Outcomes of the SDG Summit provide a clear program of action for the next seven years, but a breakthrough in implementation must now follow for this work to make a difference for achieving the Goals.
We highlight six issues for policymakers and researchers to keep in focus as they advance systemic and integrated approaches to policy and planning, to simultaneously and equitably implement the broad range of Goals that the 2030 Agenda encompasses.
By Nina Weitz and Therese Bennich, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
As world leaders gathered for the SDG Summit last September, expectations were low for the outcomes of the 2030 Agenda mid-term review. Progress reports showed insufficient action for the Goals, and the outlook was bleak for the political declaration and the SDG Summit itself to bring concrete forward-looking commitments.
The Summit, however, had been billed as the moment to “rescue” the SDGs. Government representatives and speakers showed up in larger numbers than to the first quadrennial review in 2019. This turnout signalled a recommitment from the global community to the 2030 Agenda as a roadmap for sustainable development.
As the SDG Summit closed, a mix of some 200-plus national commitments and actions had been registered by Member States at the SDG Summit Acceleration and Accountability Platform. They focus on a wide range of issues, including education, partnerships, and climate change, and many are linked to the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development (FfD).
These commitments and actions, taken together with the political declaration from the Summit and the scientific synthesis presented in the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), provide a clear program for the coming seven years. But for this work to make a difference for achieving the Goals, a breakthrough in implementation must now follow.
In the lead-up to the SDG Summit, SEI and IISD’s perspective series highlighted pertinent issues to support the implementation of the Goals without abandoning principles, diluting aims, or leaving people behind. A recurring theme was how systemic and integrated approaches to policy and planning can be advanced, to simultaneously and equitably implement the broad range of Goals that the 2030 Agenda encompasses. Revisiting this theme in light of the outcomes of the SDG Summit, we highlight six issues to keep in focus, for researchers and policymakers, to support implementation:
1. Strengthening knowledge about patterns of synergies and trade-offs
A lack of understanding of patterns of synergies and trade-offs has been highlighted as a gap that holds back Member States from identifying strategic and game-changing interventions. While research advanced on these issues in 2023, several knowledge gaps need to be addressed. This includes clarifying the systemic roles of some Goals, better understanding of causal relationships, and assessing how synergies and trade-offs are impacted by proposed policies.
2. Assessing interlinkages at the onset of policymaking
Integrative planning means letting interlinkages guide policy formulation to enhance synergies and avoid negative impacts. It is not about treating synergies and trade-offs as a by-product of policy to manage. High-income countries in particular should ensure that the analysis of interlinkages informs policy formulation and forward-looking action to accelerate implementation, as they face more trade-offs and generate more negative geographical spillovers than low-income countries.
3. Focusing on equality rather than coherence as the outcome
Managing Goal interlinkages through integrative planning and policy is a means for achieving the Goals, the vision, and principles of the 2030 Agenda. Leaving no one behind is a core principle of this vision. Policy integration and coherence require negotiation between multiple interests that can have distributional impacts, and the governance of trade-offs and synergies among the Goals is political. Policy makers and researchers must complement technical perspectives on Goal interlinkages with analysis of effects on equality, and be transparent about which groups in society bear the burden of progress.
4. Acting on synergies and trade-offs for the long term
Analysis of Goal interlinkages and solutions to act on synergies and trade-offs is often focused on the here and now. But sustainable development, by definition, must be sustainable over the long-term. Better understanding of how Goal interlinkages play out over time is needed, and extending the time dimension should be part of integrative policy making and planning for the Goals so that steps of action can be sequenced with long-term impacts considered.
5. Reviewing and following up on action on Goal interlinkages
As the political declaration notes, follow-up and review of the Goals needs to be strengthened with analysis of Goal interlinkages and their policy implications. We have proposed elsewhere that the UN can better facilitate targeted peer learning on how countries put “indivisibility” into practice and, for example, develop common reporting guidelines for capturing Goal interlinkages. Incorporating Goal interlinkages in follow-up and review will be important to ensure insights and best practices are shared and can strengthen integrative policy and planning, as well as avoid making progress in some Goals or regions at the expense of others.
6. Supporting integrative policy and planning at the local level
Implementation of the Goals becomes reality at the sub-national level, and supporting local and regional actors to advance on the Goals must be a priority. Among their needs are ways of improving policy coherence in their narrative for Goal implementation, developing mechanisms to review synergies and trade-offs to deepen understanding of Goal interlinkages, as well as opportunities to share knowledge with their peers. The UN Regional Forums can bridge local-to-global action and focus on practical experience and peer learning, supporting review of synergies and trade-offs at local scale.
Member States recommitted in the outcome document of the SDG Summit to “advance concrete, integrated and targeted policies and actions to fulfil the vision of the 2030 Agenda and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” and to “integrate the SDGs into national policy frameworks and develop national plans for transformative and accelerated action.” The GSDR highlighted the untapped potential of integrative policy and planning and proposed entry points and “synergistic interventions,” enabled by knowledge about interlinkages, that seek to achieve coherence and equity and to ensure that human well-being is not advanced at the expense of climate, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Actions that may help include using alternative measures to gross domestic product (GDP), scaling back resource use, and developing integrated public, business, and innovation policy solutions. Member States can use the six points we have outlined as they continue their journey to implement commitments and actions to achieve the Goals, tapping the potential of integrative policy and planning.
With more actors recognizing the importance of Goal interlinkages and taking steps towards building up the capacity and solutions to act upon them, the 2030 Agenda may slowly be facilitating the much-needed shift towards a more systemic view of sustainable development. This would be an important outcome of the 2030 Agenda, but now Member States and researchers should focus fully on implementing what the SDG Summit has once again reminded us to get done.
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This perspective piece is part of a series authored by researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), published in partnership with IISD. In the series, SEI researchers examine ways to implement the 2030 Agenda without abandoning principles, diluting aims, or leaving people behind.
This piece draws on perspective pieces from the series, by Ivonne Lobos Alva, Chris Malley, Jason Veysey, Adis Dzebo, Katherine Browne, Zoha Shawoo, Henrik Carlsen, and Åsa Persson, SEI.