Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals in a changing climate
16 October 2015, Budapest
In September the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the UN General Assembly, which outline the sustainable development agenda for the global North and South alike. The adoption of the SDGs preceded another important milestone though, the Paris climate conference in December, which will be equally important for securing future wellbeing of the people and the planet. The international conference “Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals in a changing climate” focused on the complex nexus of climate change and other global challenges, such as poverty alleviation, access to modern energy, reducing inequality and sustainable consumption and production patterns. While there are numerous targeted actions and policy processes to address these problems, their effectiveness might be compromised by the complicated effects of other problem areas. The conference provided the opportunity to look out for synergies on how to address these interconnected challenges in Europe also with a view to the global South and aims to inspire coordinated future action in the future.
Setting the scene
The conference was opened by Mr. Marcel Szabó, Ombudsman for Future Generations and Ms. Ágnes Zólyomi, General Secretary of CEEweb. In his welcome Mr Szabó address underlined the urgency of tackling the environmental problems in an era, which has been already named by scientists as Anthropocene. Even though concerted global action started in the early ‘90s against biodiversity loss and climate change, tangible results still cannot be seen. These trends are undermining the economic and social foundations of our world, and tackling them is also a moral issue. Today the lives of 25 million people are affected by climate change, and 300,000 deaths can be linked to it. He called for urgent action by the European Union as being a major economic power in the world, and also mentioned a good example for citizen action – when 800 citizens in the Netherlands sued their government for not taking sufficient action in fighting climate change. In her welcome address Ms. Zólyomi pointed out to the challenges that the implementation of SDGs imply, and the need for looking for synergies in implementation.
Mr Csaba Kőrösi, Director responsible for environmental sustainability in the Office of the President of the Republic of Hungary was talking about the complexity and interlinkages among the SDGs. He stressed the need for a renewed vision in the implementation, as the negative trends of biodiversity loss, rising inequalities, etc. mount to a complexity of problems that requires minimum standards in governance. He also spoke about the national level implementation, and the need to interpret the global vision in light of the national realities, while keeping in mind the priorities, challenges and circumstances. Delivering the SDG agenda and tackling climate change through the Paris agreement are also closely intertwined. We cannot afford to postpone addressing this challenge, as the peak in fossil fuel use should be before 2020, otherwise it will be more and more difficult to avoid climate catastrophe. He named 2015 as a historic year, when governments must come to agreement to deliver results also in Paris.
Mr István Farkas, Managing Director of the National Society of Conservationists – FoE Hungary summarised the results of conference “The tasks of Hungary in tackling climate change” taking place on the day before in Budapest, where national, regional and local responses were taken account of (see the conference report in Hungarian).
In his presentation, Mr Tibor Faragó, Honorary Professor at the Szent István University provided a comprehensive historic review of the global development agenda. He pointed out that all of these goals have had precedents in the past, but only a few of these past concrete targets could be fulfilled. One such example is halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, even though this greatly influenced by the remarkable economic growth in China. He mentioned among the reasons that prevented delivering several global goals, the lack of coherence, the overlooking of drivers and the focus on economic growth. He welcomed that the SDGs provide a broad framework for the global goals, which are coherent with several international processes, however, he also noted some inconsistencies and incoherence within the agenda itself. In this regard he referred among others to the targets of protecting of natural resources, and economic growth at the same time, while not targeting absolute decoupling. He also mentioned the crucial issue of national implementation, where it is left to the countries to develop ambitious responses without a guidance on the means and the timeline.
Mr Iván Gyulai, Director of the Ecological Institute of Sustainable Development was focusing on the challenges of implementing the SDGs. He presented the SDGs in two groups, namely those, which are implemented in the current system at the cost of nature (on poverty, hunger, well-being, water, economic growth, infrastructure, energy) and those, that can work in synergy with the protection of nature (education, sustainable production and consumption, climate change, oceans, terrestrial ecosystems). He also gave examples of such incoherence within the current socio-economic system. For instance reducing inequality would imply that poorer countries become richer, but today it does not imply that richer countries become poorer resulting in absolute decoupling. Economic growth also requires more resources and puts higher pressure on ecosystems. On the contrary, sustainable production and consumption can contribute to environmental goals, but only if realised within the carrying capacity of ecosystems, similarly to mitigating and adapting to climate change, which also requires resource use. He then examined some of the root causes of such inconsistencies in the current system, such as the goals of competitiveness and profit maximisation and ways to achieve this through labour efficiency resulting in unemployment, tax exemptions, low price of natural resources, and externalising related social and environmental costs. He closed his presentation by outlining some strategies for the future, which include changing values, institutions, the current macroeconomic model, the perception of development, as well as setting a cap on resource use.
Panel discussion: Transforming the economy while addressing climate change, alleviating (energy) poverty and reducing inequality
Mr Benedek Jávor, Member of the European Parliament stressed the importance of coherence of sustainable development goals and social goals, as well as other policies, which requires to consider both the synergies and trade-offs in the planning of implementation. He mentioned the example of energy, where the low energy price, which is always a political issue, kills other solutions that could drive the energy transition itself. Also the environmentally harmful subsidies, such as for nuclear and fossil (being higher than for renewable energy) are in contradiction with EU’s other, environmental policies.
Mr Michael Obersteiner, Program Director at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis stressed the complexity of the issues, which needs to be considered when trying to plan coherent actions. He referred to the recent study carried out by IIASA and their partners on the trade-offs of different policy silos within the SDGs under different scenarios. He emphasised the need to carry out such analysis to decrease pressures on the environment while realising SDGs, such as on agriculture and nutrition or energy.
Ms Leida Rijnhout, Director Global Policies and Sustainability of EEB mentioned the change of approach of the SDGs as compared to the MDGs, which used to follow a more neoliberal, capitalistic agenda. She stressed that this change of approach is also for the benefit of developing countries, and the necessity to hold private companies accountable under this new approach (obeying laws, paying taxes instead of channelling revenues to tax heavens, etc.). She talked about the role of NGOs in this process as watchdogs, and taking part in the review mechanism.
Mr Ingo Ritz, Director of Global Call to Action Against Poverty spoke about social solidarity and the need of leaving no one behind. He also referred to the role of the private sector, and their contribution to improvements in social security through paying taxes and the respect of human rights. He also emphasised the need of awareness raising around the SDGs so that citizens can claim their rights under the 17 goals.
Mr Joachim Spangenberg from the UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environment Research also commented on the controversy of “sustained growth” in the 2030 agenda, and the lack of reference to carrying capacity and planetary boundaries. He suggested that it is necessary to give development a relevant direction that can deliver implementation for the SDG agenda, mentioning the redistribution of wealth and income as two relevant spheres for policy intervention.
Ms Klára Hajdu from CEEweb for Biodiversity emphasised that exploring the trade-offs is primarily not a critique of the SDGs themselves, but the critique of the current system, in which they need to be delivered. She then turned to a concrete strategic tool, which can help reconciling social, environmental and economic aspects in the implementation of several of the SDGs. She briefly described the Energy Budget Scheme proposed by the Resource Cap Coalition, which includes an energy entitlement scheme including all citizens and private and public entities with a hard cap on non-renewable energy use, a Transition Fund providing interest free loans in quota currency to realise energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, and a dedicated market operating with the use of quota currency.
In the afternoon the participants exchanged ideas for the coherent implementation of SDGs in breakout groups on four topics: social equity in SDG implementation, meeting demands within ecological limits, realising value change and generating sufficient financial resources.
Please note that the content of this conference report has been not endorsed by the speakers and panelists. Please visit the conference website where all presentations are available.