Facing up to the awkward realities of the post-2015 agenda

The post-2015 sustainable development agenda promises a better future – but only if some awkward realities are confronted.

Tom Bigg's picture
Insight by 
Tom Bigg
28 January 2015
Modern energy services are crucial to economic development. In Afghanistan, less than 10 per cent of the population has access to the electricity grid. French NGO GERES has been working to introduce low-cost passive solar building designs, reducing fuel poverty (Photo: Oriane Zera, GERES, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Modern energy services are crucial to economic development. In Afghanistan, less than 10 per cent of the population has access to the electricity grid. French NGO GERES has been working to introduce low-cost passive solar building designs, reducing fuel poverty (Photo: Oriane Zera, GERES, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

"The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons"

 - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The promise of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda that is emerging from a drawn-out United Nations process is rich: it appears to offer a plethora of desirable outcomes, from the end of poverty and hunger, to inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and decisive action on climate change.

Everyone acknowledges that this agenda is "ambitious", and that it will be "transformative" if realised. The proposed set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has the potential to provide a 21st century update to the foundations for international collaboration and a means for citizens to hold powerful actors to account for their actions. This, it is recognised, will require finance, access to technology, access to information, monitoring and evaluation.

The rhetoric that has developed around the post-2015 sustainable development agenda now rolls off the tongues of the negotiators as they embark on the final months of the UN process. But the fluency with which they are developing this new global language cannot mask the scale of change that is being articulated.

This 'soft law' approach risks generating widespread cynicism if it doesn't lead fairly directly to evidence of substantial changes in key drivers of unsustainability and inequity in our global systems.

And this is where the true challenge of the sustainable development agenda lies. Embracing this transformative (even revolutionary) agenda requires change on a global scale.

If the process to arrive at the SDGs indicates the means by which this ambitious agenda can be realised, and recognises the barriers and counter-pressures that lie in the way, it will have a better chance of achieving real and lasting impact.

A tragedy of horizon

As an example, the UNEP Inquiry on the Design of a Sustainable Financial System points to a "tragedy of horizon", a phrase coined by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Standard practice in our financial systems underestimates the value of future threats, and this is made still worse by the in-built incentives for short-termism in many financial markets.

As a result, investment in fossil fuels is driven by short-term market values, while the longer-term implications of shifting to a low-carbon economy and the stranded assets which would result are given scant attention.

Systemic change in areas such as this will be required if the fine aspirations in the SDGs are to become reality. Below we have identified six of the goals outlined in the Open Working Group's draft proposal – and highlighted some of the awkward realities that we see as obstacles to progress.  

These barriers are not insurmountable, but the challenge of the post-2015 agenda is to ensure that the political will to overcome them is there.

The promise of 2015

Awkward realities

End poverty in all its forms everywhere (Sustainable Development Goal 1)

Even using an inadequate cash income assessment of poverty, the median income in most developing countries is currently below US$2 per day – including in some of the fast-growing developing countries such as India.
IIED researchers have found that the reality of poverty numbers is far worse in many countries, with far more people living in informal or slum housing, with limited access to services and unable to meet basic needs than the official poverty figures suggest.
The World Bank has highlighted how boosting the incomes of the bottom 40 per cent, compared to the median, can be effective in reducing poverty.

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (Sustainable Development Goal 7)

Barriers to the development of sustainable renewable energy sources include fossil fuel subsidies of over US$0.5 trillion annually (PDF), masking the true cost of fossil fuels.

Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (Sustainable Development Goal 8)

While there are clear benefits from increased market access for economies, some of the current regional and national bilateral trade agreements and investment treaties (as for example has been proposed in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Protocol (TTIP)) undermine the potential for national governments to legislate to protect the environment and jobs, or act in the interests of sustainable development.

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation (Sustainable Development Goal 9)

An estimated US$6 trillion of investment is needed in infrastructure to support development – more if that is to be low carbon (+4 per cent), but the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing concludes that "current financing and investment patterns will not deliver sustainable development".
UNCTAD estimates that developing countries face a US$2.5 trillion annual investment gap in funding needed to meet post-2015 development goals (PDF).
Investment in clean energy infrastructure can be supported by special 'green bonds', but these currently makes up less than 0.01 per cent of the global bond market.

Reduce inequality within and among countries (Sustainable Development Goal 10)

The richest one per cent of the global population last year owned 48 per cent of the world's wealth and expects the wealthiest one per cent to own more than 50 per cent of the world's wealth by 2016.
This disparity is concentrating power and influence in the hands of the rich. In Europe, the financial sector spent US$150m lobbying EU institutions; in the US, the same sector spent $571m in 2012 on the US election campaign.

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (Sustainable Development Goal 13)Natural resource and carbon-intensive investments continue to rise despite growing signs that their value is at risk in the face of changes in technology, policy, catastrophic weather events and citizens' choices.

Tom Bigg ([email protected]) is head of Partnerships at IIED and works with the Independent Research Forum (IRF) to provide critical thinking on the post-2015 development agenda. This blog was produced with help from Helen Burley ([email protected]), who is communications officer for the IRF.