Towards Sustainable Development Goals?

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I guess it was appropriate to start my day at UN HQ in New York where we were due to discuss the future of humanity and planet with a breakfast at the Brooklyn Diner on 212 West 57th Street. Constructed as a 1950s replica (and run by an energetic group of Latinos), its aesthetic intents have everything to do with nostalgia for a past golden age and nothing to do with what I will be discussing on the 23rd Floor of United Nations Plaza (indeed, the waiter never even knew where UN Plaza was, never mind how long it would take me to get there by taxi!). I have been invited to be a member of an ‘Expert Group on Science and Sustainable Development Goals’ convened by United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, International Social Science Council and International Council for Science, meeting 20-21 March, 2013.

This event was in response to the main outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, where it was agreed by Member States to launch a process to develop a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). A 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) of the General Assembly was tasked with preparing proposals on the SDGs. The Rio+20 outcome document provides that the OWG should develop modalities to ensure the full involvement of relevant stakeholders, including the scientific community. Rio+20 also established a high level political forum, which, among other things, is tasked with strengthening “the science-policy interface through review of documentation, bringing together dispersed information and assessments, including in the form of a global sustainable development report, building on existing assessments”.

The Rio+20 outcome document recognizes the need to strengthen the science-policy interface in order to facilitate informed policy-making. In this regard, it was seen as crucial that the best available research informs the development of goals, targets and indicators at global, regional and national levels. Accordingly, the overall purpose of the expert group meeting was to provide an entry-point for natural and social science communities to inform the work of the Open Working Group on SDGs.

The challenge, however, is that in parallel to the emergence of the SDGs there is a debate about what happens to the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015. In 2010 a MDG Summit initiated a process to formulate a post-2015 agenda. One result was the global report The Future We Want. Merging the MDGs and the SDGs is much easier said than done. The reason is that for developing countries the MDGs are sacrosanct – they mark out the minimum conditions of development that must be met, and they are the foundation for global aid programmes targetted at developing countries. Environmental sustainability is just an add-on in MDG 7, not the core of the programme. They are, therefore, only really about how developing countries access resources from the developed countries to finance development – they are not about why or how developed countries need to change in order to create the possibility for a more equitable shared future for all countries.

By contrast, the notion of sustainable development has evolved into an inclusive vision for the whole of humanity and the living planet: since the first international conference in Stockholm in 1972, then Rio in 1992, Johannesburg in 2002 and then back in Rio in 2012, sustainability science has slowly evolved into a massive well funded global community of practice that has established a consensus that it will not be possible to achieve the MDGs if the Earth’s life support systems and non-renewable resources continue to be exploitatively degraded at the current rate and form. Although the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment commissioned by the UN Secretary General in 2000 and published in 2005 was the first to explicitly state that the MDGs will not be attained if ecosystems continue to degrade, climate science, the life sciences and resource economics have combined to generate a much broader picture of a shared global crisis that will be bad news for everyone, not just the developing world. This qualitative shift in global consciousness reflects both the results of science and the lived experience of billions of people, especially those whose livelihoods are collapsing as temperatures rise, soils collapse, rivers dry up, floods increase, droughts spread, fisheries collapse, forests recede and pollution levels mount.

The strategic challenge now is whether it will, indeed, by possible to collapse the post-2015 MDG agenda into a much wider and globally more transformative SDG agenda that does not compromise the ‘right to development’ which is the ethical principle at the centre of the MDG. From a sustainability perspective, it is obvious that this makes sense. However, there are three primary threats that could subvert this trajectory. The first threat will come from developing countries. If developing countries come to the conclusion that collapsing the MDGs into a wider SDG agenda will compromise the global commitment to (and, of course, funding of) development to eradicate extreme poverty, they will resist and insist on keeping the MDG and SDG processes separate. The second will come from the United States (possibly with certain allies) who will more than likely reject any attempt to link the sustainable development of developing countries to processes that will threaten the lifestyles, markets and energy intensity of the developed world. This will be seen by the  USA as a way of transforming what they hate most about global climate negotiations (‘because the USA is the biggest polluter, it must pay the most’) into a much more ambitious all-encompassing global deal that could threaten its economic recovery (which is going to be heavily dependent for the foreseeable future on the re-establishment of a manufacturing base fueled by a steep rise in consumption of – currently cheap  – natural gas). Thirdly, fast industrialising ‘BRICS plus’ countries will resist anything threatens in any way their much vaunted ‘right to develop’.

The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs has been mandated with the unenviable task  of driving these two parallel but linked highly complex processes, including the setting up of the High-Level Panel of country leaders on the SDGs, writing of a Global Report on Sustainable Development, convening of a Summit in September 2013 to discuss the post-2015 development agenda and relating to the science community (which is re-organising itself for this purpose by establishing a new global science platform called Future Earth backed by a consortium of science funders).

The keynote presentation at the Expert Group Meeting in New York was delivered by David Griggs, Director of the Monash Sustainability Institute in Victoria, Australia. This was based on an article by him and some others in the room entitled Sustainable Development Goals for People and Planet that was conveniently due for publication the following day in Nature (Nature Vol 495, p.305). The wider intellectual context for this paper, however, was set by another paper co-authored by Jeffrey Sachs, Guide Schmidt-Traub, Marcus Ohman and Johan Rockstrom (the latter two were also co-authors of the Nature paper). Entitled Sustainable Development and Planetary Boundaries, this paper by Sachs et al was prepared for discussion by the High-Level Panel on the SDGs that was meeting at the same time in Bali (for this and the other interesting background papers see

The Sachs et al paper starts off by asserting that if the planet was not finite, then it would be no problem for the rest of the world to catch up to the developed world by investing in technology, infrastructure and human capital. This, the paper argues, is what India, China and Brazil are doing now, and what Japan and South Korea have already done in the past. Ignoring for the moment the paper’s uncritical acceptance of this (contested) depiction of the conventional modernization trajectory, what is strongly argued is that this trajectory is unviable because it will breach the ‘planetary boundaries’ (non-renewables, living biosphere and natural capacities to absorb wastes). They envisage three global scenarios:

* kick away the ladder: tell the developing world they dont have a ‘right to develop’ because this will result in a breach of the planetary boundaries;
* contract and converge: rich countries must contract and developing countries must develop up to a convergent point;
* business-as-usual: the rich world refuses to change and uses its military strength to defend access to resources, resulting in an increasingly unstable conflictual world of competing power blocs.

They see the first two options as impossible and predict a BAU future. The first will be rejected by developing countries and the second by developed countries. As an alternative to BAU which they see has resulting in rising resource wars and greater poverty, they propose what they call the ‘Sustainable Development Trajectory’ (SDT). They argue that this will have to entail six major “transformations”, namely:

* the energy transformation
* the food security transformation
* the urban sustainability transformation
* the population transformation
* the biodiversity management transformation, and
* the private and public governance transformation

The paper by Griggs merges the MDGs with a set of SDGs in quite a skilful way, but the result is nothing new or particularly radical. One of the main problems is that a resource flow and decoupling perspective is ignored. The result is no connection at all the realities of the global economy and the dynamics of the global economic crisis. Nevertheless, this is an agenda that is being driven by some powerful players who will, undoubtedly come up against some equally powerful players who do not share an interest in a unified set of global goals with associated binding commitments.