UN Members Sign Off on Sustainable Development Agenda

1 October 2015

The 193 member states of the United Nations last Friday adopted by acclamation a new agenda designed to eradicate extreme poverty, boost inclusive economic growth, address key social priorities such as gender parity and quality education, and secure peaceful and inclusive societies, alongside tackling climate change and environmental degradation within a 15 year timeframe.

Formally entitled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the agenda includes a preamble, a declaration outlining a vision and principles for international cooperation, a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) supported by 169 targets, a section on means of implementation (MoI) and the Global Partnership, as well as a framework for follow-up and review.

Alternatively known as the “post-2015 development agenda,” the outcome brings together nearly five years of negotiations on various tracks, involving nearly 8.5 million people or organisations. The expansive list of SDGs are designed to replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are due to expire at the end of this year.

New goals, new look?

Several experts have commented on the marked difference between the crafting and adoption of the MDGs and their successors in terms of the weight of attention, engagement, and publicity efforts involved.

Some 136 heads of state or government, 30 ministers, and 9000 delegates attended the UN Summit for Sustainable Development from 25-27 September in New York, while a UN project is working to share the new “global goals” with seven billion people by Friday, in a push that has seen various high-profile public figures and celebrities engaged in its promotion.

The summit was also attended by a host of dignitaries and business figures, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and was kicked off by an address from Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, in his first visit to the US.

Statements by world leaders at the summit and during the General Debate of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly that followed on Monday broadly underscored the importance of orienting national development plans and international cooperation towards sustainable development. Several of these interventions also unveiled climate action pledges with an eye on efforts to secure a new multilateral climate deal during a meeting scheduled to be held in early December in Paris, France. 

“What counts now is translating those promises on paper into real change,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in comments opening the 70th General Debate of the UN General Assembly. “We owe this and much more to the vulnerable, the oppressed, the displaced, and the forgotten people in our world,” he continued.

Earlier in September, Wu Hongbo, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, suggested that the new agenda could have a “profound impact” on the operations of the UN and its system.

Role of trade

Trade and investment references are present across the post-2015 development agenda and are mostly treated as a means of implementation, or means to achieve the framework, rather than an end in themselves. Within the SDGs, trade features both as a section in the final goal on strengthening the means of implementation and revitalising the global partnership for sustainable development, as well as in MoI targets to support other specific goals. (See BioRes, 18 September 2015)

For example, one of the commitments included under SDG 17 is a pledge to promote a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory, and equitable trading system under the WTO, as well as to close out the current Doha Round of trade talks. Meanwhile, the elimination of agricultural export subsidies in accordance with the Doha mandate is positioned to help achieve SDG 2 on ending hunger, while the prohibition of certain forms of fisheries subsidies is geared towards supporting the oceans conservation goal.

On investment, SDG 17 pledges to adopt and implement investment promotion regimes for least developed countries (LDCs), while foreign direct investment is signalled as a means to implement SDG 10 on inequality, SDG 7 on scaling up clean energy, and SDG 1 on poverty eradication.

Additional roles are envisaged for trade and investment in the “Addis Ababa Action Agenda,” the outcome document from the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD3) held in Addis, Ethiopia in July, which updated the UN development finance framework.

For example, references are made therein to the potential of regional economic integration to promote sustainable development and a commitment to build coherence and consistency among bilateral and regional trade and investment deals. The Addis outcome document also calls on the WTO General Council to consider how the global trade body can contribute to sustainable development. (See BioRes, 20 July 2015)

During the UN summit, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said that trade had proved to be among the best anti-poverty reduction tools in history, provided it was supported by related capacity-building and trade finance.

“Just throwing open markets won’t do the job. We have to give people the tools and the skills that they need to compete, and to meet the quality standards which many markets require,” said the global trade chief.

Azevêdo also added that it would be important to implement decisions taken at the WTO’s 2013 ministerial meet, which included select decisions on agriculture, LDCs, and development, as well as the conclusion of negotiations for a Trade Facilitation Agreement. He also reiterated the importance of securing a set of deliverables for the upcoming tenth ministerial conference due to be held in December in Nairobi, Kenya.

The precise shape and implications of a Nairobi deal, however, remain up in the air just two months before the event, as some WTO members have begun to consider a narrower package – centring on export competition in agriculture, transparency, and select issues important to LDCs – while other players have pushed back against this approach. (See Bridges Weekly, 24 September 2015)

Meanwhile, efforts are in full swing this week in the US city of Atlanta, as ministers from a group of 12 countries covering nearly 40 percent of global GDP are trying to conclude negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, which if secured would be a game changer for the global trade and investment architecture. (For more on the TPP talks, see related story, this edition)

Climate pledges, informal talks

In a much-anticipated move, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff used the UN summit to announce that the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and by 43 percent by 2030, using the same baseline as part of its contribution to the UN climate talks.

However, several commentators noted that the pledge took into account efforts already made over the past decade in relation to stemming illegal deforestation, arguing this limited additional ambition for the coming years.

With the submission of Indonesia’s climate pledge last Thursday – targeting a 29-41 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to business as usual levels – all major emitters with the exception of India have come forward with “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed these will serve as the building blocks for a new agreement to replace the existing Kyoto Protocol beyond the end of the decade.

Several other INDCs have been presented to the UNFCCC over the last few days as countries seek to make a 1 October target submission date. A total of 107 submissions – counting the 28 members of the EU as one – had been filed at the time of this writing.

The UK on Sunday, meanwhile, announced it would increase its climate finance by at least 50 percent over the next five years, allocating some US$8.8 billion from its existing foreign aid budget for the period 2016-2020.

France at the start of this week said it would boost climate aid to €5 billion ($US5.6 billion) annually by 2020 up from €3 billion ($US3.4 billion) currently. Paris has said that securing a “finance pillar” will be a key part of the UN climate negotiations given that this is a key demand from many developing nations. Developed countries pledged in 2009 to scale up climate finance to US$100 billion per year by 2020.

Several world leaders and high-level officials gathered for an informal lunch on the margins of the UN summit on Sunday reportedly affirmed their resolve to finalise a meaningful agreement in Paris.

In a press conference afterward, Ban Ki-moon said that consensus had emerged that the deal should strengthen resilience to climate impacts, including with a focus on the world’s poorest, and help to signal a low carbon economic transformation.

The UN chief added that several upcoming meetings – such as an October gathering of finance ministers and central bank governors in Lima, Peru at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Annual Meetings, as well as the upcoming G-20 leaders’ summit in Turkey – would also help to lock-in the necessary political commitment to ensure climate negotiators crossed the finish line in December.

Sino-US efforts

In what some experts considered a symbolic shift in the UN climate talks, China pledged to provide 20 billion RMB (US$3.1 billion) in climate finance in a joint bilateral announcement with the US on climate change, on the occasion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s exchange with US President Barack Obama in Washington. (For more on the Xi-Obama talks, see related story, this edition)

The move comes nearly 11 months after a landmark deal by the two economies outlining post-2020 targets to cut emissions, which many have since credited with helping to transform the UNFCCC negotiating dynamics. (See BioRes, 13 November 2014)

The two leaders also emphasised their personal commitment to securing a successful climate agreement in the context of a “new era” of multilateral climate diplomacy. Outlining a vision for the Paris meet, Xi and Obama said the deal should be ambitious, reflect “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” with appropriate differentiation in relevant elements of the agreement, include a mechanism to review commitments, encourage adaptation efforts, and secure climate finance.

The announcement also envisages further bilateral cooperation between the two sides on a variety of climate issues. China and the US consider that their bilateral investments in third parties should support low-carbon technologies and climate resilience. Efforts will also be made to strengthen work in other relevant climate forums such as the G-20, Montreal Protocol, the UN international civil aviation and maritime bodies respectively, the WTO, and the annual Clean Energy Ministerial.

ICTSD reporting; “Brazil pledges to slash emissions, but will count old reductions,” REUTERS, 27 September 2015; “France to boost climate cash for poor nations to €5 billion per year from 2020 – Hollande,” CARBON PULSE, 29 September 2015.

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