On September 25, 2015, the world celebrated the adoption of the United Nations resolution “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. The agenda comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with 169 associated targets. Since governments of all UN member states are committed to the agenda, in theory at least there is international consensus on a new philosophy of development, representing a major departure from long prevalent orthodoxy.
The SDGs cover familiar objectives such as poverty eradication, food, water and energy security, health and sanitation and education and employment for all citizens. It is not in the objectives but in the means of their implementation that the SDGs are different from earlier initiatives, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). In the SDGs, ecological sustainability is integrally embedded into the development agenda. This is a significant change from the past.
The SDGs are also different because they make explicit the intimate inter-linkages among the sectoral goals, both in the national and in the global context. There are strong feedback loops among different domains and additionally, domestic interventions influence and, in turn, are influenced by international developments in those domains.
For example, water contamination is not only an issue of water security but also has health implications. Achieving food security through more intensive use of chemical fertilisers and toxic pesticides may entail a negative trade-off in terms of promoting good health. Malnutrition in children may be regarded a food security issue but it also increases susceptibility to disease and thus becomes a health issue. Furthermore, in several areas international collaboration is indispensable to resolving sectoral challenges in the national context. eradication of polio, a health issue, can only be achieved through robust interventions both at the national and international levels.
The SDGs recognise that the salience of global and cross-cutting issues has increased significantly in recent years. These include climate change, pandemics such as AIDS and ebola, and the degradation and destruction of bio-diversity. Thus SDGs have both a cross-domain character as well as a cross-national character and can only be dealt with through global, collaborative responses.
While the international community has adopted the rhetoric of sustainability and recognised the cross-domain and cross-nation character of the challenges the world confronts today, it has not taken the next step of orienting our development strategies to reflect the new development philosophy underlying the SDGs.
The concept of sustainability has been endorsed but its implications have not been understood. Sustainability has two dimensions.
One, it implies a radically different approach to nature. Since the industrial revolution, nature has been treated as a dark force to be conquered and its productive energies harnessed to generate material wealth. Sustainability looks upon nature as a source of nurture and a resource pool that replenishes itself, but only if what one extracts from it does not exceed its capacity to regenerate. Current production and consumption patterns continue to cause an ever-expanding ecological deficit across the planet. Unless this changes there can be no sustainability.
Two, sustainability incorporates the concept of inter-generational equity. Each generation has the responsibility to hand over to the next, a planet and a resource pool which continues to ensure human survival and well-being. It is irresponsible to ravage the planet to satisfy our needs and desires, leaving succeeding generations to bear the catastrophic consequences of our actions.
Seen in this perspective, the pursuit of the SDGs will need to abandon what has conventionally been posed as a dichotomy between development and ecological sustainability. The notion that there is often a negative trade-off between the two is deeply entrenched. Quite the contrary, sustainability, in the two dimensions referred to, is now the indispensable condition for achieving all-round development over the long term and across generations.
The world neither has the institutions nor the capacities to design cross-domain interventions whether at the country- or international- level. Existing institutions operate in sectoral silos while the implementation of the SDGs needs cross-sectoral approaches. There is an important issue of accounting. Cost-benefit calculations are typically carried out on a linear input-output basis. This is unable to capture the true input costs as well as benefits across domains. For example, the cost of production of agricultural crops may typically include only input costs such as water, seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. However, the health costs of farmers using toxic fertilisers and pesticides or the progressive loss of soil fertility due to fertiliser over-use, escape accounting. Conversely in a shift from coal-based thermal power to say solar power, the costs in terms of environmental pollution and increased health risk to those living within the vicinity of the power station are ignored. This creates a false notion of non-viability of solar power as an alternative.
Commitment to the SDGs requires a transformed mindset and a different economic strategy with appropriate institutions and practices. It is hoped that the Niti Aayog, which has been mandated to oversee the implementation of the SDGs, confronts these challenges head-on rather than fall back on existing approaches and mechanisms that will yield sub-optimal results. Here is an opportunity to chart a new economic trajectory aligned with ecological sustainability.
Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary, is chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed are personal