Roadmap towards a sustainable future?
Social justice – a key goalLiving conditions around the world still vary considerably. Many people live in extreme poverty, suffer hunger and have no access to education or social progress. Recognizing the major problems affecting social development in many parts of the world, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Declaration in September 2000 as the basis for the establishment of eight major development goals. Known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), their purpose was to help achieve significant improvements in social conditions in the developing countries by 2015. Several of the MDGs have been reached; many have been partially met. MDG 4, for example, aims to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by 2015 compared with 1990, when annual mortality among the under-fives stood at 12.7 million. Since then, the figure has fallen to six million despite a growing world population. The United Nations sees this as a landmark victory in its campaign to further reduce child mortality.
- 4.1 > Modest progress has been achieved on reducing the number of slum dwellers worldwide. Although the proportion of the urban population liv-ing in slums declined from 46.2 per cent in 1990 to 32.7 per cent in 2012, the absolute number of slum dwellers increased over the same period, from 650 million to 863 million, as a result of population growth.
- Despite these glimmers of hope, there has been frequent criticism of the MDGs in recent years. Viewed in terms of the classic three-pillar model of sustainability, the MDGs’ unilateral focus on social aspects is identified as an obvious shortcoming. The environmental dimension features only once, namely in MDG 7, and there is no mention of marine resources at all. The critics also point out that the MDGs fail, by and large, to address governance aspects and that they apply only to the developing countries.
A universal global sustainable development agenda?At an MDG summit in 2010, it was therefore agreed that a new agenda should be defined for the period beyond 2015 to 2030. The future goals should be universal: in other words, they should apply to developing, emerging and developed countries alike and should take account of all the dimensions of sustainability. Crucially, it was recognized in this context that living conditions cannot be improved if the environmental dimension is neglected and humankind’s natural life support systems continue to be destroyed. The new post-2015 agenda should therefore also take account of the outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, exactly 20 years after the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) took place in the same city. The Rio+20 outcome document deals with the social dimension, such as poverty eradication, but also calls for a green economy, as well as measures to combat environmental problems, e.g. land degradation, desertification and climate change. In order to elaborate the new post-2015 sustainable development agenda, an Open Working Group (OWG) was established in 2012 under the auspices of the United Nations; this format was chosen in order to involve a range of stakeholders in the deliberations.
- 4.2 > Several MDGs were reached by 2015. They include the goal of halving the number of people living on less than 1.25 US dollars a day worldwide. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, almost half the population still lives in extreme poverty, with only a very small decrease since 1990. China, by contrast, has achieved an 80 per cent reduction in the number of people living in poverty.
4.3 > The debate about sustainable development goals has also focused on the problems faced by the Maldives and other smaller Pacific island states, which are particularly at risk from sea-level rise.
Open to suggestionsIn contrast to many other processes conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, the Open Working Group – as the name suggests – was intended to be inclusive and accessible to a broad public. An Internet portal was established, enabling interest groups, businesses and individ-uals to submit position papers and wellreasoned proposals on new goals. The scientific community and other experts were invited to share their experience on various aspects of sustainability and feed it into the process.
As a rule, every UN member state has the right to send a representative to the various United Nations committees and bodies. To ensure that every representative from almost 200 countries has a chance to have a say, the time available for individual statements is reduced to a minimum. In order to ensure that the work on the SDGs progressed in a constructive, efficient and focused manner, it was therefore agreed that in the OWG, the inputs would be streamlined, with one representative speaking on behalf of a constituency of three countries, such as the Germany/France/Switzerland trio. The constituencies’ spokespersons – generally diplomats or senior officials from the member states’ Foreign or Environment Ministries – rotated on a regular basis. The duration of the Open Working Group’s sessions was also reduced substantially, as the aim was to submit a comprehensive proposal on the new sustainable development agenda in the shortest possible time. In order to access the knowledge of the scientific community and other civil society groups, the OWG invited experts to New York to provide brief inputs and statements on various aspects of sustainability. The aim was to consult independent scientists who were able to provide an overview of current research in their particular discipline. Directly involving external experts from civil society was an unusual move for the United Nations: generally, it is only the member countries’ own designated representatives who appear before UN bodies, doing so once they have been duly briefed by policy advisors or external experts.
- This consultation process involving experts and national representatives lasted eight months and also focused on the marine environment. In spring 2014, the OWG finally published its report. In it, the OWG proposes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets to be reached by 2030. This makes the list of SDGs far more detailed than the old MDG agenda with its eight Millennium Development Goals and 21 targets. As the first step, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Open Working Group’s proposal in autumn 2014. In the following months, a United Nations committee held further negotiations in order to develop the SDGs in more detail and resolve the issue of financing.
Accolades from on highIn July 2015, the list of SDGs was presented at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) in Addis Ababa. The Conference brought together high-level political representatives, including Heads of State and Government and Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Development Cooperation, to discuss how much money the international community will provide for sustainable development in the developing countries.
In the run-up to the conference, the developed countries had pledged to promote actions in support of sustainable production and consumption patterns and activities to counter the threats of climate change with contributions amounting to 100 billion US dollars from 2020 onwards. At the meeting, however, none of the countries was willing to commit definitely to payments. It thus remains unclear at present where the funds are to come from in future. At least the delegates were able to agree that projects to combat poverty or hunger must not be seen in isolation from climate action. Future development initiatives must pursue both objectives simultaneously.
- A further outcome of the conference is that Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the USA will launch an initiative by which the developing countries will be assisted in reforming their tax systems such that resources are released to fund the SDGs. Critics have noted that this approach reduces the struggle for greater sustainability to the nation-state level instead of tackling the challenges through international commitments.
Meeting in New York in September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly – the UN’s chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ – formally approved the draft SDGs. This means that there now is, for the first time, a framework for action towards comprehensive, sustainable global development. A noteworthy positive aspect is that following adoption of the SDGs some 2000 initiatives have started their work around the world to carry out diverse projects in support of the SDGs at regional level. It remains to be hoped that this impetus can be maintained in future. For it is still unclear after the General Assembly how the SDGs are to be financed in the period to 2030.
The SDGs: the critics’ viewIn spring 2015, the International Council for Science (ICSU) already published a paper on the Open Working Group’s set of SDGs, in which it reviews the 169 targets for the Sustainable Development Goals from a science perspective and considers how well developed each target is. It concludes that out of 169 targets, 29 per cent are well developed, 54 per cent could be strengthened by being more specific, and 17 per cent require significant work.
Among other criticisms, the ICSU argues that as they stand, the SDGs fall short of the high standards initially set by the OWG itself. It notes that all the targets should meet the SMART criteria – a concept borrowed from business and project management, which states that goals can only be achieved if they fulfil the following five criteria: they must be specific, measurable, attainable (and ambitious), relevant, and time-bound. The ICSU therefore made the following criticisms:
- Some goals are insufficiently specific. For example, Target 14.7 calls for the sustainable use of marine resources by small island developing States. However, it is not specified what the term “marine resources” encompasses. In this case, it should be made clear that marine mining or, indeed, energy generation should be developed in a sustainable manner.
- Some Sustainable Development Goals are not quantified, i.e. they lack measurable indicators, meaning that some countries may fail to pursue the goals with sufficient commitment. Target 14.1, for example, merely calls for “marine pollution of all kinds“ to be significantly reduced. However, this is an ideal rather than a specific goal. It would be more useful to specify target figures, e.g. reduce existing marine pollution of all kinds by 30 per cent, as this is a clear and achievable goal.
- There are major differences in the urgency with which the various goals must be addressed. For example, developing countries which at present have to make considerable efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition (SDG 2) will have less capacity to invest in pro-moting sustainable tourism (one of the targets for SDG 8) than a developed country. Prioritization of certain goals from the outset would therefore have been useful.
- The number of SDGs (17) and targets (169) is unrealistically high, and it is already foreseeable that only a proportion of the SDGs will be reached with the funding available. The number of MDGs was smaller and clear priorities were set, which was essential to making progress in the first place, the ICSU notes.
- No deadlines have been set for reaching some of the SDGs; one example is Target 14.3, which merely states that the impacts of ocean acidification are to be minimized and addressed.
- Possible conflicts between some of the goals have not been adequately considered. For example, Goal 2 calls for an end to hunger in the world; in line with Target 2.3, agricultural productivity will have to double by 2030 in order to achieve this goal. How-ever, as this will require the use of large quantities of artificial fertilizer, there is a risk that this will cause even more nutrient pollution of rivers and coastal waters, creating a possible conflict with Target 14.1, which calls among other things for pollution, including nutrient pollution, of coastal waters to be significantly reduced.
- So why are there so many points of criticism, and why are the SMART criteria not always met? Experts say that this is because the United Nations negotiations are first and foremost a political process: the aim is to find a formula that is acceptable to all countries. Even with criteria such as SMART, the wording is often vague. The reality is that consensus is essential in the United Nations, for resolutions such as the SDG agenda can only be implemented if they are adopted unanimously by the General Assembly. Very few UN bodies operate a system of majority voting.
Since the SDG process commenced, the representatives of the Open Working Group have responded publicly to criticism. They point out that the purpose of their work was to overcome the limitations of the Millennium Development Goals and to devise a sustainable development agenda that is as comprehensive as possible and covers the environment, economic and social dimensions in equal measure. And, they say, a political process always involves weighing up which goals should ultimately be pursued, and with which degree of intensity. The OWG accepts the criticism that not all the Goals will be reached by 2030. However, it is keen to ensure, in every case, the continuation of projects that have progressed successfully thanks to the MDGs.
- 4.5 > Critics are calling for the threat to the deep sea from marine mining and oil production to be defined more precisely in the SDGs. At Miami Beach (above) and elsewhere, there have already been numerous protests against the sell-off of the seabed.
Looking for the right benchmarkNotwithstanding all the criticism, it must be kept in mind that the SDG process is far from complete. Quite the contrary: the detailed work is only just beginning. Defining goals and targets was merely the first step. The second consists of defining indicators – benchmarks – to measure, in future, whether and to what extent progress towards the goals is being made. The list of indicators should be ready by spring 2016.
Fifteen years ago, the United Nations Statistics Division developed 60 indicators to measure progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. As not all the MDGs can be measured equally, the indicators were assessed according to their feasibility, suitability and relevance. Very much like the ratings used to rank countries’ creditworthiness, the system – which is likely to be adopted for the SDGs – awarded a score from AAA to CCC for these three criteria. This can be illustrated with reference to Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. One of the indicators for MDG 1 was “proportion of population below the national poverty line, disaggregated by sex and age group”. This parameter can be measured very accurately because most countries maintain detailed statistical data. This indicator was therefore awarded an AAA ranking.
Furthermore, all those MDG indicators which have proved their worth will be retained for the SDGs. In addition, the UN Statistics Division is currently developing new or better indicators, again drawing on external expertise. The Division published a list of 338 proposed indicators in early 2015.
- 4.6 > Melting of continental glaciers, seen here in Greenland, is one of the greatest threats posed by global warming. Combating climate change is one of the most ambitious and challenging goals on the SDG agenda.
The complexities of data collectionExperience with the MDGs has shown that data collection and statistical analysis of indicators cost a great deal of time and money. The success of the SDG agenda therefore depends, not least, on adequate funding being available for this purpose. Given that there are 17 SDGs and 169 targets, the effort involved is several orders of magnitude greater than for the MDGs. In mid 2015, the Open Working Group signalled that collecting the requisite data for 169 targets and the same number of indicators and reporting the figures to the United Nations was likely to be unmanageable for many countries, especially those whose monitoring systems and/or statistical offices are under-resourced or (almost) non-existent. According to the experts, the upper limit is 100 harmonized global SDG indicators in order to be sure that all countries submit their data to the UN Statistics Division within a reasonable timeframe. Timely submission of national data is essential to allow conclusions to be drawn as to whether countries are on track to achieve their goals.
- During the MDG era, analysing the data was often difficult as the figures were submitted with several years’ delay. As the MDG process continued, however, many developing countries built up their statistical capacities and the situation improved. The OWG assumes that 100 indicators are manageable. However, it remains to be seen whether 169 targets can be captured adequately with just 100 indicators.
In practice, it will also become apparent that not all targets are equally relevant to all countries. For example, not every landlocked country needs to take measures to combat eutrophication of coastal waters if it has no rivers that wash nutrients into the sea. Malaria is another example: this particular problem does not affect the Northern European countries, so for them, providing data on this particular indicator is unlikely to be onerous. This reduces the amount of data that countries need to provide, as some targets may not be relevant.
A small set of indicators for everything?One topic of discussion at present is whether a small set of comprehensive indicators can be used to measure progress towards several targets. This is quite conceivable, as many of the goals are linked. One example is the sustainable use of marine resources – a major goal which comprises many targets, such as conservation of fish stocks, reduction of nutrient loads, etc. Theoretically, all these aspects could be captured by a single indicator such as the Ocean Health Index (OHI), which assigns a single score to describe the condition of ocean regions or, indeed, the global ocean. The technical term for an indicator which covers a range of aspects is a “composite indicator”. A country’s gross national income can also be considered a composite indicator.
- Although the OHI was discussed as a possible SDG indicator, it has now been rejected: the OHI is an extremely complex indicator, consisting of 10 categories which are used to evaluate the condition of marine ecosystems. There were also concerns about the weighting of the categories, because the OHI simply adds them together and calculates simple mean scores on that basis. Critics argue that as a result, poor results in one category can simply be cancelled out by good results in another; the OHI implicitly adheres to a weak concept of sustainability, in that natural capital that has been destroyed can simply be substituted to an almost unlimited extent by other forms of natural capital. Nonetheless, efforts are currently under way to de-termine to what extent the SDG indicators can be merged in order to reduce the total number. Identifying thematic overlaps can certainly help. Combating poverty (SDG 1), for example, is impossible without food security (SDG 2).
In order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, the international community adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in New York in May 1992. The Convention was further elaborated in a Protocol adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, which sets internationally binding emission reduction targets for the first time. Despite these agreements, greenhouse gas emissions have increased in some developed countries and especially in the emerging economies.
The limits to the SDG agendaNotwithstanding all the justified criticism, many scientists consider that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) build successfully on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Whereas the MDGs were defined by United Nations experts and adopted by the UN General Assembly fairly quickly, the SDGs have been developed in an inclusive process lasting several years. This was essential to produce a comprehensive agenda which also places emphasis on good governance at the national level, which has an essential role to play. For example, SDG 16 calls for promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies and the provision of access to justice for all. Goals such as these touch on politically sensitive areas. They are entirely new: they were not included in the MDGs and have therefore not been captured in statistics. Developing appropriate indicators is therefore proving extremely difficult. For example, what kind of indicator can be used to measure “the percentage of population who believe decision-making at all levels is inclusive and responsive”? Whether the SDGs genuinely contribute to a sustainable future will undoubtedly depend on the policies adopted at the national level. The SDG agenda is not legally binding. If countries fall short of their goals, there is no way of sanctioning them. Scientists emphasize, however, that the mere existence of the MDGs exerted a measure of pressure. Failure to achieve key goals thus harmed a country’s international reputation. The SDGs are likely to have a similar effect, encouraging the adoption of national or regional measures to combat localized environmental problems such as nutrient pollution of water resources.
- As a rule, countries give top priority to their own national problems. The question, then, is to what extent countries will in future be willing to work together to tackle global challenges such as climate change or ocean warming and acidification. In many cases, the international community has failed to get a grip on global environmental threats despite the existence of binding multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol. So it is almost impossible to predict to what extent the SDG agenda will motivate countries to take concerted action. The MDGs’ strength lay primarily in their clarity: they were easy for everyone to understand. This led to a high level of public interest and awareness, with non-governmental organizations, citizens’ action groups and the press in many countries casting a critical eye over whether and to what extent the MDGs were being achieved. In view of the high level of attention already focused on the SDGs, it is likely that a similar process of critical monitoring will accompany progress towards the SDGs, prompting intense public debate over the next few years. This may well exert additional public pressure on governments to show more commitment to working together on tackling global problems in the next decade and a half.