09/17/2015 10:11 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2016

The Breakthrough Secret to Negotiating the SDGs


Representatives from the almost 200 member countries of the United Nations successfully concluded their negotiations on the new set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a time when global governance has been struggling to find cooperative outcomes. Innovations to the negotiation process that were evident during the development of the SDGs would be inconceivable in traditional multilateral negotiations, and are worth analyzing for future global negotiations. The debate over the sustainable-consumption and production goal (SDG 12) offers a window into the divisions between countries from the global North and South, and the difficulty in reaching agreement for collective action among all the states in the United Nations.

Sustainable consumption and production (SCP) has been defined as "the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of further generations." In 2002, the 10-year review of the 1992 Earth Summit (called the World Summit on Sustainable Development) recognized SCP as one of three overarching objectives and requirements for achieving sustainable development. The other two objectives were poverty eradication and the management of natural resources in a manner that fosters economic and social development. SCP is therefore at the heart of the challenges that the global community is seeking to address through the SDGs, but intergovernmental cooperation on this issue has been slow to take shape.

Negotiators of Agenda 21, one of the agreements reached at the 1992 Earth Summit, identified the dilemma inherent in the SCP debate as follows: "Although consumption patterns are very high in certain parts of the world, the basic consumer needs of a large section of humanity are not being met." Large portions of developing countries' populations were not consuming enough to reach daily subsistence levels, while large portions of developed countries' populations were consuming natural resources faster than they could be regenerated. The negotiation rhetoric called for developed countries to take the lead in achieving sustainable-consumption patterns. But developed countries resisted being held to more stringent sustainable-development obligations than emerging economies, which had pockets of wealth. As a result, the search for joint solutions was limited. While the solutions identified by Earth Summit negotiators in 1992 remain relevant today -- including encouraging efficient energy and resource use, and minimizing waste generation -- they lacked specificity and enjoyed limited ownership by individual countries to take action.

Subsequent intergovernmental discussions of the SCP issue progressed the issue, including through the development of a 10-year "framework of programmes" on sustainable consumption and production, but continued to reflect the difficulties encountered by many multilateral-environmental agreements. Since Rio, the international approach to develop plans of action on sustainable development focused on the negotiation and adoption of international law, and employed consensus as the decision making mechanism, but some key negotiations concluded without agreement. When a few countries are not willing to go along with the consensus, the ability of a multilateral-environmental agreement to set the agenda for global implementation breaks down.

Fast-forward two decades, and the SCP debate (and sustainable-development debate, for that matter) embarked on a new direction. The decision at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+20) to develop a set of SDGs sought to break with this approach to governance (or lack thereof). Delegates at Rio+20 recognized that the SDGs would give the international community a chance to spur implementation efforts through a different mechanism than consensus-based negotiations -- internationally established goals that would not rely on regular returns to the negotiating table.

Several elements combined to deliver a different negotiation process on the SDGs. A critical change was the fact that North-South differences were not as pronounced. The SDG negotiation process was conducted in a manner that reduced delegation rigidity, both of individual member states and within coalitions. Based on the Rio+20 instructions for how the SDGs would be developed, negotiations were conducted by an "Open Working Group" in which 70 countries developed a sharing arrangement for the designated 30 "seats" for participants. The sharing arrangement broke up traditional coalitions, and facilitated discussions in which seat partners sought to identify what they shared in common with each other's position, rather than to strategize over how to elevate their different positions. In addition, the first eight meetings of the OWG were conducted as a "stocktaking" exercise, during which speakers presented on agenda items and negotiators arrived at a shared understanding of the challenges the SDGs would address.

Among the 17 goals and 169 targets that the OWG developed was a more robust treatment of SCP than that which the Agenda 21 negotiators adopted. The SDGs are to be universally applied, and SDG 12 indicates that all countries will take action on SCP, although it allows that it will be "developed countries taking the lead, taking into account the development and capabilities of developing countries." Countries will seek to, individually and collectively, achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, halve per capita global food waste, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, substantially reduce waste generation, encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices, promote sustainable public-procurement practices, and rationalize inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions.

Rather than suggest that the ends justify the means, the SDG process shows that the means -- how negotiations are conducted -- can break traditional deadlocks and facilitate more specific, and implementable goals for countries to reduce their consumption and make production more efficient. SCP underlies many of the other goals, particularly the environmental ones, and action on SDG 12 can catalyze the realization of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 12.

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