Changing landscapes: key issues for action on sustainable development in 2018

As we face up to the challenges of the coming year, how does the global landscape for sustainable development look? IIED director Andrew Norton offers his thoughts on the key debates and changes we may see during 2018, and what they might mean for IIED's work

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
05 January 2018
The Earth is reflected in a drop of water on a leaf (Photo: Juan Horna, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Sustainable development issues of importance in 2018 range from getting climate finance to communities at the frontlines of climate change to the impacts of evolving technologies (Photo: Juan Horna, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Last January, I set out the issues I felt were most likely to affect sustainable development practice over 2017, asking what damage might be done by the election of a climate denier to the US presidency and the rising tide of reactionary nationalism.  

Much of what I highlighted then remains relevant. For example, if political currents threaten climate finance, then it is more important than ever to demonstrate how to get money where it matters – to communities at the frontlines of climate change. 

One year into the Trump presidency, how does the global landscape for sustainable development look? And what might it mean for IIED's work?

Greater ambition on climate action 

President Trump's announcement that he planned to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change cast a shadow over last November's COP23 climate talks.

IIED's experts felt that the outcomes of the COP23 talks were mixed – but could have been considerably worse. Fiji deserves credit for strong leadership. And the swell of support for climate action from US states, cities, businesses and civil society evident throughout was heartening.

Two key processes for 2018 will be finalising of the rule book for the Paris Agreement, and the Talanoa Dialogue, which must drive increased ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Increased ambition is certainly needed because action to tackle climate change is nowhere near where it needs to be.

A mountain to climb

In the wake of 2017's extreme weather, the supposedly 'safe' upper goal for planetary warming of 2°C looks anything but.

Recent research reinforces the case for Paris' more ambitious goal of 1.5°C. But we are a long way off: if all of the national climate action plans on which the Paris Agreement's hopes are based were perfectly executed, we would still likely be headed for 3°C of warming by 2100.

A combination of powerful driving forces – growing appreciation of the current implications of global warming, and appreciation of just how far existing plans fall short – is likely to drive a more polarised and urgent debate on climate action in 2018.  

We can expect to see growing social activism pushing business and government leaders to take urgent action. This will include increasing use of climate litigation as a weapon to take on vested interests.

At the same time, the debate about climate geoengineering will become more intense, and will encompass solar radiation management as well as carbon dioxide removal. It is urgent that we better understand the potential impacts of geoengineering on poor countries, and boost their voices in the growing debate about the governance of research into these technologies.

Technological advances will also continue to make renewable energy a cheaper and more attractive proposition; improved battery storage will be a key dimension. But less benign technical disruption may occur too. Emerging data on the energy demands of some crypto-currencies – Bitcoin in particular – are staggering, and continued growth of these could eat up energy efficiency gains in other areas.

An important ongoing focus of research will be understanding and documenting the impacts of evolving technologies on the lives and livelihoods of climate vulnerable people, particularly in poor countries with limited resources to respond. Climate changes already under way, including aridification and rising sea levels, will force migration, with huge consequences.  

Far larger numbers, not forced or able to move, may question the wisdom of investing time, effort and money in developing livelihoods based on natural resources in the face of climate uncertainty. 

Growing sustainable urban spaces 

Most urbanisation in coming decades will take place in poorer countries. The shape of these processes will determine to a considerable degree the world's chances of success across the full range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

If we don't have inclusive and sustainable cities we can't make the progress needed. Shaping inclusive and low-emission urban growth will be challenging in poor, low-capacity countries, but is essential for the future of people and planet.

Supporting displaced populations is increasingly becoming an urban governance issue. In 2016, 60 per cent of the world's refugees were living in urban areas. Delivering inclusive and functional urban societies in the affected areas requires new thinking and capacities for the international humanitarian system.

Automation and inequality

In 2017 we began to explore the potential implications of automation for future societies in the global South; it is clear that there are many plausible futures where technological disruption leads to more unequal and insecure livelihoods.  

Policy responses will be needed. In 2018 the challenges will become clearer: how to shape social protection systems to build community as well as individual resilience; how to support smallholder farmers to take advantage of change without risking assets; how to maintain public revenues in the face of technological changes that enable the rich to circumvent national taxation; how to shape education systems to prepare children both for a changing work environment and for the evolving demands of citizenship in a digital world.

Biodiversity, oceans, and a changing public mood 

One of the greatest successes of 2017 came late in the year: on 24 December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to negotiate a treaty to protect biodiversity in the 'high seas' – the areas of the oceans beyond national waters. It is a process that IIED has welcomed as an opportunity to manage the half of the planet's surface area that is currently ungoverned.

We will support the Least Developed Countries in these negotiations to ensure that the interests of the world's poorest people will not be eclipsed by those of rich countries with big commercial fishing fleets.

In many parts of the world British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough's powerful second 'Blue Planet' television series has had an impact on public awareness, highlighting the threats of climate change, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss. 

We hope that over 2018 this consciousness will grow stronger, along with an appreciation that preserving biodiversity on coastlines and on land needs approaches which accommodate the needs of local populations, and foster their active participation.

Changing global frameworks for understanding

The SDGs continue to shift the understanding of development among practitioner communities. The SDGs introduced transformational changes in thinking: that development is a universal process applying to all countries, rich and poor and focused on addressing shared challenges; that all dimensions of sustainable development (social, environmental and economic) apply; that reducing inequality should be a fundamental goal of development action.

While implementation by governments is uneven, interest in the SDG processes is growing in many parts of the private sector and investment communities. A key area of future focus will be how to evaluate the effectiveness of policy and action.

We will also see an increased focus on how to integrate environmental rights into human rights more fully – driven in part by the French-led process to establish a Global Compact for the Environment. This process could help to strengthen environmental principles such as the rights of future generations, and the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, in the global understanding of human rights.

Our place in the landscape

All of the currents of change highlighted here will affect IIED's work. We will focus on ensuring that we can respond to a changing global environment through strengthening our own capacity to learn and adapt.  

Gro Harlem Brundtland, deputy chair of The Elders and IIED's next Barbara Ward Lecture speaker, makes a speech at a conference in Oslo (Photo: Julie Lunde Lillesæter/PRIO, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

One exciting opportunity to learn and share comes in June this year, when Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the World Health Organization, will present IIED's 2018 Barbara Ward Lecture. The Barbara Ward Lectures honour IIED's founder and celebrate outstanding women in development.


This year's event comes 30 years after the Brundtland Commission's 'Our Common Future' – a seminal text that still shapes IIED's values and priorities in 2018. 

As we work to meet the challenges of 2018 and beyond, the Brundtland Commission's message on addressing the twin issues of environment and development resonates as strongly as ever: "These problems cannot be treated separately by fragmented institutions and policies."

We look forward to building new networks and partnerships to help us make our best contribution to the challenges ahead.

Andrew Norton ([email protected]) is director of IIED.