It seems like yesterday, but it’s almost a quarter of a century since the first Rio Earth summit. Yet while Local Agenda 21, which came out of it, did much to engage communities, the reality is that it has not moved us far enough. The need for action is even more pressing as we approach “planetary boundaries” that will limit our ability to use natural resources to support further growth and already require immediate action to avoid further damage to our planet.
However insistent the UN, however conscientious or successful national governments may be, we shall only succeed once this agenda is firmly embedded in the hearts and minds of people at a local level. Leadership in carrying it forward has clearly failed so far. If only the Rio streets, and TV coverage around the globe, had been as passionate about the need for a resounding result from the Earth summit and its successor in 2012 as they were for the other global event in Brazil—the World Cup—we would be in much better shape.
How do we begin to tackle the outstanding issues of sustainable development? Who should lead? How can we make the UN process relevant to governments, businesses and citizens so that their every action chimes with and delivers the Sustainable Development Goals, due to be agreed in September? How geared up is the synthesis of the Millennium Development Goals with the SDGs? And what can we do to make environmental protection central?
The UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, which I chair, conducted an inquiry into these issues—following on from previous inquiries before and after the 2012 Rio summit—which sought to hold the government to account and to ensure continued informed and open debate.
Our inquiry focused on the UK’s aims and ambitions for the SDGs; the extent to which these are coordinated across the government; how the goals will influence the country’s policies and aid programmes; consultation, accountability and reporting arrangements; and the implications for environmental sustainability.
We concluded that the timings of the SDGs and the UNFCCC climate change negotiations in Paris this year present an important opportunity to embed climate change mitigation throughout the goals so as to avoid development that exacerbates global warming while building decarbonization and adaptation plans into development and infrastructure investment. For, as the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, co-chaired by the UK Prime Minister, concluded, “Without tackling climate change, we will not succeed in eradicating extreme poverty.”
Indeed it is not just poverty that needs addressing: so does the inequality that prevents sustainable development by undermining social cohesion and excluding many people from the benefits of growth. The SDGs should include inequality targets, and design programmes to tackle it and poverty simultaneously.
The UK Government’s efforts to reduce the number of goals from 17 down to 10 risks relegating environmental sustainability to a side issue. The Committee concluded that the Open Working Group’s consensus in agreeing 17 goals was historic and powerful and the UK Government should not seek to unpick it. Doing so risks shattering the carefully negotiated consensus and opens the possibility of the goals on environmental sustainability being omitted.
That would be a historic mistake. If we are to take the UN’s three pillars of sustainable development—environmental, social and economic—as our starting point, it is clear that environmental sustainability must be at the very heart of the SDG process. The UK Government must push for an EU position which favours coverage of all the pillars of sustainable development, as set out in the Open Working Group’s 17 goals.
It is also important that the poorest and most vulnerable groups are not further impoverished by changing trade rules and agreements on international trade. Our government should demand the highest standards of environmental protection in trade deals and ensure unequivocally that there is no room for them to be undermined through dispute settlement mechanisms.
Sustainable and resource-efficient consumption is also essential. It is therefore disappointing that resource efficiency appears to be losing momentum inside the EU’s work programme, where negotiating ambitious targets could do so much to decouple economic growth from natural resource use.
We were warned, in evidence to the Committee, that the relevance of the goals to the domestic agenda had not been sufficiently explored in the UK and other OECD countries. The SDGs apply just as much to the actions of developed countries as to those of developing ones: here in the UK that means our environment department, our cabinet office, and—above all—our Treasury should pursue policies consistent with sustainable development. We also need a mechanism to monitor and report on the UK’s Sustainable Development Indicators. But to return to the World Cup analogy, none of this will happen unless citizens around the globe take this agenda into their hearts and support it as they would their own football team.
Communicating sustainable development is vital, but so far little priority has been given to it in the UK. So we recommended that our government should engage with young people—those who will be the next generation of professionals, planners, policymakers and strategists with responsibility for the sustainable development agenda. We must invest in education for sustainable development, embed it in our national curriculum, and support organizations, such as our National Union for Students, that are already forging ahead by demonstrating how sustainable development can be embedded on campuses.
I am heartened by the progress and leadership that charities are making to reach out to people and show their support for the SDGs. One such is the Hard Rain Project, a photographic exhibition bringing alive the need for sustainable development, which has so far been seen by 15 million people. It is essential that the arts, sport, education and all aspects of society immerse themselves in a shared vision of our collective future. Encouragingly, events are now planned for next autumn, linked to the UN decision on the SDGs, in cities and university campuses around the globe, as a next step in making sustainable development a reality. ▲