At the Rio+20 Summit, then-president of Uruguay José Mujica asked, “Does the world today have the material elements to enable seven or eight billion people to enjoy the same level of consumption and squandering as the most affluent Western societies? Will that ever be possible? Or will we have to start a different type of discussion one day?” These questions posed nearly seven years ago capture the enormous paradox still facing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, for which development pathways are currently shaped by simultaneous concerns over resource degradation, the impacts of climate change, and the need to develop a just and inclusive society.
This was the topic of discussion as a group of 34 Latin American experts met in September 2018 in Argentina, at the fringes of the T20 Summit. The experts were discussing regional perspectives as inputs to the 2019 edition of the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), which is being drafted by an independent group of 15 scientists. The GSDR is produced every four years to help assess implementation of the 2030 Agenda and act as a science-policy interface. The authors of this article were invited to the GSDR consultation workshop in Buenos Aires as members of the facilitating and writing team for the GSDR 2019.
In this article, we argue that the issues raised in Buenos Aires point to a clear need for stronger efforts towards the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Special attention should be paid to potential synergies and trade-offs in three areas: 1) integrated policy making and budgeting, 2) securing the natural resource base and 3) building strong and inclusive democracies. We also point out concrete approaches to move efforts forward around these themes.
Around the same time this meeting took place, a new report to the Club of Rome was released looking at the possibility of achieving the SDGs within planetary boundaries. The authors warn that without major changes in the way economic growth is defined and pursued, humanity will be confronted with massive trade-offs between the socio-economic and environmental SDGs by 2030. For Latin America, this warning becomes especially concrete when economic growth, environmental and socio-economic trends are viewed side by side. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) projects that Latin America will have an economic growth rate of 1.7% in 2019, particularly in commodity exporting countries. According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Regional Economic Outlook for 2018 and 2019, job creation remains strongly dependent on commodity prices. In addition, commercial agriculture is the main cause of deforestation, according to the FAO. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit its highest rate in a decade just last year. All while inequality and violence remain worryingly high.
A new study carried out by the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) takes the first-ever look at specific links between different forms of inequality, increasing agricultural productivity, and farmland expansion at the expense of forests in Latin America. The study finds that greater inequality leads to more deforestation, while lower inequality better protects forests in the long term.
This evidence shows that finding solutions to the region’s major problems requires integrated solutions and a better understanding of potential synergies and trade-offs. We propose that Latin America should move particularly fast around the following three areas.
Integrated policy-making and budgeting
Addressing trade-offs within and between national policies and budgets begins with better coordination, and progress is being made to institutionalize coordination for the SDGs. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 19 out of 33 countries have institutional coordination mechanisms for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and 11 countries have national development plans that are aligned with the SDGs. For instance, Brazil has the National Commission for the SDGs, Guatemala has the National Council for Rural and Urban Development, and Aruba created a National Commission on the SDGs.
However, there have not been sufficient analyses of the extent to which these mechanisms are systematically addressing trade-offs in their strategic planning, and whether such integration is trickling down into national budgets. The SDGs do not provide specific guidelines for integrated policy making and budgeting to achieve the Goals. It is therefore vital to focus on the integration of national policy and budgets.
The Stockholm Environment Institute’s (SEI) approach to SDG interactions applies a methodology that supports decision-makers and practitioners in determining how progress on one target will affect other targets, how to prioritize action, and which stakeholders hold the key to progress and need collaborative involvement. Through this methodology decision-makers can achieve cost-effective policy coherence.
Indeed, designing policy while understanding the effect one target has on others allows minimizing policy implementation costs by investing in the right leveraging target. In Colombia, SEI is partnering with the UN Environment Programme to support an integrated implementation of the environmental dimension of the SDGs. This is the first time this approach will be implemented at the regional/local level.
Securing the natural resource base
The reduction of deforestation and unsustainable landscape transformation, the transformation of rural agri-food systems and biodiversity conservation need to constitute the pillars of regional environmental agendas. These issues are tightly interconnected: while the current agri-food system will further accelerate deforestation, transforming it can be a powerful lever in reducing deforestation and supporting climate mitigation and adaptation. However, we should pay special attention to trade-offs that might appear when these agendas are translated to the national and local levels, including negative impacts on the livelihoods of rural food producing populations. Ignoring such potential trade-offs would compromise the need to leave no one behind.
We also need to assess and manage trade-offs in achieving climate and food goals. Central America and Caribbean countries are extremely vulnerable to both climate change and food insecurity, but they face socio-economic, institutional, technological, financing and environmental barriers to solving these problems. We need to develop land-based options for mitigating climate change, and at the same time support agriculture and food security by providing the right balance between high value-added crops and staple crops. As suggested by the 2018 IPCC report, meeting SDG 13 will require achieving negative emissions, which would have important implications for land use in terms of afforestation and avoided deforestation.
Reviewing potential solutions to these issues for their impacts on the full range of SDGs can help identify and address potential trade-offs to protect Latin America’s natural resource base.
Building strong and inclusive democracies
Almost a dozen elections will have taken place in Latin America in 2018-2019, which makes for a changing policy environment. The Brookings Institution has suggested that lower economic growth following commodity price decline in the region since mid-2011 can lead voters to choose changes in government that favor populist parties with the hope of returning to more prosperity. As these changes are taking place in the region – as in Brazil and Colombia in 2018 – concerns have arisen that the incoming governments could reverse important gains in peace, social protection and equality, and lead to a loosening of environmental protections. Guatemala has been in the spotlight recently for reversing important steps to fight corruption. The Venezuelan political crisis has alarmed the international community, which is still struggling to find the best way to address issues in the country. In Nicaragua, meanwhile, growing tensions indicate that another crisis could be brewing.
The pursuit of economic growth should not lead to the selection of political proposals that sacrifice environmental protection, the rights of human and environmental protectors, the fight against corruption and the building of transparent and just tax systems.
While the issues outlined here require much more complex solutions, the follow-up and review of SDG implementation can open spaces for dialogue and for countries in the region to learn from each other with regard to managing trade-offs in achieving the Goals. Empowering stakeholders to participate in the discussion on SDG progress is of particular importance for highlighting various trade-offs and potential conflicts in each country’s implementation experiences.
Outlook: Focus on interactions, synergies and trade-offs needs to become a standing approach to SDG implementation
At a global level – through the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the GSDR process and ongoing research – it is increasingly common to consider interactions among the SDGs and treat the Goals as an integrated framework. But at the country and local levels, this approach is not yet standard.
More efforts are needed to support policy- and decision-makers in tackling sustainable development policies and strategies in an integrated way, increasing synergies and managing potential trade-offs. The issues outlined above provide a starting point and examples of where SDG implementation could be supported in Latin America and the Caribbean as we enter their fourth year.