Challenges of universality

The idea of universality is fundamental to Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in that they apply at least as much to rich countries as to developing countries – in contrast to their predecessors the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Rich countries hold many of the keys to sustainable development, not only because of their influence on the world stage but also because of their disproportionately large consumption footprints. But the implications of this universality are only beginning to be understood, or even acknowledged, particularly in rich-country capitals; Agenda 2030 is still widely seen as a matter for development cooperation, not domestic policy change.

An SEI contingent picked up the theme of universality at the conference Jump-starting the SDGs in Germany: Natural Resources and Sustainable Consumption and Production, on 3–4 May.

Holger Hoff prepared two background papers for a discussion of means and tools to support integrated implementation using, for example, SEI’s SEI-PCS and IOTA models to show how consumption is linked to diverse impacts in producer countries. His session also addressed the Planetary Boundaries concept:

“Planetary Boundaries can help to determine the safe environmental ‘operating space’ within which SDG implementation has to happen,” said Hoff. “When it comes to implementing SDGs and climate commitments, we should make sure that total national commitments keep us within this operating space.”

SEI Executive Director Johan Kuylenstierna, who moderated the session, said: “It’s essential that countries start look seriously at national implementation – especially a major economy like Germany’s. And it was particularly encouraging to finally hear some news from the Swedish Initiative of First Mover Countries – which includes Germany – at the conference. We’ve heard very little since it was established in September 2015. Hopefully it’s now going to fulfil its promise of active leadership on SDG implementation. Specific actions are still lacking, however.”

A call to action

An editorial co-signed by Johan Kuylenstierna and a group of influential co-authors called on governments to move quickly to translate the high-profile commitments made in 2015 into action at the country level. The article, simultaneously published in Le Monde, El Pais and Trust.org, set out three key challenges for a sustainable development transition: financing – in particular, reorienting investment; making the transition fair and equitable; and embedding the global ambitions in national policy and debate.

The article was published to launch the conference Sustainable Development: It’s Time!, which took place on 10–11 May in Paris. Kuylenstierna moderated a session on domesticating the agenda, as well as serving on the conference’s advisory committee.

Limits of policy coherence

Policy coherence and policy integration have become hot topics in relation to Agenda 2030. It is increasingly recognized that a successful sustainable development transition depends on anticipating how change in one policy area might affect other areas, and coordinating policies to exploit potential synergies and minimize negative outcomes.

However, policy integration is not a panacea, as Åsa Persson warned during an address at the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) annual Integration Segment. “Policy integration is going to be essential, but it needs to be done right. We need to learn from past experiences, particularly how to avoid policy integration becoming policy dilution,” said Persson. “We also need tools to proactively identify opportunities for policy integration, not just tools to tell us whether existing policies are coherent.”

Nina Weitz also addressed policy integration issues at an OECD-hosted workshop looking at the experiences to date of selected OECD members in implementing the SDGs, which focused particularly on policy coherence for sustainable development. “Policy coherence is an attractive concept and looks perfectly logical in the abstract, but it will always come up against the reality of politics and power relations. To go further on policy coherence agendas we need analysis and tools that consider the political economy of decision-making for the SDGs,” said Weitz.

Read about the SEI Science Forum 2016, which focused on Agenda 2030 implementation »

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