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Achieving the SDGs: Can we manage the pace?

The suite of global agreements adopted last year mostly focused on the coming 15-year period. So the question arises—can the intergovernmental community manage the pace necessary for success in the short time frame available? 

By Mark Halle on October 7, 2016

The suite of global agreements adopted last year—the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Addis Ababa Action Plan on Financing for Development, and the Paris agreement on climate change—set targets and expectations mostly focused on the coming 15-year period.

Success in implementing all of them would advance the planet a long way through the transition to a sustainable world. Significant failure would squander what many believe to be the last realistic chance to stop short of the cliff’s edge.

Fifteen years is a significant span of time and a great deal can be achieved in that period given the political will and a shared determination across the international community. But it is also a short time given the momentum of past and present ill-development and the need to shift course fairly radically if there is any chance of the worst being avoided. In that connection, the traditional pace at which international consensus crystallizes must be considered a major preoccupation. It took over two decades to secure a set of global commitments to avoiding catastrophic climate change, 20 years in which other areas like stanching the haemorrhage of biodiversity loss have fallen well short of expectations. Multilateral trade negotiations have now been stalled for 15 years and the regional negotiations, once seen as a viable if less desirable alternative, are also in trouble.

So the question arises—can the intergovernmental community manage the pace necessary for success in the short time frame available? And, if not, are there any acceptable alternatives?

We all know that change can come about quickly when the conditions are right. The speed at which photovoltaic electricity has achieved grid parity—or better—with conventional energy is nothing short of miraculous. The expansion of the market for green bonds—which is likely to double this year compared to last and break through the $100 billion ceiling by the end of 2016—is similarly impressive, mobilizing funding for green priorities at a pace never seen before. We know that consumer movements can, in a short time, render unacceptable once-tolerated practices like sweatshop labour, and it is not inconceivable that institutional investors will manage, in the next few years, essentially to shut down the coal industry, at least in developed countries. With large-scale application of existing technology, the abandonment of other fossil fuels may not be far behind. 

How, then, can we bring such changes to scale without falling victim to the glacial pace at which international consensus gels? The answer, in my mind, is to depend less on intergovernmental process—at least on its own—and put our efforts behind those areas ripe for transformation, or that could be with a little additional push. The development of photovoltaic power had little to do with intergovernmental action, and it happened despite the many and persistent perverse incentives that fossil fuel lobbies maintain in place. The green bond market has developed through a concerted effort, over a period of years, led largely by a combination of NGOs and private sector actors.

Even in the intergovernmental world, the most successful initiatives—the treaty to ban land mines, the GAVI alliance for the development of vaccines, the UNEP Finance Initiative and its inquiry on sustainable finance—tend to be those that combine an intergovernmental platform with multistakeholder governance and that work across sectors. They benefit from the credibility and perceived legitimacy of the formal base organization but arrange to work outside their culture, political limitations and bureaucratic constraints. The pace at which intergovernmental process advances is simply too slow; there is essentially no hope that they can reach and sustain the pace needed to reach our common goals by 2030. 

Donors, foundations, corporations and rich individuals should put their money behind these unconventional alliances that have shown the way but, more important, have shown that they can make the pace without which our agendas will remain unrealized and the world will edge closer to the brink.  We need institutional experimentation such as IISD has tried to lead in Geneva, seeking to put together a “Geneva 2030 Ecosystem”—a  community of actors in the public and private sector with a shared commitment to succeed by 2030, and who are free of the constraints that prevent others from achieving the necessary pace of change. The Ecosystem is part “skunkworks,” part network, part hothouse, and part communications forum, all designed to unlock innovation and to find ways of achieving a whole–in this case with the players in the Geneva community—that is greater than the parts.

In reality, what determines the suitability of actors addressing the challenges of the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Action Agenda or the Paris agreement is their ability to meet the pace needed to address and resolve our present challenges one by one, until we can tip the scales and create the momentum for change that offers a genuine chance—this time—of meeting our targets.

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