UN Group Chairs Unveil Zero Draft for Sustainable Development Goals

5 June 2014

A UN group tasked with formulating a proposed set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) will for the first time consider a zero draft of a possible text at its next meeting later this month, officials confirmed earlier this week. 

The co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) – as the body is formally known – circulated the 21-page text on Monday 2 June. The document now offers 17 suggested goals, following the separation of poverty and inequality into separate headlines. The co-chairs had foreshadowed this move at the close of the group’s previous session in May, shortly after which they also released a draft introduction for the framework. (See BioRes, 15 May 2014)

Ahead of this week’s release, it was not clear whether the co-chairs felt they had the mandate to produce a zero draft for line-by-line negotiations. Since the end of the earlier “stock-taking” phase in February, input for the group’s meetings had been framed as working documents. (See BioRes, 11 March 2014).

In an accompanying letter circulated to UN members, the co-chairs reminded delegations that the group’s next week-long session would be preceded by three days of informal meetings from 9-11 June. While these gatherings will not pre-empt the official work, OWG participants have been urged to use this as an opportunity to take stock of the proposed goals, their targets, and means of implementation.

“As stated at OWG11, we would strongly request that delegations move directly into focused consideration of the proposed goals and targets contained in the zero draft in order to make progress towards a successful and timely conclusion of the report for onward submission to the General Assembly for appropriate action,” the co-chairs’ letter read.

The SDG effort – a direct result of a UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in June 2012 –  is part of a broader process to develop a post-2015 development agenda that would replace the current eight headline Millennium Development Goals once they expire next year.

Work in the OWG has been underway for over a year. Seats in the group are often shared between “troikas” of like-minded states, and broadly represent the five UN regional country groupings.  The working group should produce a set of SDG recommendations by July, to be considered by the UN General Assembly this autumn.

Compromise structure for means of implementation

The means to achieve development goals and targets has historically proved contentious in multilateral discussions of this type. Such divisions emerged noticeably at the group’s April meet, with members split over whether to include relevant “means of implementation” (MoI) under each individual goal, separately as its own goal, or both.

The zero draft appears to make a bid for the middle ground. Although MoI are included as the final goal, this is made up of several subsections detailing options for each of the previous goals.

“What they have done is to show how particular MoI would fit under each goal. This enables there to be an agreement either to leave it as a separate goal or put them under the relevant goal at a later stage,” said Felix Dodds, former executive Director of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future (1992-2012).

Trade features across MoIs

In the previous version of the working document, trade featured as a sub-section within the “means of implementation” goal. In this version, trade-related targets are now posited as potential “means of implementation” for several of the proposed development goals.  

The target of “timely implementation of duty-free quota-free [DFQF] market access… in accordance with WTO decisions and the Istanbul Programme of Action” is listed as one measure that would support progress towards the central target of poverty eradication.

DFQF was also included in previous working document iterations. Talks on the issue have struggled to advance at the WTO since a ministerial decision in 2005 to implement substantially increased DFQF market access for goods from least developed countries (LDCs), although ministerial decisions last December urged a renewal of efforts in this area. (See BioRes, 25 April 2014).

Several trade-related targets appear as possible means of implementation for the goal of promoting strong, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. This includes, for example, complying with the mandate for agriculture, services and non-agricultural products in the WTO Doha Round – the global trade body’s current series of talks.

The same MoI subcategory also mentions the implementation of the outcomes of the WTO Bali Ministerial Declaration. At the Bali meet last December, trade ministers from the 159-member body formally agreed a multilateral deal on trade facilitation, along with a few items involving agriculture and development.

The subcategory for “sustainable growth implementation means” continues by mentioning increasing trade-related capacity building to assist development and the Aid for Trade initiative – a WTO-led financial assistance framework reaffirmed at the body’s latest ministerial meeting.

Improving market access for agricultural, fisheries, and industrial exports from developing countries, African economies, and the world’s poorest nations in order to increase their share of global exports is also included as a MoI to support progress towards the goal of sustainable economic growth and decent work. In a departure from the text for the May meeting, however, the zero draft has replaced the target of doubling LDC exports as a share of the global total by 2020 with the objective of simply “increasing” their share of exports in world markets.

Encouraging the full use of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibilities is a new addition to the zero draft, now mentioned in two subcategories of MoI, supporting the goals of  “attain healthy life for all at all ages” and “promote sustainable industrialization,” the latter in the context of clean energy technology diffusion. A key text in the 1994 Uruguay Round documents establishing the WTO, the TRIPS Agreement brought intellectual property rules into the multilateral trading system for the first time.

Removing agricultural export subsidies – a polarising topic in trade negotiations – is placed as a MoI under the category for ending hunger, achieving food security and adequate nutrition for all, and promoting sustainable agriculture. The draft text calls for a reduction in distortions to international trade, including phasing out agricultural export subsidies. Reference is made to the WTO 2005 Hong Kong ministerial, where members agreed to the elimination of such trade support, with longer compliance timelines for developing economies.

Oceans goal intact

Other forms of subsidies are also addressed as targets within other goals themselves. The proposed marine resources and oceans goal includes a target of eliminating subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing by 2020, and for the first time includes the idea of a standstill under which countries would refrain from introducing new subsidies of this kind. The target does, however, include language aimed at accounting for the special needs of poor countries and small island developing states (SIDS).

Dubbed 21st century issues, observers had feared that separate oceans and terrestrial ecosystems headlines would be assimilated into one goal as the proceedings moved forward. Although previous OWG sessions had seen some governments advocate for a stand-alone oceans goal, discussion around prioritising in both these areas has reportedly proved complex. Notably, no means of implementation are suggested at the end of the document for the ecosystems goal.

Climate and energy

Elsewhere, phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by 2030 remains a target under the goal of affordable and sustainable energy services for all, together with doubling of the share of renewables in the global energy mix. As with the fisheries subsidies language, however, the target of reduction of fossil fuel subsidies is now somewhat more nuanced, and includes the development of “solutions that aim to secure affordable energy for the poorest.”

The renewable energy targets reflect UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, launched in 2011. Some critics have suggested that this figure will not be enough to achieve an energy mix that avoids further climate damage.

For its part, the proposed climate goal includes two phrases: “promote actions at all levels to address climate change,” as well as “build a climate change goal based on the outcome of COP21 of the UNFCCC,” referring to a process under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Countries are currently in the process of tough negotiations towards a universal climate deal to be concluded by next year’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris, with a round of preparatory meetings currently taking place in Bonn, Germany. 

Next steps

As the clock ticks down on the expiry of the MDGs, observers and governments alike are increasingly looking for guidance on how the SDG and post-2015 process will move forward and come together as a coherent whole. Some suggest guidance may come from a synthesis report produced by the UN Secretary-General towards the end of 2014.

OWG participants will convene for their next formal session from 16-20 June. With only 10 working days left on the group’s schedule, the pressure is on to produce a concise, action-oriented document required by the Rio+20 mandate. Analysts suggest that this next meeting will be particularly important in this respect.

ICTSD reporting.

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