World leaders set to adopt post-2015 sustainable development agenda

18 September 2015

A new sustainable development agenda is due to be adopted by UN members at a high-level summit at the end of September.

UN members on 2 August finalised a new global development agenda outlining a series of international sustainable development priorities for the next 15 years after intense negotiations in New York. The agreed upon outcome document, officially titled “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” will be formally adopted at a high-level UN summit held from 25-27 September and go into effect on 1 January 2016, replacing the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“This is the people’s agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon following the conclusion of the post-2015 development agenda outcome document talks.

The 29-page long text consists of five sections including a preamble; a declaration with shared principles and commitments as well as a call for action to change the world; a list of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) accompanied by 169 targets; means of implementation (MoI), and a revitalised global partnership for development; as well as details on follow-up and review of efforts to put the agenda into action.

The  SDGs, lifted almost directly from a proposal put forward by a specialised UN group in July 2014 with a few framing paragraphs, are designed to tackle in an integrated manner outstanding global challenges such as ending poverty, securing peaceful societies, ensuring access to modern energy, reducing inequality, conserving oceans, and taking urgent climate action.

Co-facilitator of the post-2015 outcome document negotiation process Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the UN, said that the past few months were the “final lap of an incredible race,” according to Earth Negotiations Bulletin. UN members have spent the last five years stitching together various processes in order to craft a global development vision to take over from the MDGs. Many stakeholders have also worked towards increasing attention on environmental issues alongside development priorities within the new framework.

Efforts to secure the post-2015 development agenda often required navigating divergent views among countries. Among the tougher issues in the final stages of the talks included securing means to implement the agenda and its relationship with separate UN financing for development talks; follow-up and review processes; and how to apply the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) between nations.

Trade and sustainable development

Trade features across the post-2015 development agenda. Trade is treated as an engine for growth which, with flanking policies and an enabling domestic environment, can also contribute to sustainable development. According to some experts, this represents a shift from the deployment of trade in the MDGs. In a paragraph not included in earlier post-2015 outcome document drafts, the declaration urges governments to strongly refrain from applying unilateral economic, financial, or trade measures that would impede the full achievement of economic and social development, particularly in developing countries.

Trade tools and policy aims are then spread across the post-2015's SDG section as agreed in July last year. For example, SDG 17 outlines systemic MoI designed to help achieve the goals as a whole, and includes a trade section composed of three aims.

These are the promotion of a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory, and equitable multilateral trading system including by wrapping up the WTO’s Doha Round negotiations; significantly increasing developing country exports and doubling poor countries’ share of global exports by 2020; and implementing duty-free and quota-free market access for all least developed countries (LDCs), consistent with WTO decisions in this area, as well as ensuring that preferential rules of origin  requirements linked to LDC imports are transparent and simple. (See BioRes, 23 July 2014)

UN members have spent the last five years stitching together various processes in order to craft a global development vision to take over from the MDGs.

Increasing aid for trade support for developing countries is a target to achieve SDG 8 on promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, while correcting and preventing trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, is a target to measure success toward SDG 2 to end hunger and achieve food security.

The latter also refers to the parallel elimination of agricultural export subsidies and measures with equivalent effect in accordance with the Doha Round mandate. Disagreements over agriculture, however, have come to the fore in WTO members’ latest efforts to close the long-running talks. (See Bridges Weekly, 30 July 2015)

Other trade-relevant elements of the SDG framework cover the development of regional and transborder infrastructure, tackling harmful fisheries subsidies, rationalising inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies, as well as action to end illegal wildlife poaching and trade. The fisheries subsidies target should take into account the ongoing WTO negotiations in this area, although these are also part of the stalled Doha effort. (See BioRes, 8 July 2015)

The post-2015 outcome document’s MoI and global partnership section, meanwhile, mentions coherent and mutually supportive world trade in the context of an enabling international economic environment needed to enhance national development efforts. In one specific paragraph – moved and amended from the declaration section in previous drafts – international trade is now singled out as an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction, as well as a contributor to the promotion of sustainable development.

The paragraph continues by pledging to promote the WTO trading system and meaningful trade liberalisation. A call is made for WTO members to redouble efforts to promptly conclude the Doha Round. The importance of providing trade-related capacity-building for developing countries, including for specific segments of the global population, and in relation to the promotion of regional economic integration and interconnectivity is underlined.

Earlier versions of this text would have seen WTO members “resolve” to reach an early agreement on the current multilateral trade talks. An associated resolve to enhance macro-economic and financial stability through improved policy coherence has also been dropped.

Target updates

UN delegates were tasked in July with ironing out disagreements over suggested technical revisions to 21 of the proposed SDG targets. These “tweaks,” put forward by the co-facilitators over the last few months, were designed to remove “X%s” listed instead of numbers or to bring the targets in line with other international pledges. However, the move to amend the targets proved controversial among countries, with some cautioning that it could shift the balance of the carefully negotiated SDG outcome. Several countries, meanwhile, supported some but not all of the target alterations.

The final outcome deletes all “Xs” present in the SDGs. Instead the word “substantially” is used, following a recommendation from the co-facilitators that this would set global ambition, while leaving countries the flexibility to determine the right numbers on a national basis. Minor negotiated revisions were also made to improve several targets’ measurability or relationship with other international processes.

Complex relationship

Efforts required to achieve the expansive new agenda are expected to be significant, with an estimated US$5-7 trillion worth of investments needed annually for its full implementation, and comprehensive regulatory reforms required in a number of countries. 

The specific relationship between the post-2015 development agenda and the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD3) held in Addis, Ethiopia 13-16 July, which updated the UN development finance framework, consequently proved a major sticking point between countries. On the one hand, many developed nations supported using the FfD3 outcome to help achieve the post-2015 development agenda, while on the other hand most developing nations argued that the latter required its own separate means of implementation.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), which also includes a section on trade, acknowledges FfD3’s role in further strengthening the MoI for the post-2015 development agenda and identifies a series of cross-cutting areas to help implement the SDGs. (See BioRes, 20 July 2015)

The MoI secion in an 8 July draft of the post-2015 outcome document had welcomed the FfD3 outcome, provided an annex for the FfD3 outcome, included a placeholder paragraph for a Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) – subsequently agreed in Addis – and re-listed the targets identified to support each goal in the SDG framework.

After much back and forth on various options during the fortnight of negotiations at the end of July, parties agreed not to annex the AAAA or re-list the SDG MoI targets, and instead approved 12 paragraphs covering a range of pledges for achieving the post-2015 agenda. The final post-2015 MoI section suggests the new agenda can be met within the framework of a revitalised global partnership for sustainable development, supported by concrete policies and actions outlined in the AAAA, the adoption of which by UN General Assembly at the end of July is mentioned in a footnote.

The document also says that the Addis outcome supports, complements, and helps to contextualise the new agenda’s MoI targets, and is an integral part of the process. Mirroring the AAAA, the post-2015 MoI section formally launches and includes details on the TFM, designed to boost collaboration among stakeholders in support of sustainable development.

Follow-up and review

Countries also clashed throughout negotiations over whether the FfD3 and post-2015 outcomes should have separate or integrated follow-up and review processes, as well as on the relationship between global, regional, and national monitoring efforts. In the final stretch of the July post-2015 talks the US, Germany, Finland, the UK, among others, reiterated views that a single process would be sufficient to track both outcomes, a position resisted by the G77 and China negotiating group.

In a technically-worded balance, the final follow-up and review section welcomes the dedicated follow-up and review outlined in the AAAA, which will be integrated into the post-2015 follow up process along with the inter-governmentally agreed conclusions of an annual UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Forum on Financing for Development.

Other parts of the section commit to engage in a systematic follow-up and review of implementation of the new agenda at national, regional, and global levels guided by a series of principles. The SDGs themselves will be assessed using a set of global indicators complemented by regional and national data. The global indicator framework will be developed by the Inter Agency and Expert Group on SDG indicators and will be agreed by the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) in March 2016.

The High Level Political Forum on sustainable development (HLPF), which meets annually under ECOSOC, will have a “central role” in overseeing the network of follow-up and review processes drawing on an annual SDG progress report prepared by the UN system based on the global indicator framework. Earlier drafts had dubbed the HLPF as the “apex” body of a global review process. (See BioRes, 1 July 2015)

The HLPF should carry out regular reviews and encourage reporting from all countries as well as civil society and the private sector on progress around the agenda’s aims. Thematic reviews on SDG areas, including on cross-cutting issues, will also be undertaken.

The HLPF will also provide guidance on emerging challenges and mobilise further action to accelerate the post-2015 development agenda’s implementation. Countries are encouraged to participate in voluntary reviews at national and regional levels.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

The principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) also proved a heated topic during the talks as countries grappled to define their terms of engagement in global governance against a backdrop of shifting geopolitical and geo-economic realities.

Many developed countries had argued that the principle should only apply in environmental contexts, and was therefore not applicable to the framework as a whole, a position resisted by the G77 and China.

First enshrined in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit declaration, the principle establishes that all countries are responsible for the integrity of the earth’s system, but recognises countries’ differing responsibilities to act depending on national capabilities. The term is also used in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) text.

The final outcome reaffirms the principles of the Rio Earth Summit including CBDR. After nearly 36 hours of negotiations into overtime delegates decided not to make a second mention of the CBDR principle elsewhere in the document.  

The declaration section does include a paragraph looking ahead to a pivotal UNFCCC meeting due to be held in Paris, France, affirming that a planned deal on that occasion should cover climate mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity building, and transparency of action efforts.

Towards implementation

While some stakeholders hailed the final document as a “massive step forward” in addressing sustainable development for all peoples, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, others cautioned that a key part of the agenda’s success will be linked to its implementation in the years ahead. Many stakeholders will be eyeing the voluntary, but politically significant outcome, for its impact on other international processes such as the UN climate talks.

The collection of viable and accurate data has also been targeted by a number of experts as an integral aspect of SDGs’ success and attention will now likely shift towards efforts to hammer out a global indicator framework.

ICTSD reporting; “Ban Ki-moon: Sustainable Development Goals ‘Leave no one Behind’,” THE GUARDIAN, 3 August 2015, “Summary of the Seventh and Eighth Sessions of Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda: 20 July- 2 August 2015,” ENB, IISD REPORTING, 3 August 2015. 

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