4 February 2016
Implementing the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs: Where to Start?
Photo by IISD/ENB | Pamela Chasek
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The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UNGA, 2015) seeks to set the global community on a different path, in the hope that it will result in a better outcome “on the ground.”

The urgency of improving the implementation of sustainable development agreements was at the heart of the decision, at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), to negotiate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The call for all countries to develop plans to voluntarily implement globally agreed goals represents a break with the past. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UNGA, 2015) seeks to set the global community on a different path, in the hope that it will result in a better outcome “on the ground.”

Many have underscored that the concept of sustainable development, while appealing in theory, has not moved from the periphery to the core of each country’s actions. For example, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) concluded, based on approximately 60 national reports prepared for Rio+20, that “today’s challenge is chiefly implementation” and that a gap exists between sustainable development commitments and “implementing sustainable development policies and programmes in all countries and regions reviewed” (DESA and UNDP, 2012). Another study (Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, 2012), which assessed the state of implementation of Agenda 21 (the global plan of action on sustainable development that was adopted at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development – UNCED), concluded that even though there are good examples of where Agenda 21 has achieved positive and lasting outcomes, its implementation has been highly variable.

A focus on robust implementation is strongly reflected in the 2030 Agenda, which outlines the commitment of all Member States to “work tirelessly” for its “full implementation” by 2030 and their determination to mobilize the means required to implement it through a revitalized Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. The Agenda also provides outlines of the process to follow-up on and review its implementation, in particular the SDGs contained therein.

A critical component for implementation of the 2030 Agenda will be the decisions taken by each country as it conducts national SDG implementation planning. Given that the SDGs themselves represent a break with the traditional global approach to spurring sustainable development (which was, inter alia, based on the negotiation of intergovernmental agreements that largely promoted a “work in silos” approach), the process of defining national SDG plans also represents a new direction. But while it is a new process, countries may be able to draw on lessons from the past.

Learning from the Past through the Lens of CSD and Rio+20 National Reports

Following the adoption of the Millennium Declaration in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) served as a framework for international development cooperation until the end of 2015. While one of the intents behind the MDGs was to put developing countries on a more sustainable development path, the Goals only partly achieved this objective. As highlighted in the report of the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda (2012), the MDG framework helped to “galvanize development efforts, set global and national priorities, and focus action at all levels,” and provided a common worldwide cause to address poverty and to put “human progress at the forefront of the global development agenda.” However, many of the interrelated MDGs were addressed in isolation from one another (maternal health, hunger, gender equality). Furthermore, many have noted that an inclusive consultation process was missing when formulating the MDGs, which might have contributed to a lack of understanding of the Goals and their targets at the national level during the initial implementation stage.

At the same time that the MDGs were being implemented, another track sought to improve the translation of international sustainable development commitments into practice. This second track – which is the focus of this policy update – comprised intergovernmental negotiations specifically on sustainable development, in particular the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the preparatory process for Rio+20. These processes sought to accelerate sustainable development progress and led to extensive documentation of how the concept of sustainable development was being implemented at the national level.

CSD national reporting: The CSD’s national reporting experiences may offer some lessons for planning national implementation of the SDGs. The CSD, which was established following UNCED in 1992, was tasked to, inter alia:

  • monitor progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 and activities related to the integration of environmental and developmental goals throughout the UN system; and
  • “consider information provided by Governments, for example, in the form of periodic communications or national reports regarding the activities they undertake to implement Agenda 21, the problems they face, such as problems related to financial resources and technology transfer, and other environment and development issues they find relevant” (UNGA, 1993).

This resulted in an annual process of voluntary reporting, with the aim of sharing country experiences, case studies and best practices in policy formulation, strategy development, and the implementation of nationally or regionally agreed commitments.

According to a short assessment of “national sustainable development reports and related processes” by the Prototype Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) 2014 (a report called for by Rio+20), 405 national assessment reports on specific thematic topics were submitted to the CSD between 2004 and 2011. The Prototype GSDR also notes that approaches, methodologies and outcomes related to sustainable development reporting varied greatly between countries and, due to this variation, did not enable direct cross-country comparisons (UN, 2014).

In addition, a UN Secretary-General’s report on the lessons learned from the CSD (UN, 2013) states that the CSD national reporting “mobilized relevant actors” at the national level. While it does not specify who these “relevant actors” are and how this exercise mobilized them, it indicates that guidelines for reporting were very loose, and reporting was uneven. The UN Secretary-General’s report suggests that little support was provided by international organizations to build capacity for undertaking such reporting in developing country governments, which often lacked data and were overburdened with other reporting obligations. It also notes that many countries developed sustainable development strategies and prepared reports on their implementation, but the CSD never dedicated time to a systematic review. On good practices, the report outlines that countries incorporated information on progress made in formulating and adapting sustainable development strategies through multi-stakeholder consultations in national reporting, and data on the strategies were made available to Member States on an annual basis.

Referring to a set of sustainable development indicators that were developed in the context of the CSD (also called CSD indicators of sustainable development), the report of the Secretary-General remarks that it was, “to some extent,” a successful exercise as it encouraged a number of countries to compile data on these indicators for use in decision-making processes. However, it laments that the lack of systematic monitoring and interaction between national and international levels “hampered assessments of how effective national sustainable development strategies and indicators have been in supporting the implementation of agreements on sustainable development.”

Building on these considerations, the CSD national reporting process can offer some lessons learned, such as the importance of: capacity building for undertaking reporting in developing countries; supporting and improving data collection and quality; ensuring that reporting obligations do not overburden administrations; better aligning and communicating between the sub-national, national, regional and international levels; adopting an inclusive approach when formulating national strategies and ensuring that those strategies are based on sustainable development principles and objectives; being transparent in terms of data used; and adopting a systematic monitoring and review process focused on implementation.

Rio+20 national reporting: In the lead up to the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, many preparatory initiatives were carried out by governments, civil society organizations and individuals around the world. As part of these efforts, DESA and UNDP supported 72 countries across all regions to build a consensus on national views around the Rio+20 themes and objectives. Approximately 60 countries reported on this initiative.

A synthesis of these reports (DESA and UNDP, 2012) indicates that translating the idea of sustainable development into practice by integrating economic, social and environmental aims and approaches remained difficult for most countries. It also notes a lack of political will and good governance, and little evidence that governments viewed sustainability as contributing to growth.

The synthesis identifies priority areas or lessons learned for advancing the implementation of sustainable development, including the importance of: strengthening institutions and governance systems and building capacities for integrated planning and implementation within and across sectors and levels of government; unpacking and operationalizing the “green economy”; meaningfully engaging stakeholders, including governments, civil society, and the private sector; and measuring development progress in a way that looks across the three pillars of sustainable development.

It is notable that the priority areas identified in the synthesis in 2012 were the same as those emphasized in Agenda 21 more than 30 years earlier (with the exception of “green economy”). As the international community embarks on a new path, lessons from these past efforts can help to guide the future.

What next?

Many have called the year 2016 “the year of implementation,” and several actors have already announced their efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda. In this regard, some countries, including India, Liberia, Somalia and Switzerland have taken action to implement the SDGs. Certain organizations have identified lessons learned from countries that are aligning their actions with the 2030 Agenda (see for example WRI, 2015). Another source of lessons learned and best practices is expected to come from national reviews. In this light, many noted with interest the announcement by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) President, during an ECOSOC Bureau briefing on 20 January 2016, that several countries have responded to his invitation to present national reviews during the 2016 session of the High Level Political Forum on sustainable development (HLPF) – the forum that replaced the CSD following Rio+20.

The HLPF reviews, which the 2030 Agenda indicates should be voluntary while encouraging reporting, and should be state-led, could provide information on sustainable development initiatives that countries have taken, and help assess progress, identify gaps and emerging issues. According to the advance unedited version of the UN Secretary-General’s report on follow-up and review at the global level (UN, 2016), these reviews could also enable mutual learning across countries, mobilize necessary support and partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs, reveal challenges at the domestic level and enhance cooperation across ministries and institutions, and help reduce silos and identify gaps and areas where support is needed.

The UN Secretary-General’s report includes a “proposal for voluntary common reporting guidelines for Voluntary National Reviews at the HLPF.” This proposal could help countries frame the preparations for the national reviews, “bearing in mind that each country will decide on the scope of their review and the format in which they want to present their findings.” The 2030 Agenda, in paragraph 74, also provides a list of principles that could be considered to guide the implementation of a follow-up and review process at all levels, including the national one.

While national reviews will not be the only contributing factor, the 2030 Agenda stresses that, if the national reviews succeed and are well performed, they could “make a vital contribution to implementation.” Lessons from the past could provide the place to start, and point in the new directions that these national reviews should take.

This policy brief is authored by Nathalie Risse.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is pleased to bring you a series of policy updates on national reporting and implementation processes within the multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) processes that we have been tracking for over two decades. Decisions taken in 2015 by intergovernmental policy makers have sought to change the approach to implementing sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change are universal agendas, with implied implementation obligations for all countries. Our Earth Negotiations Bulletin writers and thematic experts for our Policy & Practice knowledgebases have monitored discussions on the successes and shortcomings of national planning and reporting processes within the MEAs and other processes we follow. Our hope is that this series will help all concerned with implementing the new sustainable development directions of 2015 to build on lessons of the past.


DESA and UNDP. 2012. Synthesis of National Reports for Rio+20.

Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future. 2012. Review of implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles. Study undertaken in the framework of the Sustainable Development in the 21st century (SD21) project implemented by the Division for Sustainable Development, DESA, and funded by the European Commission.

UN. 2013. Lessons learned from the Commission on Sustainable Development. Report of the Secretary-General (A/67/757).

UN. 2014. Prototype Global Sustainable Development Report. New York: DESA, Division for Sustainable Development, July 2014.

UN. 2016. Report of the Secretary-General on critical milestones towards coherent, efficient and inclusive follow-up and review at the global level. Advance unedited copy.

UN General Assembly (UNGA). 1993. Institutional arrangements to follow up the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly (47/191).

UN General Assembly (UNGA). 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution adopted by the UNGA on 25 September 2015 (A/RES/70/1).

UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda (2012). Realizing the Future We Want for All. Report to the Secretary-General.

World Resources Institute (WRI). 2015. Jump-starting the SDGs: 4 Lessons from Early Adopters. Blog by Adam Fishman, 19 October 2015.

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