Amina Mohammed, Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning, speaks at the UN’s Sustainable Development Summit 2015
Last September, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to be achieved by 2030. These development goals will replace the original Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) that expired at the end of 2015, in which implementation gaps left many of the UN’s commitments unfulfilled. This new agreement highlights several deficits in international cooperation and demonstrates the need for a revised framework given the limitations of the current platform of “global leadership for development.” Far from simply increasing funds available for developing countries, the SDG’s require a fundamental reconstruction of public policy in the world’s wealthiest nations, and face significant challenges because of daunting domestic inequality, exclusionary trade agreements, conflicting motivations, and institutional environmental barriers.
A Long Road from Role Models
The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals highlight the need for leadership on the part of industrialized nations in order to attain sustainable development. While the eight MDG’s were primarily focused on ending extreme poverty, the SDG’s go further by broadening the focus and explicitly demanding domestic reforms in high-income nations. Fulfillment of the goals requires extensive economic and political reform from those states with the largest global impact. But several internal challenges within developed countries present strains on SDG implementation. Without significant reform, industrialized nations risk hindering the success of Goals 8 and 10 (“Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth” and “Reduce inequality within and among countries,” respectively).
A recent study conducted by Bertelsmann Stiftung exemplifies the discrepancy between these goals and the domestic structures of developed nations. It shows that industrialized countries are not exempt from the growing global wage gap: inequality is rising steadily across these countries, with the average income of the richest 10 percent of the population now approximately nine times that of the poorest 10 percent.
Trading Sustainable Development
Adding to existing difficulties are trade agreements like the recently completed TransPacific Partnership (TPP) that risk undermining the SDG’s. A large threat to developing countries left out of this deal is that their exports to countries that ratify the TPP will fall. The agreement seeks to create a new “global standard” for trade, but undercuts the UN’s goal of global cooperation by not representing many Southern nations and circumventing the multilateral WTO. Southern countries in particular are disproportionately affected by the TPP through the highly controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which allows corporations to sue states for lost future profits. The agreement consolidates the role of ISDS for participating states and prioritizes the rights of investors while fundamentally undermining the human and environmental obligations of states to their populations.
The TPP also includes a number of regulations on intellectual property rights that would further the dependency of developing countries on developed states with respect to medical and similar technology. The process of revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development depends critically on the political will and commitment of developed countries to foster the idea of global public goods and to promote equal opportunities in developing countries. By perpetuating global inequality and eliminating binding environmental negotiations, such economic agreements between OECD countries diminish the likelihood that the SDG’s will succeed in their objectives.
Checking the Scoreboard
Environmental policy is the largest impediment to international cooperation, with Australia and Mexico discharging over six times as much carbon dioxide per unit of economic output as Sweden or Norway. The share of renewable energy, a crucial component of the transition to a sustainable economy, often varies considerably, with countries like the Netherlands getting less than 4 percent of their energy from renewable sources while Norway has achieved a share of nearly 70 percent. The Scandinavian model has shown the transition is viable given significant economic and political reforms, but half of the OECD nations still draw less than 11 percent of their energy from renewable sources. Industrialized nations’ inability to fight growing domestic social divides, combined with an unsustainable rate of resource consumption, demonstrates that today’s high-income countries do not serve as role models for the developing world. The success of the SDG’s is contingent on committed leadership by developed nations whose current domestic institutions limit this commitment.
Regarding Sustainability, all Nations are Developing Nations
The UN has set 18 goals without considering the inherent incentives of industrialized nations to not cooperate. While the non-binding 2009 Copenhagen Accords proposed mobilizing $100 billion a year towards climate change mitigation, the global transition towards sustainable development will require a level of investment that goes much further. In fact, the Economist estimates that meeting the SDG’s would require nearly $3 trillion per year in mandatory funding — roughly 4 percent of the world’s annual GDP. However, dramatic expansion of public finance can be ruled out: with global austerity measures on the rise, many donor countries have already cut or reduced their aid budgets. Alternatively, the UNCTAD Action Plan for Private Investment suggests a policy of including SDG-dedicated financial instruments and utilizing public sector incentives (e.g. by attaching a cost to environmental externalities like carbon emissions) to mobilize private resources.
Developed nations’ commitment to strong governance and the promotion of the rule of law are essential to fulfilling the SDG’s. But lacking accountability, proper indicators, or binding implementation mechanisms, these targets are likely to remain unachieved.
Aleksandra Conevska is a Junior in Joint Honours Political Science and Environmental Studies at McGill University.
Image Attribution: “UN Leaders Participate in Global Citizen Festival 2015” by UN Photo/Mark Garten, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0