Is the world ready for sustainable development goals?

Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman MP

In a speech last week, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said that the UK Government will be a “driving force” behind a new set of sustainable development goals (which of course have a new acronym: SDGs) which will be discussed at the Rio +20 conference in June.

The idea of sustainable development goals was initially proposed by the Colombian government and has been championed by the, the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability , as well as the UK Government.

It is, of course, absolutely vital that social, economic and environmental concerns are brought much closer together. Delivering social justice and protecting the environment are not only compatible: they are completely inseparable.

An excellent discussion paper published this week by Oxfam  clearly sets out the need for humanity to find a way to live within our planetary boundaries while at the same time ending extreme poverty –with the perhaps rather obvious conclusion that great equality in the distribution and use of the world’s resources will be crucial.

So, presumably it’s clear that the world is not only ready for some sustainable development goals, but that they are actually long overdue?  Well, I’ve read some interesting and useful critiques by Alex Evans , Claire Melamed, Duncan Green  and Charles Kenny and it feels like there are 3 key questions that policy makers should be asking before jumping on the SDG bandwagon.

 1. What is a sustainable development goal?

Is this a sustainable development goal?

 Words like “sustainable” and “development” are over-used and under-defined. The text of the UN’s draft negotiating document is currently very vague about what these goals will actually look like. In her speech, Spelman highlights the need for specific targets on water, energy and food, similar to the MDGs.  But one of the exciting things about the Colombian and Guatamalan proposal  was the desire for goals for sustainable consumption patterns which would apply to every country.  If policy-makers are talking at crossed-purposes, won’t it end in a fudge?


2. Is it politically possible to get meaningful SDGs agreed? 

While Colombia and members of the EU seem potentially keen, big players like USA, China, India seem to be quiet and/ or sceptical.  While they might sign up to some discreet goals on specific areas, it seems doubtful  that the politics are right for agreeing any goals ambitious enough to tackle run-away climate change or to bring us back on track to stay within our planetary boundaries (see recent progress at UNFCCC).  Surely it would be better to have no goals, rather than goals so weak that they are meaningless?

3. How would the SDGs fit with the MDGs?

The negotiating text currently says that, at Rio, some broad areas will be defined for the SDGs; that the actual goals would be set by 2015; and these goals would “complement and strengthen” the MDG agenda.  I’m not sure about you, but it’s not clear to me exactly what this means.  It would be disaster if a parallel process was set up to the one already underway to decide what happens after the MDGs, and if parallel  goals are then set.  A lot of work has already been done one the post-MDG agenda (see our previous blog and the Beyond 2015 website)  and efforts are being made to ensure that this process is participatory, and brings in voices from poor communities.  For the SDGs to have any legitimacy, they must build on this work, rather than replicate or duplicate.

So, what can Rio achieve?

There is a lot of useful work that can be done at Rio: Spelman is right when she says that it must be a work shop rather than a talking shop. My colleague Lis blogged last month on what Rio might deliver. There is potential for a high level declaration on green growth to be produced – probably woolly, but if we’re optimistic, it could could be a helpful narrative-setting piece.  There could be discussions on ways of raising the climate finance that developing countries desperately need to adapt, and to build a greener future – including through the diversion of subsidies which currently go to fossil fuels.

Better company reporting is also on the agenda, as  is work on better measures for development beyond GDP (imaginatively titled GDP+), which is something Tearfund called for in our Wholly Living report.

It would be a shame if a scramble to agree SDGs  diverted attention away from some of these topics. Given where the politics are, and the general lack of faith in multilateralism displayed by some of the superpowers at the moment, maybe it would be better to focus on getting the building blocks rights so that more ambitious and truly transformative goals can be set in the future?

What do you think?  Could the SDGs be the best thing since sliced bread, or a distraction from the difficult conversations needed?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s