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Since the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment the reach of sustainable development governance has expanded considerably at local, national, regional and international levels.

The need for the integration of economic development, natural resources management and protection, social equity and inclusion was introduced for the first time by the 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future), and it has become central in framing the discussions at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also known as the Earth Summit. In 1993 the General Assembly established the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), as the UN high level political body entrusted with the monitoring and promotion of the implementation of the Rio outcomes, including Agenda 21.

The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development advance the mainstreaming of the three dimensions of sustainable development in development policies at all levels through the adoption of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI).

A process was created to discuss issues pertaining to the sustainable development of small island developing States resulting in two important action plans - Barbados Plan of Action and Mauritius Strategy. A planned Conference in 2014 will take these processes forward.

In 2012 at the Rio+20 Conference, the international community decided to establish a high-level political forum for sustainable development to subsequently replace the Commission on Sustainable Development. Decisions on mandate, form and methods of work were adopted during the 67th session of the General Assembly (A/67/L.72) with the aim of having the first session of the forum at the beginning of the 68th session of the Assembly (September 2013).

The Rio+20 Conference generated new momentum for achieving sustainable development.  Its outcome document—The Future We Want—proposes strategies for Member States and the UN system to implement and advance sustainable development goals for the post-2015 development agenda.  In the lead-up to this process, the Secretary-General organized a High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, which published its findings and ideas in the report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing

An Open Working Group of the General Assembly is preparing a proposal on a new generation of sustainable development goals for consideration by the Assembly at the 68th Session (Sep. 2013 – Sep. 2014), as mandated by the Rio+20 outcome document. The Open Working Group—based on an innovative, constituency-based system of representation—allots one seat to 1-4 Member States.  It must also ensure the full involvement of relevant experts from civil society, the scientific community and the wider UN system. 

World leaders also recognized the key role of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in achieving a balanced integration of the three pillars of sustainable development.  They also committed to strengthening the Council to ensure that it could effectively follow-up on progress on the agreements made at the UN on economic, social and environmental—such as the pledges made in the Rio+20 outcome document. 

As a result, ECOSOC plays a key role in mobilizing, facilitating and partnering within the UN system to ensure its expertise, programmes and resources support global, regional and national strategies to address the building blocks of sustainable development: