Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement: One year on – Why a joined-up approach to achieve environment and development goals is crucial


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      The year 2015 saw the adoption of two universal agendas for sustainable development: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. The climate agreement entered into force two weeks ago and the COP22 (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties) is taking place in Marrakech this week, to discuss how to implement the agreement. At the one-year anniversary of the SDGs adoption, governments, civil society and the private sector are also grappling with how to put the SDGs into practice. Two key challenges for translating these goals into action are bringing together environment and development communities and linking national and international endeavors.

      The SDGs seek to bridge the environmental-developmental gap

      The SDGs emerged out of the convergence of two environmental and developmental processes - the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development and the post-Millennium Development Goals debate - and a growing awareness that development and the environment are interlinked, but insufficiently coordinated. There are numerous interlinkages between the various SDGs, as well as between the SDGs and the climate agenda. For instance, many diseases (dealt with under SDG #3) are caused by water contamination (SDG#6), which is caused by waste mismanagement (SDG#12) or pollution (SDG#11) that is associated with energy production (SDG#7) or industrial processes (SDG#9). By the same token, climate change effects can decrease livelihood opportunities and drive human mobility (SDG#13), which itself can contribute to instability (SDG#16). The universality of the SDGs (meaning that it applies to all countries at all levels of development) requires that every country has to achieve the SDGs both at home (such as reducing inequalities in a given country) and internationally (reducing inequalities between developed and developing countries. Yet, these two dimensions reinforce the environmental vs. development and developed and developing country divides, with environment communities in Europe turning their focus to the national level of sustainable development and development communities focusing on international responsibility and cooperation. As an example of this dynamic, at the end of November the European Union should release two separate communications - one on SDG implementation in Europe and one on the external aspects of the SDGs. Treating the issues separately disconnects the two processes rather than integrating them in a holistic manner.

      The danger of slicing up the SDGs

      The temptation to divide SDGs according to national and international concerns is understandable. At first glance, it seems that some SDGs are predominantly aimed at developing countries, while others are targeting developed countries. For instance, SDG#11 on “Sustainable Cities and Communities” seems more relevant for urbanised countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 37.7% of people live in urban areas, compared to the world average of 53.9% and the EU average of 74.8%. Similarly, “consumption” patterns can only be “responsible” (as suggested in SDG#12) if there are resources and goods to consume in the first place. In countries where a vast majority of the population lives below the poverty line (43% of Africans live under $1.90 a day in 2011), this target may not seem like a priority. On the other hand, many objectives, such as water sanitation or ending extreme poverty, are no longer on the agenda of the most developed countries. But the logic of slicing up the SDGs is misguided for two reasons. First, the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (the agreement that lists the SDGs) requires a long-term approach, which looks at trends and not only the current state of play. Targets that may not seem relevant today in some countries will be relevant in the future. For example, while not relevant for some countries at present, SDG#11 on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable will eventually become crucial as urbanisation trends continue: by 2030, 64% of the world’s population and half of Africa’s population will live in cities. Second, countries should not only look at achieving SDG targets at home, but also consider the negative impacts of their internal policies abroad. For example, almost half of the 269 million hectares of land that Europe needs to fulfil its agricultural production needs are outside its borders. So, the aim of SDG#2 to end hunger may be achieved in some countries, but to the detriment of local food production in other countries, causing soil erosion, water extraction and the displacement of local communities in search of better livelihoods. Furthermore, not only do the more developed countries need to change consumption and production habits for their own good, but they should also assist others in meeting changing theirs, with tailored assistance to middle-income countries and least developed ones. And the financial challenges are huge: the world is expected to invest around $90 trillion in sustainable infrastructure in the next 15 years, doubling current investments from $3.4 trillion to $6 trillion annually. On energy alone (SDG#7), which correspond to 28% of the investments needed, Africa will require cumulative investments of up to $490 billion by 2040 for new electricity generation capacities, and 31% more for renewable energy.

      The road to a sustainable future

      The separation of environmental and developmental processes has often led to policy incoherence. This is precisely what the SDGs aim to address by calling for Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development. Development and economic policies traditionally looked at growth and welfare without due considerations to the environmental footprint. The demographic boom in certain countries (by 2050, ¼ of the world’s population will be in Africa), combined with the overall increasing scarcity of natural resources, forces us to review these paradigms. A complete change in consumption and production patterns is needed in industrialised and urban areas to achieve SDGs nationally and globally, not least because least developed countries cannot simply follow a traditional industrial transformation path without jeopardising sustainability. However, such a change also creates economic opportunities for eco-friendly development and growth, in both developed and developing countries. Investing in the agro-sector and clean energy would combat poverty (SDG#1), enhance food security (SDG#2), expand access to clean energy (SDG#7) and create jobs and income opportunities (SDG#8) thus contributing to growth by boosting demand (SDG#9). The SDGs present a unique opportunity for both, developed and developing countries provided development and environment, and domestic and foreign affairs, do not go separate ways. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
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