On 25-27 September, the international community came together in New York to put their final seal of approval to a historic new global framework for sustainable development.
This historic outcome integrates global goals on environmental, social and economic development into a single structure, and maps out a series of more precise targets to be achieved by 2030.
Until now, environmental goals and development goals have too often proceeded along parallel tracks. Bringing these together in a single overarching agenda is an acknowledgement that sustainable development requires simultaneous progress on three fronts, with economic, social and environmental issues tackled in an integrated manner.
The outcome, to be known as ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’, includes an ambitious set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets. The result was not simply agreed behind closed doors: UN agencies, major groups, parliaments and civil society made their contributions along with governments, and all will be involved in its implementation.
The new SDGs are the core of the agreement. Balanced and comprehensive, they combine ambitious stand-alone environmental goals with an important commitment to mainstreaming sustainability across goals in areas such as economic growth, energy production, agriculture, and the urban environment.
The new agenda augurs well for the Paris climate summit in December, with strong language on action needed to combat climate change, and a reiteration of the two degree Celsius objective.
The EU had an instrumental role in shaping the 2030 Agenda, playing a leading role and building bridges during the negotiation process, speaking with a single voice and presenting a coherent vision which is well reflected in the outcome.
The new agenda will apply from 1 January 2016, and is to be achieved by 2030. It takes account of EU priorities, including the inherent links between poverty eradication and the pursuit of sustainability in all its forms, strong inter-linkages across goals and targets, and the need for an integrated approach to implementation.
The biggest change is the new principle of universality. The framework takes account of the geopolitical shifts of the past 15 years, and its goals and targets apply to all countries. It is also an agenda for everyone – governments, local authorities, businesses and industries, and importantly citizens.
The predecessors to the Sustainable Development Goals, the Millennium Development Goals, principally addressed extreme poverty and helped lift millions out of hardship, but they left a number of gaps. Nearly one billion people still live in extreme poverty, and major environmental challenges remain – two-thirds of the services provided by nature, including fertile land, drinking water and clean air, are in decline.
The SDGs pick up where the MDGs left off, integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, as well as human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, good governance, and peaceful and inclusive societies, in recognition of the fact that lifting a billion people out of poverty will require action on numerous fronts.
After New York, the next step for the EU will be to review its approach to sustainable development, to ensure that the new SDGs are implemented inside Europe and in cooperation with international partners. While much of what Europe needs to implement the Agenda is already in place, some gaps may need to be addressed. Forthcoming initiatives like the Circular Economy package, designed to address our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, will play an important role.
Regarding sustainable production and consumption, SDG 12 speaks of halving global food waste at the retail and consumer levels, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains. It also calls on large and transnational companies to adopt sustainable practices and integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle. The document contains a call to phase out environmentally harmful subsidies, and restructure tax systems to reflect environmental impacts.
On the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, SDG 14 calls on governments to act on marine litter, preventing and significantly reducing marine pollution of all kinds by 2025. The Agenda also strengthens the case for a new Action Plan on Wildlife Trafficking, with SDG 15 on ecosystems and biodiversity loss calling on governments to enhance global support for efforts to combat poaching and trafficking of protected species.
The true test of the Agenda will be its implementation. To have the desired effect, the Agenda will need to be underpinned by a new and stronger global partnership, with public and private actors from all countries playing their role, and contributing their fair share to domestic and global progress. The right mix of policies, laws and tools, good governance, and capable and effective institutions will be essential.
Much of the implementation tool kit can be found in the Global Partnership set out in Addis Ababa and reasserted in New York. This confirms the move to a new sustainable development paradigm, with good governance at its core and responsibilities for all. It underlines the primacy of domestic action and the importance of policies, with a commitment to policy coherence by all and gender as a cross-cutting priority. The EU will be using the Agenda to reflect on the future of the Europe 2020 strategy, and to support others in their implementation efforts.
The SDGs will also help to shape Europe's continued support to developing countries, particularly the poorest and the most vulnerable, including through EU's official development assistance (ODA), as well as other non-financial support for poor countries.
The EU and its Member States continue to be the world's largest provider of official development assistance. The EU commitment to collectively give 0.7 % of donors' national income as official development assistance within the timeframe of the 2030 Agenda, with even more ambitious targets for the least-developed countries, has again been reiterated.
To ensure that actions follow words, the Agenda commits signatories to effective reviews at national, regional and global levels to track and maximise progress. A key element of this will be an inclusive and participatory review which is open and transparent.
The Agenda doesn't shy away from the realities of environmental degradation, noting that "the survival of many societies, and of the biological support systems of the planet, [are] at risk." But its tone is resolutely optimistic: "It is also, however, a time of immense opportunity. Significant progress has been made in meeting many development challenges." Time to build on that progress!