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Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective, published by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council; and

“Beyond cockpit-ism: four insights to enhance the transformative potential of the Sustainable Development Goals” in Sustainability no. 7 (2015). 

Q: What are the negotiations in New York this week about?
MN: Member states are meeting in the United Nations General Assembly to draft a major political declaration on post-2015 development. Although not part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) per se, this political declaration will have a huge impact on how the SDGs are framed, and perceived internationally. It will be a statement of what the SDGs are about and for. So it’s a great opportunity to get buy-in from across society and mobilize the broad range of actors needed to make the implementation of the SDGs a success.

Q: The paper in Sustainability was co-authored with a group of leading sustainability thinkers. What insights does it offer for the political declaration?
MN: I think the key message is that the political declaration needs to appeal to broader society. Whatever we like to believe about the power of governments and the UN, the success of post-2015 sustainable development rests on what businesses, individuals, civil society organizations do. How we frame and communicate about the SDGs is a key part of this.The paper suggests four perspectives that can help to underline the universal relevance of the SDGs: planetary boundaries, the safe operating space, the energetic society, and green competition. I’d like to zero in on a couple of these. The point with the “energetic society” is that transformation depends on unleashing the vast desire within society for more sustainable development. Decision-makers should make sure policy frameworks (and infrastructure) support and facilitate positive action by the energetic society, and never act as an obstacle.

A closely linked perspective is green competition. To mobilize and engage the private sector the SDGs need to connect to the logic of the business and finance community. This means we need to tone down the narrative of limits and stress the opportunities. We won’t be able to stay within a safe operating space without socio-technical innovation, and this is most likely to come from the private sector. This is a cornerstone of the New Climate Economy project.

Q: In the ICSU/ISSC report you and Robert Costanza co-author a chapter commenting on the overall SDG framework. Is there anything there that could be relevant for the political declaration?
MN: Very much so. The first point we wanted to stress is that the draft SDGs are already a remarkable achievement.  If there’s something the Open Working Group draft itself lacks, it is a unifying vision for post-2015 development and a narrative of change: if you like, where we’re trying to get to, and how to get there, with the SDGs as a guide. This is important in two ways.

First, as a communication and mobilizing tool. The goals and targets are never going to be a rallying cry in themselves. Ban Ki-Moon’s stocktaking report recognized this and proposed a way of grouping the goals to make them easier to communicate. But we need a clear, compelling vision to inspire understanding and action in wider society – and make it easier for national and subnational policy-makers to push through necessary policies. This vision and narrative of change have a natural home in the political declaration.

Second, the SDGs targets are supposed to be adaptable to national capabilities and priorities. This is necessary given their number and the heterogeneity among countries, but it will need a good international review framework to ensure it doesn’t just mean there’s no action on the more difficult targets. This framework has to be grounded in just such a vision and narrative.

Q: What else has SEI been doing to support the SDGs process recently?
MN: We still have a lot of fruitful collaboration within the Independent Research Forum (IRF2015). SEI’s Aaron Atteridge just published a very interesting blog co-authored with Paule Steele of one of our partners in IRF2015, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), proposing a radical new approach to climate and development finance post-2015. It’s vital to draw these links between the three major intergovernmental deals being drawn up this year: the SDGs, Financing for Development and of course the UNFCCC climate deal we hope for in Paris in December.

Aaron was just in New York presenting his ideas to SDGs negotiators in the latest retreat organized by the IRF, and we look forward to hearing how that went. There’s also a new blog by Åsa Persson that sends out a timely reminder that we can’t just focus on the international processes and getting the wording of the SDGs just right: what ultimately matters is what happens at national level and, even more, in society, so even the highest intergovernmental negotiations need to have a clear view of how the goals might work in practice.

And we’ve actually been trying to help governments do that. At the end of last year we completed a study in Zambia looking at how well aligned their current policies and programmes in the area of food security and agricultural development match up with the global and regional ambitions for the SDGs. It also looked at the coherence (or lack of it) between global, African, southern African and national priorities for post-2015 development in this area, to spur national and regional policy-makers into making sure their priorities are reflected in the global negotiations. This study was carried out with another IRF2015 partners, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

Read more about SEI’s work on the SDGs »