Skip to main content
Available in EnglishEspañol

Time to put sustainable development into practice

10 May 2016|Op-ed

Op-ed by Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of ECLAC (May 2016).

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in New York and the Paris Agreement on climate change, 2015 has seen great progress in multilateral cooperation on sustainable development. These successes have been reached in spite of a geopolitical context darkened by distrust between powers, weaknesses in other fields of cooperation like trade negotiations, overt or smouldering conflicts in many regions, the migrant crisis and terrorism.

This is only a paradox in appearance: after the financial and economic crisis began in 2008, the return to pre-crisis growth remains uncertain. In this unstable context, sustainable development is a strategic opportunity to reinvigorate the global economy, as well as for more international cooperation. 

If we want to reinforce this exceptional dynamic, we have to move fast from commitments to implementation: time is running out. This requires defining how we collectively and individually implement the necessary actions for decarbonising our economies, transforming our food systems, protecting the life support provided by Nature, and providing access for all to decent work and social protection.

For us, three major challenges have now to be tackled: shifting investment and consumption patterns to reorientate the economy towards sustainability; putting inequality reduction as a priority objective; translating the international commitments into the very heart of domestic strategies and political agenda.

We have made those three steps towards sustainable development the point of departure of the “Sustainable Development: It’s time!” conference on May 10 and 11 in Paris. While they primarily concern national governments, local authorities, business and civil society also need to endorse this action agenda and take concerted actions.

Convergence and coordination for the investment shift

Shifting investment – in the order of 5 percent of up-front capital to transform the energy systems –   has been identified as one of the major challenges to make the transition happen. The issue is not only how to raise additional financial resources but how to reorient existing finance flows toward sustainable infrastructures, urban development, services and innovation. For this shift to be considered inevitable by investors, new policy signals are required, such as – in the climate field – enhanced financial risk disclosure, coordination on carbon prices, and the rapid implementation of the Green Climate Fund. Different economic fora, such as the G20, should commit to a calendar for achieving sustainable finance.

Some of the most critically needed advances are spearheaded by large coalitions of public and private stakeholders for innovation such as Mission Innovation, Breakthrough Coalition and the Solar Alliance. These have an important role to play in terms of channelling and concentrating resources. But these innovation coalitions should now go beyond this and achieve convergence between governments on policy instruments, standards, market instruments and trade rules that will steer innovation pathways.

Social issues and inequality reduction at the heart of the transition

While re-orienting investments may not pose a great challenge from a macro-economic point of view, it may have negative consequences for some regions, companies or workers, specialised in economic sectors – such as food or energy – that will be disrupted. These consequences need to be properly anticipated and managed in a people-centered economy, for instance through employment and investment mechanisms to support affected regions. Following the Paris Agreement for example, the long-term low-emission development strategies being developed by governments should include a chapter identifying fair transition measures and ensuring the involvement of all stakeholders of the local economy.

More broadly, the Sustainable Development Goals put the reduction of economic and gender inequality as a priority objective, alongside the access of the poorest people to essential services (water, food, health, energy). This is both a new challenge and an absolute condition of success, because otherwise the transition will simply fail. It is therefore critical, based on past experiences, that policymakers internalise the potentially unequal impact of their environmental decisions and design solutions ensuring an equitable distribution of their benefits and transition costs. It is time also to start considering the need for an international collective response to those most vulnerable people who will be additionally impacted by environmental degradation.

Domestication of 2015 commitments in national strategies and debates

It is the responsibility of governments to translate their 2015 commitments to the domestic level and to make them relevant to national stakeholders and citizens. These engagements should be put at the core of political action, not only by ministers responsible for environment or development, but also by those with direct economic and financial clout – as well as by Heads of State and Government – to guarantee policy coherence and leadership.  All national stakeholders must be involved in the debate to discuss the right sequence of actions, and the mobilisation of media, political parties and civil society is crucial to keep governments accountable for their promises.

Tracking progress through the United Nations and other intergovernmental processes complemented by civil society and think tanks, will also play a fundamental role in order to ensure that national policymakers as well as private actors are made accountable, and share their experiences for mutual learning and increased ambition.

Investment shift, social justice and domestication of international commitments: these three challenges design our common agenda of action for the years to come. The time for action is now.

This op-ed was written by the members of the advisory board of the “Sustainable development: It’s time” conference, organised by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI):  Alicia Bárcena, Adnan Amin, Manish Bapna, Céline Charveriat, Connie Hedegaard, Yolanda Kakabadse, Johan Kuylenstierna, Pascal Lamy, Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Valli Moosa, Aromar Revi, Teresa Ribera, Nicholas Stern, Juan Somavia, Klaus Töpfer, Laurence Tubiana, Veerle Vandeweerd y Michael Zammit Cutajar.