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. >