How to Make the SDGs a Reality

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in September 2015, the UN member states agreed upon 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. How can these goals be implemented nationally and internationally? This question was the subject of a conference on 2–4 May 2016 in Berlin.

The IASS and the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture invited more than 200 German and international experts from government, business, civil society and science to elaborate suggestions and principles for implementing the SDGs. It was the first international event on the SDGs held in Germany since their adoption in September 2015. Entitled “Jump-starting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Germany: Natural Resources and Sustainable Consumption and Production”, the conference focused on how to protect and sustainably manage natural resources and bring about changes in consumption and production patterns.

The more than 300 conference participants invited by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the IASS debated how to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. © IASS/Piero Chiussi

One main goal of the conference was to establish and strengthen partnerships between countries working to implement the SDGs. German Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt stressed that Germany intends to fulfil its responsibility and do its part both nationally and internationally as one of nine “First Mover” countries in an initiative headed by Sweden. “Together with other trailblazers we will report on the progress towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda as part of the High-Level Political Forum in July 2016 in New York”, Schmidt announced.

Conference chair Alexander Müller, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) and former IASS Secretary General, noted that national strategies for implementing the SDGs need to be based on a participatory approach. He outlined the “triple approach” in Germany:

  • The goals must be implemented in Germany: this includes activities directed towards development within Germany as well as political measures taken by Germany which affect other countries as well (for example, the import of raw materials). Germany must be sensitive to the negative impacts that its prosperity has abroad.
  • The goals must be implemented by Germany: Germany’s bilateral and multilateral development cooperations will play an important role in the diverse partnerships formed to implement the 2030 Agenda.
  • The goals must be implemented together with Germany: highly developed countries must take the lead in developing innovations for sustainable development and carry the financial costs of the initial R&D. New technological solutions, for example, need to be financially viable for all, not just for prosperous countries.

Klaus Töpfer, founding director of the IASS and former Federal Minister for the Environment, proposed proceeding with the SDGs in the same manner as the successful negotiations at the Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of 2015: each country should outline the contribution that it can afford make to implementing the SDGs and indicate what kind of support it needs to do so.

In the discussions about partnerships, participants pointed out challenges such as the lack of collaboration with civil society organizations, the existence of problematic power structures, and the global competition for resources. The most promising plans for implementation, speakers found, were those that integrated participation of civil society, had clearly defined responsibilities and timelines, and effective monitoring processes.

RNE General Secretary Günter Bachmann focused in his keynote particularly on the need to protect the soil: “The ambitious goal of reducing land use needs to be an important element of the sustainability strategy. The same is true for national goals regarding the proportion of organic farming [in agriculture].” Other needed endeavours include the regeneration of degraded soil – here Bachmann encouraged the foundation of an initiative that includes representatives from the private sector, civil society, and government. In addition, the RNE is in favour of a strategy for sustainable consumption. To assist with this, he has developed a Sustainable Shopping Basket to help consumers learn how to reduce their carbon footprint.

The discussions made it clear that many of the participants wish for greater involvement of actors in civil society in the implementation of the SDGs. It is important for governments, for example, to receive feedback from their citizens. The value of each individual actor needs to be acknowledged, a variety of participatory platforms need to be formalized, and the interdependencies between different interest groups need to be recognized and respected. Instead, at present governments in many countries are restricting the freedom of civil society. “In our research we are therefore concerned specifically with the question of how the monitoring of the implementation of the SDGs can be designed in such a way that civil society is stimulated”, explained Jes Weigelt, co-lead of the Sustainability Governance Programme.

The subject of sustainability remains on the agenda of the government in Berlin: Germany is continuing to develop its national sustainability strategy according to the goals of the 2030 Agenda. At the annual meeting of the RNE on 31 May Chancellor Angela Merkel will present the main features of the new sustainability strategy. The IASS and its partners are organizing a discussion on 16 June at the European Development Days in Brussels on the monitoring mechanisms for the 2030 Agenda, as well as a high-level event on “thematic reviews” on 7 and 8 June in New York.

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