Symposium Reflects on OWG, Identifies Science Needs for SDGs

International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) • Nov 18th, 2014
Symposium Reflects on OWG, Identifies Science Needs for SDGs

15 November 2014: At a symposium on ‘Science and the Sustainable Development Goals,' Csaba Kőrösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN and Co-Chair of the Open Working Group on SDGs, and Mark Stafford Smith, Chair of Future Earth Science Committee, Science Director of Climate Adaptation Flagship at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), reflected on the proposed SDGs, and outlined ways for scientists to help shape the goal set going forward.

The symposium was organized by UN University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the POST2015 Project sponsored by Japan's Ministry of Environment, and took place at Roppongi Academy Hills in Tokyo, Japan, on 15 November 2014.

Kazuhiko Takemoto, Director, UNU-IAS, said the role of science will be increasingly important as the world begins to implement the SDGs.

Korosi said the OWG negotiations did not happen “in a vacuum.” Forces that shaped the negotiations included: political concerns rooted in very old conflicts and experiences; the number of open conflicts compared to 20 or 25 years ago, and the need for peace to achieve development; concerns that the agenda will impose “new rules of the game” on developing countries and then “pull up the development ladder;” and a perception that sustainable development takes away markets. On the latter point, he noted that “transformation sounds like business-as-usual plus a little more money,” and that this view slowed down negotiations during part of the OWG process.

Reflecting on the OWG outcome, he said: the goal set is evidence-based, but scientific advice had to be measured against political feasibility; the SDGs differ from the MDGs by allowing for 193 different ways to contribute to achieving each goal by each Member State; and almost all of the goals include targets from all three dimensions of sustainable development. He added that the outcome fosters an “avalanche effect:” the moment you start implementing one SDG, almost automatically you start implementing five or six others, because they are all so heavily integrated.

Korosi called on the scientific community to provide back-casting scenarios to show governments what will make sense economically. Regarding the way forward, he said none of the three upcoming summits – in Addis Ababa, New York, and Paris – can collapse, or else the others will also collapse, as will the multilateral development cooperation system.

Stafford Smith illustrated the rapid acceleration of both drivers and impacts of change over the last 250 years, which therefore calls for a step change in developing solutions. He said Future Earth aims to facilitate research collaboration on sustainability to respond to the increasing rates of change. On the OWG outcome, he showed ways to achieve more than one goal at the same time. For example, green energy can be delivered first to households with children, contributing to the goals of education and gender equality by freeing up women's time. Likewise, he called for identifying potential conflicts between goals, and planning ahead to minimize problems. For example, energy for all can be provided without exceeding the two-degree Celsius global temperature rise, but only by lowering carbon intensity (CI). He said the SDGs should include a target on achieving CI.

Finally, Stafford Smith cited a need for an adaptive process to facilitate improving the SDGs over time. The goals should be assessed continuously, not in five-year increments, and address: whether local and national actions are adding up to the global ambition; whether the global targets are adding up to global sustainable and human development as envisioned at Rio+20; and what is missing, to be incorporated into the second version of the SDGs, beginning in 2030?

In a panel discussion and interactive discussion with participants, the keynote speakers and other expert participants addressed institutional needs for the SDGs, the relationship between science and policy, and interaction between legally binding commitments and political commitments.

On institutional needs for the SDGs, Norichika Kanie, Tokyo Institute of Technology and UNU-IAS, said more knowledge is needed about governance in order to design the implementing mechanisms for the SDGs. Korosi called for a “health check” of supporting institutions, noting that current UN and national institutions were designed for a single purpose, not interdimensionality. He said previous transformations in human history were driven by technology, with the consequences happening to humanity in an unmanaged way; the SDGs are an opportunity to design the process of transformation. He supported the idea of revisiting the goals in order to benefit from the technology that will be developed in coming years. Tanya Abrahamse, Chief Executive Officer, South African Biodiversity Institute, observed from her experiences in the South African government during Nelson Mandela's presidency that good institutions are building blocks for sustainable development implementation. She added that plenty of data exists, but not the institutions to make it useful at all levels, and called this a big growth area. Maria Ivanova, University of Massachusetts Boston, said implementing SDGs does not require a new institution, but rather every agency will have a role in implementing them. Monitoring and reporting on the goals, however, may require a new governance structure. Ivanova also outlined her work to establish an Environmental Convention Implementation Index. Early findings indicate that the type of questions matter substantially for reporting, and the research may be able to help create a better functioning reporting system. Tadanori Inomata, UN Joint Inspection Unit and author of the 2008 ‘Management Review of Environmental Governance within the United Nations System,' expressed concern that environmental governance is being neglected in discussions of the institutional framework for sustainable development.

On the relationship between science and policy, Kanie emphasized the need to work together to "co-design, co-produce, and co-deliver" research and results. Abrahamse said the notion of making science accessible to society is very new, and many scientists “come from a time when we didn't have to do this.” However, innovations such as citizen science are providing much of the species data now available. She called for similarly innovative thinking to help implement the SDGs.

On the interaction between legally binding commitments and political commitments, Korosi said many political commitments “powerfully govern out lives,” such as the MDGs. But, he said, elements of the agenda that come from legally binding commitments should not be watered down. Stafford Smith said the SDGs could evolve into a framework that deals with the interactions between legal obligations, to ensure the bigger picture of ensuring global sustainability. In addition, the SDGs could give preference to its non-legally binding elements, capturing ground not covered by legal agreements.

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Tags: Open Working Group (OWG) Process,POST2015 Project,POST2015 Project on Sustainability Transformation beyond 2015,Science and the SDGs,Tokyo Institute of Technology,UNU-IAS