard to the SDGs, India does not want any specific thematic goals to be spelt out at the high-profile Rio summit. The Indian wishlist for the SDGs: they should be “universal and global, aspirational and non-binding, based on the principles of equity and CBDR,” with no attempt to cramp India's domestic policy space. The strategy also emphasises that rich countries better be prepared to fund the implementation of any such goals.

While the Indian position on equity is supported by all developing countries represented by the G77 and China negotiating bloc, the issue of specific SDGs is still in a state of flux. In case host Brazil is pressured to announce specific goals in a bid to prevent deadlock and achieve a “meaningful outcome,” India may be prepared to allow the inclusion of certain areas which it would be “relatively comfortable in achieving possible targets.”

India also opposes the idea of upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to a specialised agency status, which would give it universal membership and more predictable funding. The opposition stems from a fear of “disproportionately strengthening the environmental pillar of sustainable development without addressing the pressing needs of socio-economic development.” However, developing countries are split on this issue of institutional reforms, with many African nations supporting the upgradation of the UNEP which is headquartered in Nairobi.

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