One flaw in the Sustainable Development Goals may make the difference between success and failure
Frances Stewart, Emeritus Professor of development economics at the University of Oxford and former Chair of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy, wonders if the weak coupling between economic growth and sustainability will do enough to change our reliance on non-renewable energy.
UN General Assembly hall. Photo: UN Photo | Sophia Paris
At the beginning of August 2015, all 193 United Nations (UN) member states agreed on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, to be endorsed by the General Assembly in September. They are to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which covered the period 2000-2015. They include 17 goals and 169 targets.
Achieving agreement on a bold set of goals after five years of extensive consultation is a huge achievement.
"Governments gear their policies towards maximising economic growth, and until sustainability considerations are integrated with growth, the world will continue to generate far more carbon dioxide than is consistent with global environmental security."
Undoubtedly, the SDGs represent a major advance over the MDGs in many respects. Firstly, it is no longer a question of halving poverty but of eliminating it; secondly, the importance of reducing inequality both among individuals and groups is explicitly recognised; thirdly, the goals are universal and apply to developed as well as developing countries; fourthly, many areas that were omitted from the MDGs are now included – for example, ensuring access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy for all and promoting peaceful, inclusive societies; and finally, most important, for the first time the sustainability agenda has been amalgamated with the development agenda.
Yet I have one major concern.
Although the new goals explicitly include the sustainability agenda - which the MDGs did not – the economic goals and the sustainability ones are not integrated but remain quite distinct. I fear this will mean that economic growth continues to be given precedence, with a hugely damaging impact on sustainability. Governments gear their policies towards maximising economic growth, and until sustainability considerations are integrated with growth, the world will continue to generate far more carbon dioxide than is consistent with global environmental security. What is needed is to redefine economic objectives to include sustainability, so that maximising growth will also ensure that we achieve sustainable growth.
Five of the SDGs are devoted to the environment and one specifically addresses climate change. The importance of the sustainability objective is thus fully acknowledged. Yet the social, economic and environmental goals are not integrated or prioritised. It is true that the economic growth objective is qualified as "sustainable" implying some integration, as are many of the other goals. Yet the first sub-clause of the economic growth objective is to "sustain per capita income growth in accordance with national circumstances, and in particular at least 7 per cent per annum in the least developed countries".
Despite a later sub-clause that includes the aim that countries should "endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation", the objective of economic growth is not questioned, but endorsed. The likely consequence is that countries at every level of per capita income will continue to prioritise economic growth and this will threaten environmental sustainability.
Oil pumps in California. Photo: CGP Grey
If sustainability is to be achieved, the goal of achieving economic growth needs to be seriously amended. Two approaches are possible.
"Unless the environmental costs are included in national accounts, national income does not represent a true measure of progress, and is therefore a false target. Yet it is pursued everywhere."
One is to modify the objective such that for all countries with per capita income above the global average, economic growth should only be pursued as long as environmental objectives – including climate change – are realised.
Another is to revise national accounts and measures of economic growth to include the negatives of environmental damage, so non-sustainable elements will detract from growth. In other words, to replace current measures of national income (gross domestic product or GDP) by "Green GDP".
National accounts were initially developed in the 1930s before environmental considerations were palpably important. Unless the environmental costs are included in national accounts national income does not represent a true measure of progress, and is therefore a false target. Yet it is pursued everywhere.
The need to adapt accounts in this way was recognised by prominent economists - Yale professors William Nordhaus and Nobel Prize winner James Tobin - in 1972. Since then methodologies for generating green national accounts have been developed. But there have been no serious revisions of national accounting at operational levels to allow for sustainability.
Green national accounting must be incorporated in the SDGs not only so that growth will truly reflect progress, but also so that policies directed at promoting growth must take sustainability issues into account, and not as at present, frequently override them.
The OECD, the United Nations and the IMF and World Bank could help to make green accounting operational by requiring accounts to be presented in this way.
If the SDGs defined growth in income per capita as green growth, the growth objective would become compatible with the sustainability objectives. But unless this occurs, the growth objective needs to be severely qualified for countries with above global average income per head, as suggested above.
Given the urgency of environmental issues, especially climate change, the most serious failure of the proposed SDGs is the continued acceptance of (unrevised) economic growth as an objective – the clause suggesting an "endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation" is nowhere near strong enough to achieve global sustainability. The years the SDGs are intended to span – 2015-2030 – are critical ones for climate change.
This is not an issue which can be postponed to the next set of goals, but must be faced now.
This blog is based on a longer article forthcoming in the Journal of Global Ethics, 2015.