By Adis Dzebo, Katherine Browne, and Zoha Shawoo, Stockholm Environment Institute

At the mid-point to achieve the Agenda for Sustainable Development by 2030, no country is on track. Progress on the 17 SDGs has stalled over the past three years. On some Goals, the world has been backsliding, raising questions both about political will and about suitable options for changing course.

A key reason for this dismal state of affairs is the failure to focus on the important matter of reducing inequality.

Implementation will not work if policies that seek to foster sustainable development benefit some but leave out others – or, worse, come at the expense of some groups, thus widening inequality. The goal of accelerating implementation of the SDGs requires changing political priorities to make this happen.

Thus far, to ensure the “integrated and indivisible” nature of the 2030 Agenda, action has emphasized policy coherence – defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as “the systematic promotion of mutually reinforcing policy actions” that create synergies towards achieving the agreed objectives. While policy coherence is an important tool, it has so far not led to sufficient progress on maximizing synergies and alleviating trade-offs.

If governments truly aim to implement the goals of the 2030 Agenda, while ensuring that no one is left behind, then the policy coherence mission should try to get there by another route: by prioritizing efforts to reduce inequalities. This is the essential – and thus far missing – element that requires political will and risk taking, and that can accelerate SDG implementation by providing governments with a focal mission to ensure that any development policy does not place disproportionate burdens on the most vulnerable in society.

Indeed, the potential to reduce inequalities along multiple dimensions is the underlying advantage of policy coherence for sustainable development. For example, increasing energy access and affordability while transitioning to a renewable energy system should be possible if policy coherence guides countries’ implementation efforts. Improved understanding of how policies interact should help governments to maximize synergies. It should ensure better coordination between agencies and departments, and better anticipation and management of long-term distributional effects of policies that do not leave some group behind – or make things worse off for certain people.

Why is it, then, that these synergies have not been achieved?

Technical approaches or political acts?

One reason for the lack of progress is a difference of opinion over whether policy coherence can be achieved through technical means or whether it instead requires political acts. Proponents of policy coherence often envision it as a technical tool that enables governments to effectively implement policies through institutional measures. This includes, for example, ensuring cross-sectoral interaction through intra-ministerial working groups, or assigning responsibility at appropriate levels.

Our recent research brings a critical eye to such institutional measures. We argue that managing trade-offs is a political act rather than technical one. That is, the issue is not merely understanding and evaluating trade-offs, but more importantly making difficult, transparent decisions about who in society bears the burdens of progress. We contend that improved understanding of interactions between goals, therefore, is not in itself sufficient to ensure coherent implementation and equal progress. Effective policy implementation – carried out without attention to pre-existing inequalities – may in fact lead governments to prioritize certain groups over others, with the concerns of already vulnerable and marginalized communities most likely to be viewed as less consequential.

To steer things in a direction to reduce inequalities means asking key questions at the outset of policymaking, not in its aftermath. Does policy coherence serve some groups over others? How do vested interests shape processes and outcomes of coherence? Do policy coherence efforts uphold dominant political ideologies and discourses?

A focus on policy outcomes

Thus far, there has been a disproportionate focus on how policies are formulated. What is lacking in efforts to create policy coherence are measures to understand the outcomes.

In our ongoing research, for example, we have found that goals are often designed in a way to be implemented coherently and that they appear to be overwhelmingly synergistic. More effort is now needed to develop policy instruments that better account for trade-offs and goal conflicts in policy implementation.

For example, on the surface, a policy change intended to address the overuse of chemical fertilizers and promote sustainable agricultural practices in farming would almost certainly be considered part of a wider effort to help achieve the aims of the 2030 Agenda. But, as vividly illustrated by the reaction to a decision by the Sri Lankan government to ban chemical fertilizers in April 2021, the potential impacts were not at the forefront of the policymaking. The abrupt policy change led to plummeting agriculture yields nationwide and contributed to soaring agricultural input costs and rising prices of food staples such as rice. The policy threatened the livelihoods of already vulnerable farmers – “essentially pushing them into a new class of poor,” as a blog for the Centre for Poverty Analysis put it. Indeed, neither the policy itself – nor the government that implemented it – proved to be sustainable. Six months later, the policy was rescinded, becoming one element in a long list of events that created a national political crisis and led to a change of government in 2022.

Avoiding trade-offs

More effort needs to go into developing instruments, ensuring enforcement and monitoring processes that can avoid trade-offs. Though policy coherence can be a strong precondition for effective implementation of sustainable development policies, as our most recent research shows, it alone will not necessarily reduce inequality or ensure that no one is left behind.

A failure to consider the negative consequences of climate and sustainable development policies and the trade-offs they cause carries risks. There may, indeed, be trade-offs, and policymakers must reckon with them. They cannot be ignored. The world cannot move forward in the absence of a forthright political discussion about which groups bear the burden of societal progress.

Indeed, even policy coherence at its very best may not be able to steer clear of all trade-offs or to resolve all conflicts between goals. If this is the case, it is all the more important to acknowledge this possibility, and then navigate a path forward in an equitable manner.  

A mission for countries of all income levels

This is a universal concern – not one faced solely by countries in the Global South. In Australia, for example, expansion of renewable energy is crucial for achieving climate goals and is also expected to have a positive effect on energy reliability and affordability in regional, rural, and remote communities – on its face, two synergetic policy objectives. Nevertheless, as our ongoing research has shown, inequality continues to be an issue in renewable energy project implementation, with levels of engagement and participation in decision making struggling to keep pace with the expected scale and speed of the energy transition. Local opposition has surfaced over the cumulative impacts of multiple renewables projects on Indigenous communities. Concerns have been raised about the potential adverse effects of temporary workforces on housing and social services, and about the potential impacts of renewable energy infrastructure on agricultural land use and visual amenities. Strong opposition from vested fossil fuel interests has increased tensions among communities that depend on fossil fuel production.

As these examples show, managing the policy processes that can generate negative outcomes on disadvantaged people is crucial. Therefore it should be a higher priority than policy coherence per se. Moreover, reducing inequality has been shown to have positive compound effects on most goals. Given the track record so far, we should try a new approach: efforts to eliminate inequality might be the focus the world needs to move the whole agenda forward.

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Adis Dzebo, Katherine Browne, and Zoha Shawoo are Research Fellows at the Stockholm Environment Institute, focusing on ways to overcome incoherence in national implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda.

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.