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  • Call for clearer road map as 17 proposed SDGs released

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  • Climate change included among suggested Sustainable Development Goals

  • But there is limited detail on how the goals can be met in the developing world

  • There is risk of tension between the science-based goals and political reality

The UN group tasked with producing a proposed set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has released a ‘zero draft’ with 17 suggested topics to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire next year.

While welcoming the draft, published last week by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals as a good starting point for negotiations, some experts expressed disappointment that the text does not include more detail on how the goals and their related targets will be delivered in developing countries, the confirmation of which will require huge investment for in methods for observing, measuring and reporting progress.

The proposed SDGs to be attained by 2030 aim to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”, and include broad topics such as hunger, health, gender equality, education, water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, sustainable consumption and production, climate change, biodiversity and marine conservation.

The zero draft “is more driven by politics than science, but there is a lot in there that is scientifically valid,” says Farooq Ullah, executive director of the Stakeholder Forum, an international organisation that works to advance sustainable development and promote democracy. 

Felix Dodds, a fellow at the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, United States, says: “The working group did a good job in stocktaking and compiling many issues and challenges for the zero draft.”

The zero draft “covers all the priority areas”, says Gisbert Glaser, an advisor at the International Council for Science in France, which is part of the UN ‘major group’ that represents science and technology in sustainable development negotiations.

The document includes all the main issues the scientific community has highlighted, such as climate change, biodiversity and the oceans, he says.

But he adds there are areas that are not addressed, such as “environmental targets like water pollution, limiting water use, air pollution, energy efficiency”.

Ullah says the number of targets should be reduced. “There are way too many targets, and they are very complex,” he says.

But Glaser says: “In the scientific community, we would have difficulty in throwing things out.” It would be better if some were amalgamated rather than removed, he adds.

Initial reaction to the draft focused on whether particular areas had been included, with many hailing the presence of climate change as significant progress. It was not included in the MDGs.

Ill-defined targets

In a letter last week, the working group co-chairs “strongly requested” country delegations involved in the ongoing SDG discussions to “move directly into focused consideration” of the proposed goals and targets.

“There will need to be further in-depth reading and comparison with the list of indicators that the science community has prepared.”

Felix Dodds, Global Research Institute 

But Glaser adds: “There is a lot missing in the draft. Some of the targets and indicators are still really inadequate.”

Many have yet to be defined and so are written as ‘x per cent’ or ‘y per cent’ in the draft. Dates, particularly for interim targets, appear as ‘20xx’.

For example, on climate change targets and indicators “some of the areas are blank right now”, says Ullah.

“We really do have a strong opportunity for science. How are we going to define what these figures are? What thresholds are? Are they going to be normative, decided through diplomacy, or are they going to be based on the real-world science telling us what we need to achieve and what’s even possible?” Ullah asks.

“There will need to be further in-depth reading and comparison with the list of indicators that the science community has prepared,” says Dodds, referring to UN research initiative the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which collated comprehensive lists of possible SDG targets and indicators in a draft report released in May.

Importance of implementation

But the section in the zero draft on ‘means of implementation’, which will include capacity building, technology sharing, knowledge banks, science collaboration and training resources, appears to have fallen short of experts’ expectations. 

The section “focuses on a few important areas in the draft but misses other equally important areas” such as support for science and technology, and, in particular, backing for strengthening technology in the least developed countries, Glaser says.

Developing countries will only be able to implement and monitor the SDGs if they have the necessary data and information, he says.

“There is a big issue of the North-South gap in science and technology,” says Glaser.

SDSN has proposed more than 100 possible indicators to track SDGs, which the working committee may draw on in later drafts. But questions have been raised over whether poorer countries can collate and monitor such a number.

Even for the eight MDGs, many countries lacked the capacity to generate the quality data required, and data collection systems only emerged some years after the goals were adopted.

“There is a big risk of tension between science and politics as the negotiations begin,” says Ullah. This is because the targets will be based on science, but the negotiators will push for levels that are politically acceptable back home and may be lower than what science suggests is important to solve the problems and meet the goals, he says.

The zero draft will be discussed at the working group’s meeting next week (16-20 June) in New York, United States.
 
Link to zero draft
Link to SDSN report

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