Is the EU doing enough for sustainable development?

In 2000, the United Nations agreed what would be one of its greatest successes: eight goals to help the world’s poorest people. The Millennium Development Goals addressed the most basic requirements of human life, like reducing child mortality, reversing the AIDS epidemic, and ensuring access to safe drinking water. They were arguably the largest collective promises world governments ever made to their citizens.

The UN’s follow-up in September 2015 set broader and deeper targets called the Sustainable Development Goals, to frame policies in the next 15 years. There are 17 new goals and 169 targets — with the environment, mostly ignored in the last round, receiving much-needed attention. The SDGs go further than before, addressing root causes of poverty. They apply to all countries, not just the developing world. And they recognise  the indispensable role of the private sector in pursuing and financing sustainable development, in partnership with governments and civil society.

And this is where the European Union comes in. In November, the European Commission unveiled a communication on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, just over a year after the UN’s adoption of the SDGs. Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said the SDGs and sustainability would now be “a guiding principle in all our work,” while foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that at a time “when we are more interconnected than ever before, investing in people beyond our borders is also an investment for Europe.”

Officials insist that “sustainability is a European brand,” and that the EU has a strong track record, with a high level of economic development, social cohesion, democratic societies and a commitment to sustainable development anchored in the EU treaties. The 2030 Agenda will be integrated through two main actions: first, mainstreaming the SDGs in the EU policy framework and current Commission priorities; and second, developing a longer-term vision after 2020 through a ‘European Consensus on Development’. The proposed Consensus on Development is presented as a response to “the more complex and interconnected challenges the world faces today,” with the simple aim to “do more, do it better and do it differently.” As the EU strives to foster “stronger, more inclusive multi-stakeholder partnerships,” this consensus envisions joint actions with the private sector and civil society “to play their full role as advocates and implementers” on cross-cutting drivers of development, such as gender equality, youth, sustainable energy and climate action, investment, migration and mobility.

An example of this approach is the proposed European External Investment Plan which will use development aid to leverage funding from other sources to generate sustainable growth. Within the EU, the Commission will work towards a European pillar of social rights, which will identify key principles like income support and access to essential services, and other principles to combat poverty. Another example is the €77 billion Horizon 2020 research programme, which is expected to contribute at least 60% of its budget to sustainable development and 35% to climate action.

It comes in parallel with plans to renew the framework for relations with the 79-member Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group by 2020, when the current, 20-year Cotonou Agreement expires. As Mogherini said, “There is no sustainable development without peace and stability, without inclusive societies, good governance.” The EU will try to “help build peaceful, stable, well-governed, prosperous and resilient states and societies at our borders and beyond” based on common objectives like “fostering sustainable growth and decent jobs for all,” and “turning migration and mobility into opportunities.”

The Commission’s SDG strategy is certainly lofty and even courageous, as it urges society at large to ingrain sustainability “as a guiding principle in the many choices that each citizen, company and civil society makes every day.” And it is not lacking in modesty, declaring that its own mapping exercise already shows that “current EU policies address all 17 goals.” The question is whether the EU, or anyone, can bridge the space between its bold ambition and the gritty reality of making the goals happen. There was little to suggest the Commission had deeply considered how to harness the potential roles of the citizen, company and civil society: such engagement was, unfortunately, lacking.

NGOs were quick to snipe at various aspects of the Commission’s SDG  strategy. The Concord Group, a confederation of development-focused European NGOs, said it would not end inequality, and called for human rights to be the centre of the plans on implementing the global goals. “It shouldn’t be just one more in a series of well-meant declarations by world leaders,” the group said.

SDG Watch Europe, a civil society alliance, described the EU plan as disappointing, lacking in new or concrete details, and suggested that the EU “is not able, or willing to realise the transformative vision of the Sustainable Development Goals.” WWF described it as the EU’s lip service to the SDGs, “not a series of separate boxes to tick or ignore,” worth no more than “repainting the front door to impress the neighbours.” FERN, an NGO focused on forests, complained that specific references to deforestation were “worryingly rare.

The communication is almost by necessity vague on key points, for example, on SDG implementation within the EU, where the Commission does little to explain how its policies will achieve the targets it has set  itself. Nor does it give much away on how it will enforce the targets. But for all these complaints, it is worth recalling the same chorus of cynicism greeted the MDGs in 2000. And while not all targets were met in full, the MDGs have made the world safer, healthier, and wealthier.

The SDGs address a whole new litany of challenges, including at least one billion people going to bed hungry each night, millions of women being treated nearly as slaves, water scarcity affecting 40 percent of the global population, and much more.

Yet there has never been more prosperity or promise for more people than there is today. Fewer than half as many people live in complete poverty (defined by the World Bank as surviving on less than $1.25 a day) as did 25 years ago, vaccination rates are much higher, and mortality rates for children under five have almost halved.

The Commission’s SDG plan does not cover every eventuality over the next 15 years, but its roadmap for meeting the targets is broader and more ambitious than the MDGs. It recognises that the SDGs are a global wake up call, and businesses aligned with them are likely to see more growth if they can reflect society’s demands.

It ties in with a report unveiled in Davos in January by the more than 35 CEOs and civil society leaders in the Business and Sustainable Development Commission who said that sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth at least US$12 trillion and up to 380 million jobs a year by 2030. Putting the SDGs at the heart of the world’s economic strategy could unleash growth and productivity, with an investment boom in sustainable infrastructure, according to the flagship report ‘Better Business, Better World’. It said first mover companies aligned to one or more of the SDGs “will have a 5-15 year advantage on the sustainable playing field” as they are better able to meet the demands of society.

If the EU can encourage companies to see the advantages of acting sustainably, it could have benefits all round: for developing countries, the environment, consumers, and even the bottom line for business.

Words Leo Cendrowicz, Lawrie McLaren, Ruth Dobson & Katarina Wallin Bureau
Photos CC/sanjitbakshi

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