UN Working Group Agrees to Proposed Sustainable Development Goals

24 July 2014

The UN working group charged with outlining a proposed set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted an outcome document on Saturday. The recommended goals will now be sent to the UN General Assembly for consideration as part of the discussions around the post-2015 development agenda.

The final 23-page document maintains the 17 goals outlined in a revised “zero draft” – released by the working group’s co-chairs in early July to serve as a basis for this final meeting – with 169 targets. Sixty-two of these can be classed as “means of implementation,” (MoI) or the methods to achieve each goal.

While much of the outcome document’s focus and language remains unchanged from the “revised” zero draft released a few weeks ago, certain areas have been altered to reflect last week’s negotiations. Many targets are more specific, for example, covering several areas of action.

Gaps nevertheless remain regarding some of the targets’ numerical elements, which in certain areas contain bracketed [x] placeholders, suggesting the percentage increase or decrease may have to be hammered out later on.

The SDG effort is a direct result of the Rio+20 sustainable development conference held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, twenty years after the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit in the same city.

Countries at the 2012 meeting agreed to draw up a set of SDGs that would integrate and balance environmental, economic, and social dimensions of development. These would replace the current eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire at the end of next year.

The new goals were mandated to be action-oriented, concise and communicable, limited in number, aspirational, and universally applicable, while also accounting for different national circumstances and capacities.

Talks aimed at developing a proposed set of goals have been underway for the past 16 months in the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG). During this stage of the process, UN member states decided to use a constituency-based system of representation, meaning a number of countries share seats and sit in five regional groups. The meetings were co-chaired by Kenyan Permanent Representative Macharia Kamau and Hungarian Permanent Representative Csaba Kőrösi.

Although some working group participants at times questioned the co-chairs’ approach to the discussion – including whether they had a mandate to produce a text after each round and when the time would come for line-by-line negotiations – they nevertheless received a standing ovation as the final OWG meeting was gavelled to a close on Saturday.

Trade-related considerations have featured throughout the OWG discussions and are present in Saturday’s outcome document, with many trade areas now including more explicit references to relevant negotiations underway in the WTO.

One area where trade has been removed, however, is under proposed goal 9 on infrastructure and sustainable industrialisation. This goal in the revised zero draft had listed a target on improving trans-border infrastructure, connectivity, integration, and trade facilitation.

Means of implementation

Means of implementation proved a contentious topic throughout the talks, and the co-chairs tried various formats to reconcile opposing views among OWG participants over how to treat the subject.

The outcome document retains the structure of the co-chairs’ revised zero draft, whereby targets and a few specific MoI are differentiated using a system of numbers and letters under each goal. More cross-cutting MoI are positioned in the final goal. (See BioRes, 3 July 2014)

In the original zero draft released by the co-chairs in early June, MoI were grouped together in the final goal, but divided into categories to reflect each of the previous goals. Under this format, a number of the trade issues were positioned as MoI under goal 8 on sustainable economic growth and decent work. (See BioRes, 9 June 2014)

The revised zero draft structure shuffled these trade issues around. Increasing aid for trade support remains the only trade-specific MoI directly under goal 8 in the outcome document.

Trade section, final goal

Proposed goal 17 – “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development” – features seven cross-cutting MoI subsections. These include finance, technology, capacity building, trade, policy and institutional coherence, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and data, monitoring and accountability.

While the subsection on trade in this final goal 17 has been moved further down compared to the revised zero draft, it still includes three targets. The areas addressed by each target remain unchanged, though some language modifications have been made.

The first trade target under goal 17 now calls for the promotion of a “universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the WTO,” including a reference to the conclusion of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) negotiations.

Mention of the global trade body’s Doha Round talks – now in their thirteenth year – was omitted from the co-chairs’ revised zero draft, after having been included in previous versions alongside a mention of the implementation of decisions taken last December at the WTO’s ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia. (See Bridges Daily Update, 7 December 2013).

While the DDA is logically an important element of progress under the multilateral trading system, experts have questioned whether it should be a key element of a 15-year target.

The second trade target in this subsection refers to increasing developing countries’ exports and, in particular, doubling by 2020 the poorest countries’ share of the world export total. This goal has been slightly shortened, but retains the general language covering all developing country exports.

Duty-free, quota-free (DFQF) market access for all least developed countries (LDCs) consistent with past WTO decisions is called for in the third target. In Bali last December, developed country WTO members were urged to continue efforts towards granting DFQF access for at least 97 percent of products originating in poor countries, with those developing countries in the position to do so also augmenting such market access.

New language has been added to the third trade target in proposed goal 17, referring to the need to ensure transparency and simplicity in rules of origin (RoO) applied to imports from poor countries.

RoO define how much processing must take place before a given product may be considered to originate from a country. Overly stringent RoO requirements – those a country must adhere to in order to take advantage of the intended trade preference – mean poor economies are unable to take advantage of the intended preference. A decision was also taken in Bali to address this concern in the form of non-binding guidelines for WTO members developing RoO arrangements for LDCs. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 November 2013).

Some changes have also been made to the technology subsection targets under goal 17. The revised zero draft had kept previous language that encouraged the development and transfer of environmentally sound technologies through the use of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibilities.

This reference has now been dropped in Saturday’s outcome document. WTO TRIPS flexibilities continue to be mentioned elsewhere, however, as an MoI under the final health goal for providing affordable access to medicines in developing countries.

An MoI on enhancing international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technologies is maintained elsewhere as an MoI under the sustainable energy goal, complementing the renewable energy and energy efficiency targets in that section.

Food markets

Saturday’s outcome document includes a revised target on addressing trade restrictions and distortions in world food markets as a goal-specific MoI under the ending hunger goal. The target mentions the “parallel” elimination of all agricultural export subsidies and export measures with equivalent effect in the context of the Doha Round.

Experts reviewing the document suggest that – despite differences in the language used when compared with relevant WTO decisions – the references to the mandate from the global trade body’s 2005 ministerial conference in Hong Kong suggests negotiators intend the scope of this element of the target to be similar to that under the WTO.

By expanding the target’s scope, experts say, the latest formulation strengthens the goal-specific MoI put forward in the revised zero draft that had concentrated solely on agricultural export subsidies.  

Sustainable consumption and production

Action to address harmful fossil fuel subsidies has been repositioned in the outcome document, now included as an MoI under goal 12 on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. Previously they had been positioned as a target under the sustainable energy goal.

The language has also been changed, moving from a call to “phase out” wasteful fossil fuel production and consumption subsidies to “rationalise inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption” in the context of removing market distortions, restructuring taxation, recognising national circumstances and specific needs, as well as adverse effects on the poor.

The reference to “phase out” in the revised zero draft was aligned to language used in both G-20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) country groupings, according to Damon Vis-Dunbar, a fossil fuel subsidy expert at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

“The earlier reference to a ‘phase out’ was certainly preferable; to ‘rationalise’ is a much vaguer term,” said Vis-Dunbar in an interview on Tuesday. “That kind of clarity is so important if we are to measure progress against these goals,” he added.  

Oceans and ecosystems

Proposed goals 14 and 15 focus on the conservation and sustainable use of oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems respectively, which were among the more complex issues for the working group to outline.

Fisheries subsidies – another type of subsidy that has been criticised as both trade-distorting and environmentally damaging – are addressed in the proposed oceans goal as a target, despite resistance from some countries, though language changes have been made. A reference to the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations has now been added, together with a footnote mentioning the DDA and the 2005 Hong Kong mandate in this area.

Experts suggest that the new formulation scales back the target’s ambition, given that the revised zero draft seemed to reflect a broader mandate for eliminating fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, beyond the WTO’s work. The new language limits the “elimination” of subsidies – “prohibit” and “refrain” are used in conjunction with other actions within the target – to those that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

According to Earth Negotiations Bulletin, various delegates called for the insertion of the reference to “forests” in the title of the ecosystems goal.

Tackling illegal wildlife trade, an increasingly high-profile topic given the reported scale of the poaching crisis, is included as a target under the ecosystems goal. However, the outcome document replaces a previous 2030 deadline reference with language calling for “urgent action.”

Climate change included

Proposed goal 13 calls for urgent action on combatting climate change and its impacts, with an asterisk acknowledging the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations as the primary channel in this area.

Whether to include a climate change goal had been controversial during the working group’s discussions, with some participants concerned that such a goal could overlap with or prejudge the outcome of the UNFCCC process, which is focusing on reaching a new global climate deal in time for a meeting in Paris, France next year. (See BioRes, 17 June 2014)

The first climate goal-specific MoI also refers to UNFCCC commitments, calling for the implementation of a 2009 pledge made in Copenhagen to set aside US$100 billion annually by 2020 from public and private resources to help address developing country climate-related needs.

The MoI also calls for the capitalisation, as soon as possible, of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) – a mechanism set up in 2010 to help developed countries achieve their climate finance commitments. Although recently operationalised, the GCF is lagging in capital, a factor some countries have said could colour the tone of the climate negotiations. (See BioRes, 18 July 2014)

Next steps

During the closing plenary on Saturday morning, the working group co-chairs said that while they were happy with their efforts in steering participants towards an outcome document, they recognised the final product was not flawless. Another year of discussion is likely as the UN General Assembly reflects upon the proposed goals.

The document does not yet contain indicators for measuring progress towards each goal and target, which was part of the working group’s original mandate. The eventual addition of indicators at a later stage may prove a useful opportunity to clarify some of the proposed targets and further work will likely be undertaken in this area.

The international community will also need to work out how the SDGs fit in with various other inputs feeding into the post-2015 development agenda in time for a high-level meeting next year. To help delegates’ efforts in this area, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to produce a synthesis report on the various streams of work this upcoming autumn.

While the work of the OWG is now over, observers following the process suggest that this milestone actually reflects the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end of the SDG process.

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the Thirteenth Session of the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals: 14-19 July 2014,” ENB, IISD REPORTING SERVICES, 22 July 2014.

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