International policy

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Within the international framework, there are three important actors for the Sustainable Development Goals: the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations.

European union

In 1997, sustainable development was already established as an overarching objective in the Treaty of Amsterdam. Economic growth, social cohesion and environmental protection go hand in hand and support one another in reaching a common goal: meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

On 20 July 2016, a strategic advisory group led by Karl Falkenberg published the report entitled "Sustainability Now" in view of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030ASD). The advisory group examined how the European Union could give effect to sustainability. The report analysed the current developments and compared these with the objectives of Europe and the United Nations.

On 22 November 2016, the European Commission (EC) published its long-awaited Communication: "Next steps for a sustainable European future". The EC unveils how it will contribute to the realisation of 2030ASD. The Communication was accompanied by a Working Document, which presents an overview of the European policies per SDG. In specific terms, the Communication details a dual-track approach:

  • Mainstreaming the SDGs in the European policy framework and Commission priorities
  • Long-term reflection for the period following 2020

In doing so, the Commission aims to guarantee a holistic, cross-sectoral approach in line with 2030ASD. To reflect the participatory character, a multi-stakeholder Forum will be established among other things. Concrete details about the functioning of this Forum have yet to be confirmed. Furthermore, as of 2017, regular reporting on the progress towards the implementation at a European level will be provided.

Along with its Communication, the Commission also presented a new European Consensus on Development. This shared vision for Development Cooperation aims to align the European development policy with the 2030 Agenda. This proposal is currently being discussed in the European Parliament and the Council, in order to reach agreement on a final text.

Organization for economic cooperation and development

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an organisation of 34 like-minded countries, founded in 1961, which strives to support the economic policy of its members, to improve its effectiveness and to contribute to the growth of both developed and developing countries. Its activities are carried out within different committees and sub bodies and are linked, among other things, to economic issues, development, international trade, environment, science, technology and industry and touch upon different aspects of sustainable development such as corporate social responsibility or sustainable consumption and production.

The OECD is currently developing an action plan for the SDGs. On 14 July a pilot study was also published, which reviewed the current state of affairs of several member states. We see that the OECD members score highest on the water and health SDGs, most work needs to be done concerning gender equality.

United nations

In 1983 the United Nations, which traditionally has an essential role in sustainable development, assembled the Brundtland Commission (World Commission on Environment and Development), chaired by then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Although the report "The Limits to Growth" of the Club of Rome from 1972 was the first intellectual reflection which successfully brought the issue to the attention of the public, it was mainly the publication of the Brundtland report (Our Common Future) from 1987 which caused the concept of sustainable development to be picked up by both the highest political levels and the public.

The basis for the most commonly used definition of sustainable development can be found in this report, namely:

"The kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This way it contains two key elements: "needs" and "limitations". The needs of the poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and the limitations imposed by society and the state of technology on the use of our environment."

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development builds on other UN agendas:

UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio 1992)

The Brundtland report was the basis for the organization of the historical UN summit for the environment and development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. During this summit, an agreement was found for different elements which would become guiding for the further international, national and local policies on sustainable development. This included:

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: 27 basic principles for sustainable development.
  • Agenda 21: a concrete action programme consisting of 40 chapters, with attention for the social and economic dimensions, the maintenance and the management of resources for development, the implementation means, and the strengthening of the role of the Major Groups in society. These Major Groups represent key sectors in society which are responsible for channelling the engagement regarding sustainable development. Finally, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was founded which is responsible for the effective implementation and follow-up on the engagements from Agenda 21
  • The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or Climate Convention): the basis for the fight against climate change
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity is a guideline for the further efforts to maintain biodiversity
  • The Convention to Combat Desertification aims to combat the desertification and drought in all countries faced with these issues.
  • The Forest Principles reflects a global consensus regarding the management, maintenance and sustainable development of all types of forest.

Millennium Summit & Millennium Development Goals (2000)

In the nineties many UN conferences took place: the World Summit for Children (1990), the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), the World Conference on Women (1995), Habitat II (1996), etc. Building on these active years and with the dawn of the 21st century, the Heads of State and Government are launching a new global partnership to eradicate extreme poverty. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are derived from the Millennium Declaration adopted in 2000. They consist of a limited, but clear set of targets for the global community - with a deadline of 2015 - which mainly focus on the traditional development themes.

World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg 2002)

In 2002 a new conference on sustainable development was organized in Johannesburg. As this conference took place 10 years after the Rio summit, this conference is also known as Rio+10. On the one hand, the objectives from 1992 were unabatedly reaffirmed. On the other, the agenda was broadened, as attention for economic and social development (such as poverty reduction) was significantly increased. While in Rio much more emphasis was put on the narrower environmental dimension, this was no longer the case in Johannesburg. Sustainable development essentially relates to the cohesion between environmental quality and social developments. The eradication of poverty, changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns, and the protection and management of the natural resources as a basis for economic and social development are acknowledged as the most important objectives of and the essential conditions for sustainable development.

Furthermore, less emphasis was put on reaching new agreements, and more on creating a framework for efficient and effective implementation of the existing commitments, an approach reflected in the agreement about the "Johannesburg plan of Implementation  (JPOI )". In this plan, attention is paid to poverty reduction, sustainability consumption and production, natural resources, resources for implementation, as well as the institutional framework for sustainable development.

UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio 2012)

In 2012, 20 years after Rio and 10 after Johannesburg, the United Nations returns to Rio de Janeiro for the so-called Rio+20 summit. This name aptly reflects the dual time horizon of the conference: not only will the past twenty years be evaluated, but also, and above all, the focus is on the future, and especially on the challenges of the coming twenty years. Besides reaffirming the Agenda 21, a number of initiatives were launched, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When the Millennium Goals expire, these must form a new, inclusive global agenda. Furthermore, the UN Environmental Programme was strengthened, programmes will be launched to benefit a sustainable economy (Green Economy, Sustainable Consumption and Production ) and energy (sustainable energy for all: SE4All ).

Lastly, it was decided that after 20 years the Commission on Sustainable Development of the Agenda 21 would be replaced by the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The aim is to anchor the management of sustainable development more firmly within the UN framework. Every four years, this body gathers during the General Assembly, the other years the gathering takes place at the ECOSOC.

Watch the full outcome of this conference here.

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

In September 2015 the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs), which were announced during Rio+20, are formally adopted by the UN General Assembly with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These goals are the operational cornerstone, and are complemented by 169 targets. During the coming 15 years, the 2030ASD is an action plan to free humankind from poverty and move the planet onto the path towards sustainability. These goals, which are one and indivisible, reflect the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and ecological dimensions. The 2030ASD is a unique fusion of the two global agendas of sustainable development and development cooperation. This agenda focuses on 'universality', which means that the implementation must not only take place in the Global South, but the entire planet.

To monitor the progress towards the realization of the goals and targets of the UN, a body of 242 global indicators  to measure the 169 targets was presented by UNSTAT in March 2016. A central point of attention is that several indicators must be separated according to relevant categories such as gender, age, geographical situation etc. Broad methodological convergence has been reached for certain indicators, while for others further research must be conducted. It is therefore a list which will certainly evolve in the future. It is also important to remember that these indicators are solely a global impetus, as the member states are urged to further refine the indicators at a national level to ensure accurate measurements.