At the end of September the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed and published. They will come into effect at the end of 2015, following the completion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and cover the period 2016-2030. Unlike the MDGs, the idea is to involve the whole world in taking responsibility for development and place greater emphasis on three key issues that were missing previously: the role of women; the importance of education; and the focus on cities.
All of this is hard to argue with of course but it is worth remembering we are now fast approaching another critical conference in Paris where the UN Climate Talks present a challenge to draft and agree a meaningful commitment that supersedes the Kyoto Protocol.
Two major hurdles remain as the Paris deadline nears: climate finance, and emissions cuts. Back in 2010, the world agreed on building up a Green Climate Fund to help developing nations to tackle the impacts of climate change. The developed nations promised to provide the fund with US$100 billion by 2020. That hasn’t been forthcoming.
Not only that, it is clear the pace of negotiations is troubling. With just weeks remaining all Parties were almost unanimous in acknowledging that progress was insufficient. “It would be a catastrophe if the new treaty froze the existing reduction targets and pledges. We do need more regular adjustments that respect the latest climate science outcomes and the development of renewable energies” said Martin Kaiser, head of the Greenpeace climate policy unit.
The United Nations definition of sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Previous dialogues on sustainability have more or less focused on climate change and environmental issues, but the new paradigm of sustainability includes all efforts towards an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for people and the planet. There is a significant departure from the previous framework to now include a “harmonising” of three elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection.
The document is considered a political statement not a technical solution. Criticism that there are too many goals and targets is understandable but the SDGs cover a much broader range of issues than the MDGs. The millennium goals only covered “safe” themes such as poverty, primary education and child mortality. The SDGS weigh in on more meaty topics, such as governance, institutions, human rights, inequality, ageing, peace and climate change. The inclusive, detailed international negotiations have involved middle income and low income countries and as a result they are universal , holistic and ambitious – the product of the 7m people who have given their views.
That said, not everyone agrees with the goals. Medical journal The Lancet, for example, describes them as “fairy tales, dressed in the bureaucrats of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis, and poisoned by the acid of nation-state failure”.
“This is the people’s agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind,” said Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general. Putting people first is undoubtedly a strategic signal that global population, health and sanitation will top the list of priorities, but for the first time there is an explicit commitment towards education, something welcomed by a wide group of expert practitioners including The Global Alliance of Tertiary Education Sustainability Networks who wrote an open letter to present to the Chair of COP21 in Paris this December.
Whilst the ‘western’ approach to education for sustainable development has largely been focused on environmentalism, Iain Patton, CEO of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges who are a key player in the Global Alliance, believes there ‘will [be] benefit from this wider and more inclusive perspective … it’s no longer just about a nice green lifestyle but about international hunger, injustice and poverty’.
‘The new Global Goals say to us in the north: you may have much higher GDP per capita, but that doesn’t mean your societies are immune to problems that affect everyone in our interconnected globe’, says Patton. ‘It’s a reminder that the pursuit of prosperity isn’t just something for people far away to worry about’.
A New Prominence for Cities
It is arguably the eleventh goal, SDG 11, and its promotion of safer, more inclusive and resilient cities that makes them genuinely revolutionary. After all, two thirds of humanity will reside in urban settings by 2030 and by 2050, roughly 6.4 billion people – almost the equivalent of the planet’s current population – will live in a city. SDG 11 calls for greater investment in infrastructure, governance and safety in all urban spaces and human settlements, including slums, shanty-towns, ghettos and favelas of the world’s most fragile cities. The focus on informal settlements is crucial since the proportion of people living in slums is massive, and growing. There are already around 1 billion people living in slums today, as compared to 650 million in 1990. This population will grow to almost 2 billion over the next three decades.
Steve Turner, a city policy maker in Manchester believes overall the ‘goals are valuable in generating a ‘shared’ vision, providing some form of collective view of where we want to be going’. But he, like many, recognises that whilst the SDGs and the Climate Treaty are drafted, agreed and published by UN Members they will not be delivered by the UN or even national governments, but rather at the city/metro level where the Commission are not the delivery agents.
Critically, Turner recognises that without an effective mechanism for enforcement they can be ‘ineffectual’, ‘if we are serious about this then there needs to be an injection of rigour around their delivery.’
The UN recognises this and the targets will be reviewed systematically using a set of global, largely quantitative, indicators. These will be developed by a specially convened Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators and agreed subsequently by the UN Statistical Commission as well as the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly. Each nation and region will then go on to develop its own indicators.
Whilst the stats, numbers and measures might all sound rather clunky and dull, the SDGs give us an unparalleled opportunity to shape the international and national development agenda.
Women and Education – Fundamental to the SDGs
For example, much greater emphasis has been placed on the role of women and their access to education around the world. Whilst the rhetoric of the Sustainable Development Goals is laudable they are criticised for not garnering the financial commitment to achieve it. “In order for the SDGs to be met, implementation and financing plans must address inequalities and human rights, especially for women and girls. The financing plan being advocated by the US and other northern countries will merely uphold the world we have and not get us to the world we want,” said Serra Sippel, President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity.
Like re-taking your marriage vows, the Sustainable Development Goals re-state the importance of those Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000 and, with the benefit of hindsight, experience and in the light of a rapidly changing world, reaffirm those commitments. So, are the Sustainable Development Goals the world’s biggest promise…. or the world’s biggest lie? Will the SDGs really re-shape the plans and behaviours of nations, multilateral institutions, companies, development organisations and people, to make the world a fairer and more sustainable place?
Many believe the goals have helped to direct public policies and budgets towards the poorest and are recognised as important drivers of international policy which ensure that national governments maintain a commitment to these global challenges.
Eddie Murphy, a respected sustainability expert at Mott MacDonald believes that ‘the MDGs have had some impact on driving governments to put in place legislative interventions to implement positive impacts, and this has helped the green agenda’.
In addition to the evidence about indicators, the MDGs created a real ‘hook’ that kept global poverty on national and international agendas. Annual multilateral reviews of achievement; the MDGs + 5 and MDGs + 10, UN General Assembly meetings; and numerous regional and national meetings meant that poverty reduction received much greater attention around the world than it had in the past. At the same time, there are perfectly plausible arguments that most of the numerical progress made wasn’t a direct consequence of the MDGs, and that critical promises were broken.
It’s [Not] All About the Economy [But]
Amongst the financial recessions that have hit globally perhaps the MDGs have maintained at least some profile for the environmental agenda. Teresa Hitchock, a Partner in DLA Piper UK LLP and Head Safety, Health and Environment believes the Millennium Development Goals fell short of achieving their objectives in the face of other world crises such as terrorism , ebola and the Syrian conflict. She believes ‘sustainability is still seen as the second cousin to immediate pressures’ and hopes the SDGs will redress that.
Many believe that whilst governments and policy makers have been active they have been unable, or unwilling, to lock-in business benefits to achieving the goals set out. Whilst there is a strong human rights agenda emerging there is a growing belief the SDGs must concentrate on making sustainability good business sense. This is a view shared by Paul Caulfield, Director of the MBA in CSR at the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at The University of Nottingham Business School. He sees ‘the main objective of SDGs as being to provide a common language and currency for business strategies’ so that what makes good business sense is doing the right thing. Are you listening Volkswagen?
Ahead of the climate negotiations in Paris it’s reassuring that SDG 13 states the need to ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’ including the commitment to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate related hazards and natural disasters in all countries ; integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning; improve education, awareness raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning; a implement the commitment undertaken by developed country Parties to the UNFCCC to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible; and to promote mechanisms for raising capacities for effective climate change related planning and management, in LDCs, including focusing on women, youth, local and marginalized communities.
That sounds like a pretty sound framework – making it absolutely crystal clear that the delivery of Goal 13 is, in no doubt, dependent on some concerted effort and commitment at those talks.
The new SDGs bring together people, organisations and governments committing to reducing poverty and inequality, moving towards environmental sustainability and promoting social justice. What’s not to like? The ambition is great, so let’s not do them down for that. If even half of the SDGs were achieved then by 2030 we should be living in a better world.