Five Lessons from the First Year of SDG Implementation
UN Photo/Cia Pak
story highlights

Identifying synergies will take time, but in the long run will speed up implementation.

Policy coherence in implementing the 2030 Agenda will require coordinated guidance for all actors.

Multilateralism is still relevant for spurring collective action.

The world is not on track to meet the global climate and biodiversity goals.

2016 brought evidence of the affordability, and even cost effectiveness, of achieving the SDGs.

As the first “year of implementation” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comes to a close, the SDG Knowledge Hub team steps back to consider some of the lessons that efforts during 2016 can teach us for Year Two. In this policy brief, we review five highlights from our vantage point of providing an informal record of intergovernmental decision-making on sustainable development.

Identifying synergies will take time, but in the long run will speed up implementation. Twenty-two countries presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the 2016 session of the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Their work showed that getting started on the SDG implementation path can take many forms, and that the first steps will be different in each country. Many have noted that a key difference that the 2030 Agenda brings to sustainable development is the interlinked nature of the 17 SDGs. None of the Goals represents a new idea for international action; it is the recognition that action on one area must take into account all other areas that presents the promise, and challenge, for the coming 14 years. It will take time for 193 countries to define how they will achieve each of the 169 global targets contained in the SDG framework, but the process can be accelerated by identifying synergies among them.

Some multilateral processes have already demonstrated promising outcomes in identifying synergies. For example, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) facilitated the setting of individual country targets for achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN), under SDG 15 (life on land). A total of 102 countries set their own LDN targets to achieve LDN (SDG target 15.3) in the past year. Countries reported that the process had helped them to identify synergies across the three Rio Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. The process also set countries on track to encourage leadership development of government officials, contribute quantitative data on current land use, and develop technical competence.

In another example, during the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP 17) in 2016, delegates framed the issue of wildlife crime not only as a natural resources or biodiversity issue, but also as an issue for livelihoods and security, recognizing that corruption enables the continuing supply of illicit wildlife products.

Policy coherence in implementing the 2030 Agenda will require coordinated guidance for all actors. In this regard, the just-completed negotiations for the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) have proven invaluable. These negotiations take place in conference rooms at the UN Headquarters in New York every four years, and do not usually receive popular attention. This time around was different.

The timing of the QCPR in 2016 was fortuitous, as it enabled governments to map out how the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be implemented by actors across the UN development system (UNDS). The negotiations assessed UN operational activities for development and the functioning of the UNDS and, in the resolution adopted in the UNGA’s Second Committee on 13 December, governments called on the individual entities, within their respective mandates, to mainstream the SDGs in their strategic planning documents and their work at all levels. As a result of the timing and relevance of the 2016 QCPR, it was the subject of extensive attention from Member States and observers, and was preceded by 18 months of trainings and workshops for government experts to consider all angles of the process.

The SDGs thus may bring the UN much closer to “delivering as one,” an ambition set in 2006, as they draw the different parts of the UN system into tighter cooperation and as they all assess what the SDGs mean for their work. During the first year of SDG implementation, UN agencies with differing mandates for human rights, labor, industrial development, food and agriculture, energy – even telecommunications – began to speak a more common language.

Multilateralism is still relevant for spurring collective action. While 2015 will be remembered in the climate community for the adoption of the Paris Agreement, 2016 will undoubtedly be remembered because of the unprecedented speed at which this treaty entered into force.

In 2016, climate negotiators rolled up their sleeves and started on the crucial task of developing the “rulebook” that will make the Paris Agreement implementable from day one. At the Marrakech Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 22), delegates adopted decisions that set 2018 as the deadline for agreeing on this rulebook. This was a year earlier than many envisaged when the Agreement was adopted, showing the level of ambition that is possible when countries undertake collective action.

In the month prior to the Marrakech meeting, two other multilateral developments set in motion collective actions to address climate change. First, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reached agreement to a new offsetting mechanism for carbon emissions, a key step towards achieving SDG 13 on climate change. This is particularly important because the Paris Agreement does not refer to the international aviation sector, which is estimated to contribute 1.3% of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Second, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was adopted to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Like the ICAO agreement, the Kigali Amendment will play a significant mitigation role, as HFCs are not only the world’s fastest growing GHG, with their emissions increasing by up to 10% each year, they are also one of the most powerful, trapping thousands of times more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than CO2.

Despite this momentum, 2016 also showed, once more, that the world is not on track to meet the global climate and biodiversity goals. The 2016 edition of the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap report finds that the emissions level resulting from full implementation of all unconditional national pledges made by Parties to the Paris Agreement, or intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), would lead to a temperature increase of 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. It thus urges enhanced pre-2020 action to achieve the agreed objectives of the Agreement, which specify limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5°C. Moreover, most countries are not on a path to meet the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) promoted mainstreaming the Aichi Targets across closely related sectors of agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism as a way to advance consideration of biodiversity issues and focus on tangible actions to spur achievement of the Targets. Nonetheless, the just-concluded UN Biodiversity Conference in Cancun, Mexico showed that most countries, including the world’s best-resourced, are not on a path to meet the Aichi Biodiversity targets.

These shortcomings come despite studies examining the costs of inaction that reveal not taking action to achieve the SDGs now would lead to high costs later, as governments adjust to the impacts of further climate change. In May, UN Environment’s ‘Adaptation Finance Gap Report 2016’ found that the cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries could rise to between US$280 and US$500 billion per year by 2050, a figure that is four to five times greater than previous estimates. The report also indicated that the cost of inaction outweighs the cost of carrying out even ambitious mitigation efforts. Indeed, the ‘Global Climate Risk Index 2017’ published in November 2016 estimates that the nearly 11,000 extreme weather events occurring between 1996 and 2015 caused over 528,000 deaths worldwide, resulting in around US$3.08 trillion in associated losses.

On a more uplifting note, 2016 brought evidence of the affordability, and even cost effectiveness, of achieving the SDGs. Research conducted in 2016 indicates that achieving SDG target 2.1 (by 2030 end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round) is both achievable and affordable. The findings, from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), highlight one area in which initial efforts might focus: with improved targeting, it will cost, on average, US$11 billion per year of additional public spending from now to 2030 to end hunger, of which US$4 billion needs to come from donors and US$7 billion will come from the countries experiencing hunger themselves.

On a related note, during this year’s World Food Day, marked on 14 October, the Second Mayors Summit demonstrated some early achievements from taking joint local action to develop and scale up sustainable food systems, as set out in their Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. One-hundred thirty-two cities from all over the world, representing more than 460 million inhabitants, are currently participating in the initiative. Similarly, at the first African Soil Seminar in October 2016, the African Union announced that 21 countries had already made high-level commitments to restore 63% of the 100 million hectare (AFR100) land restoration target announced at Marrakech.

Throughout 2016, IISD worked to raise the profile of these and many other efforts to achieve the SDGs. By creating a record and respected narrative on sustainable development policy making, we have sought to increase accountability in the implementation of intergovernmental sustainable development policy decisions. We hope you will search the SDG Knowledge Hub to explore your own list of 2016 highlights, and apply the lessons as you identify synergies within and among SDGs and actors, and as we all embark on the second year of SDG implementation.

Lynn Wagner, Alice Bisiaux, Lauren Anderson, and Faye Leone, with contributions from Delia Paul, Stefan Jungcurt and Wangu Mwangi.

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