Agenda 2030: the limits of multilateralism?

At the launch of this blog series Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte ask critical questions about the SDGs. Their colleague Bernard Mazijn (Ghent University) provides the necessary historical background to understand the political compromise that is Agenda 2030. 

The term ‘sustainable development’ was put on the agenda of the international community in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After working on it for five years, the World Commission on Environment and Development, better known as the Brundtland Commission, published its report Our Common Future (1987). The report became the motive to organize the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. 

The result of the conference was a political declaration signed by world leaders, as well as treaties on climate, biodiversity, desertification, a declaration on forests and Agenda 21, an action program to prepare for the 21st century. In almost each of the 40 chapters of Agenda 21, reference was made to ‘(long-term) goals of sustainable development’. 

In quite a few cases, those objectives had yet to be determined. A few years later (1996) the first so-called ‘Blue Book’ was published: Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies. The foreword clarified that these were intended ‘to measure progress towards nationally defined goals for sustainable development’. 

The end of history

The late eighties and early nineties of the previous century are marked by a drastic change in global power relations. When the Brundtland report was written, the Cold War was still going on, but the tone of the text is hopeful: in a globalized world, with a view to solidarity, it would be possible to achieve ‘sustainable development’ for all current and future generations. No theme was avoided: arms culture, trade, energy.

In the same period, George Bush Sr. is president of the United States, the Berlin Wall falls, Francis Fukuyama publishes his book The End of History and the Last Man. The present-day neoliberal form of globalization is increasingly taking shape: economic efficiency is becoming an end in itself. It is against this background that UNCED is organized: several themes that are described in the Brundtland report cannot, or only to a limited extent, be addressed in Agenda 21, including arms culture, trade and energy. 

This is also the start of a time in which the altered balance of power will (continue to) affect international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Develoment (UNCTAD) is fading, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is gaining traction. Jason Hickel describes in his book The Divide how the original mission of these institutions has changed over the years under the influence and in function of neoliberal capitalism.

Or a neoliberal future and the end of multilateralism?

Ten years on (2002), world leaders draw up a state of affairs at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. A few years earlier, Samuel Huntington had published his book Clash of civilizations, George Bush Jr. had become US president and the attacks on the Twin Towers kicked off the so-called War on Terror. 

While a globalized economy was still the mantra of the international community, a period of withdrawal from multilateralism began. The best-known example in the context of sustainable development at that time is the statement of the then American President: ‘Kyoto (protocol under the UN Climate Convention, red.) is dead.’

Free Trade and the Millennium Goals

A real state of affairs could not be made up during WSSD because of the resistance from, among others, the United States. After all, this would mean that Agenda 21 would have been checked to see what had and what had not been achieved – an exercise that would have been all too embarrassing for world leaders. 

Instead, a new political statement was drawn up, a Johannesburg Plan of Implementation with the spotlight on ‘public-private partnerships’. The latter was a concession to the United States. In the plan, new themes were put forward, such as energy and mobility, …), but the importance of free trade was also endlessly emphasized. Again, reference is made to ‘goals of sustainable development’, in particular to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, chiefly focussed on the eradication of – extreme – poverty), but without further elaboration or clearly defined commitments.

Developing or going green?

The years go by, the world is going through a financial-economic crisis in 2007-2008, which  continues to reverberate long afterwards. The global establishment fears that the economic system will fall apart, but also propagates ‘the greening of the economy’. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) immediately sees an opportunity to bury ‘sustainable development’ and substitute it by ‘green growth’. 

In the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), better known as Rio+20, the OECD and similar agencies arm-wrestle with the UN Environmental Program and the UN Development Program, among others. 

In the end, the resulting compromise for UNCSD is ‘a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication’, in addition to the agreement to work towards a more effective ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’. Rio+20 also lays the foundation for the SDGs.

The compromise of the SDGs

Between 2012 and the adoption by the international community of the SDGs in 2015, dissonance was all around. During the first months and years after UNCSD, everyone felt prompted to put forward the definite set of SDGs. It is not until late 2014, early 2015 that all of these different inputs can be streamlined. On September 25, 2015, the Secretary-General of the United Nations was able to hammer out the list with the objectives that must be met by 2030: the so-called Agenda 2030. It includes 17 objectives (‘goals’) and 169 sub-objectives (‘targets’).

Once again what is happening out in the world, has a decisive influence on what is going on in the large meeting room of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, also on the process of defining these (sub-)objectives. 

An example. In parallel to the above process, climate negotiations were also going on, resulting in the Paris Agreement in December 2015. The international community gathered in New York was extremely careful not to poach on the territory of this UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Take a look at SDG 13 – Climate action with its 4 targets: this is not going to get us very far in terms of an effective climate policy. Same goes for several other (sub) objectives.

The SDGs as such have (too) little scientific foundation. They are primarily a political compromise: the product of an agreement at a specific place at a specific time. We can also conclude that – similar to the 1992 approach with Agenda 21 – the set with associated indicators to monitor the SDGs and targets were only defined more than six months later (by scientists).

From global market to safe region

The history elaborated above also shows the effect of the different world views that have emerged during the past 30 years of international talks on sustainable development: from ‘global solidarity’ in the 1980s to ‘global market’ in the early 1990s, to ‘safe region’ from the mid-nineties onwards. Currently, with the (forced) choice for a circular economy in the context of sustainable development, we are (once again) paying more and more attention to a ‘caring region.’ 

The definition of the SDGs (and the associated targets) is therefore – as always in the decision-making process of the international community – tied to the multilateral context in which these negotiations took place, in particular the power relations at that time. 

The question that remains is: is there an alternative to this multilateral decision-making? When I come back from multilateral negotiations, I am repeatedly asked what the point is of these meetings, seeing as progress is so slow. I often gave tit for tat with the question: is there an alternative? After all, are we not obliged to continue to strive until ‘all people are brothers’ to paraphrase the European hymn?

The limits to growth

Does this historical interpretation imply that we should not approach the SDGs critically? Certainly not, criticism is necessary. In 2018, the Club of Rome, that already sounded the alarm in 1972 with the report The Limits to growth, published the book Come On! Capitalism, Short-termism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet.

The SDGs are discussed in a separate chapter – entitled ‘The Agenda 2030: The Devil Is in Implementation’. The Club of Rome substantiates that the socio-economic objectives (SDG 1 to 11) contradict the environmental objectives (SDG 13 to 15). For, the underlying model of economic growth makes it impossible to reduce the rate of global warming, to combat overfishing, to stop land degradation or to halt the loss of biodiversity. ‘A radical new synthesis will be needed’, the Club states. In other words: ‘Affluence is the biggest polluter’. 

The Club of Rome stresses that it has always defended the principles of ‘justice and fair distribution’, which should therefore also be prioritized in the implementation of the SDGs. The Club demands that socio-economic and environmental goals be integrated into one coherent policy. This, however, implies a fundamental overhaul of our economic, technological and political definitions of ‘development’. Thus, Jan Orbie and Sarah Delputte are right on this point: the SDGs do not lead to a ‘paradigm shift’ as such. 

But the question is how to deal with this. We must go beyond a critical analysis and also propose changes to the decision-making process. Should a modified approach start from ‘a coalition of the willing’, with a number of member states worldwide setting the example? Should we also involve trade unions, NGOs and consumer-organisations, in addition to the classic ‘tripartite’ of government, research, and business?

The limits of multilateralism

Let me close with the question why the just transition towards a sustainable development of our society, and everything that goes with it, is so difficult. A plausible explanation can be found in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, focussing on the latest climate negotiations: ‘The first is the gap between the demands of science and civil society for an ambitious political response to ‘the climate emergency’, on the one hand, and the limitations of multilateralism in the UNFCCC on the other. The second is a continuing gap between those looking ahead to the Paris Agreement era and those still focused on the past record of implementation and ambition.’

Could it be that multilateralism has long reached its limits to give an ambitious political response to the climate demands of science and civil society, also when it comes to defining and implementing the SDGs? But again, the question remains: what is the alternative? Could it be that there is a huge gap between those who can imagine ‘a decent society’ after ‘a just transition’ by 2050, and those who focus on the past few years and ‘what hasn’t happened yet’? And then the next question becomes: how do we close that gap?

Bernard Mazijn teaches Sustainable Development at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies of Ghent University. He has been involved in international negotiations (UN, OECD, EU) on sustainable development and climate for many years.

The Dutch version of this blog is published on MO*Magazine.