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1.1   What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed by UN Member States at an extraordinary Summit of the UN General Assembly on the post-2015 development agenda in New York in September 2015. 

World leaders, including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, attended the Summit pledging commitment to the achievement of the 17 Goals with169 associated targets for by 2030.

The SDGs took four years to negotiate and are the successors to the 2001 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – eight goals with 18 associated targets – most of which were to be achieved by 2015. The new goals cover issues from poverty and gender equality to waste reduction and achieving sustainable consumption and production patterns. They have been broadened in scope in an attempt to integrate the UN’s Sustainable Development agenda which has tended to run in parallel with little overlap.

Transformational challenges for all

The SDGs are intended to go further than the Millennium Development Goals and are designed to be a universal and comprehensive vision and framework for the evolution of all (developed and developing) countries. The SDGs seek to take a more holistic approach to development, addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality in order to bring transformative change that will ‘leave no one behind’.

DFID Minister Baroness Verma has said that the UK Government considers the SDGs to be a major step forward from the MDGs because of these qualities. For the UK, she confirmed that the universal spirit of the SDGs meant that “no target should be considered met unless it had “been achieved by all segments of society”[1]

The SDGs are contained within a final outcome document adopted by the Summit: Transforming our World. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. (25 September 2015)

House of Commons Library Briefing, The Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda (September 2015) provides further details about the targets and the run-up to the conference. It also explains how sustainable development policy has developed in the UK and what current mechanisms are in place to monitor it.

Global Indicators

Each SDG is supported by a number of targets and draft global indicators but it is up to individual countries to decide how they will adapt these to the relevant national context.

The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) has agreed on a global indicator framework for the SDGs which the UK Government has welcomed. There is a dedicated UN Sustainable Development Goals indicator website.

The ONS is currently working with UK Stakeholders in Sustainable Development to gather evidence on how stakeholders in the UK think that the country should report progress on the SDGs.

1.2   How are the goals being implemented in the UK?

The UN Summit Outcome Document, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on all member states to develop national strategies on the SDGs as soon as possible and to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels”. It says such reviews should draw on contributions from a wide range of stakeholders, with national parliaments supporting these processes alongside other institutions.

UK Government approach

DFID has been assigned the lead Department on the SDGs, and will be working with the Cabinet Office across Government to ensure a “joined-up approach to implementation” with other Government Departments leading on their respective policy areas.[2]

However, as yet the UK Government has not set out an overall action plan or strategy for meeting the SDGs. There may not be one. When asked recently in Parliamentary Questions about a co-ordinating strategy or action plan, the UK Government has consistently pointed to its manifesto as an equivalent.

For example, in March 2016 in response to a written question about whether DFID had produced a cross-departmental strategy for the UK to implement the SDGs, DFID Minister Desmond Swayne responded:[3]

“…The UK Government as a whole is committed to implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Government’s manifesto sets out the plan of action for which it will be held accountable by the British people. This includes commitments relevant to each of the Goals, and it will guide our efforts to achieve them. The Global Goals are the starting point for, and will be embedded across, DFID’s work.”

Lead departments are to be assigned to implement each target and actions to meet the targets are to be set out in departmental plans.[4] However, the latest set of departmental plans do not make many overt links between their work and the SDGs. However, a number of Written Answers have outlined work relevant to the SDGs e.g. on waste (in the UK) and water and sanitation (UK acting internationally).[5] A number of stakeholders are keen to see more overt UK strategy.

On 9 December 2015, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Letwin, told the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee that the UK does not have very much difficulty in meeting the goals: [6] 

“Of course they apply to all countries. We all report on them and I have already had a series of meetings with colleagues about how we are going to report on our performance. As a matter of fact, we don’t have very much difficulty in meeting the goals…

…Certainly they are a very wide-ranging vision of sustainable development globally but we have to do much more in this country than just achieve those goals. As I said that is relatively easy for us. We are trying to do more than that. We are trying to make a contribution as a rich country, for example, to carbon reduction or indeed to marine ecology around the world through our overseas territories, which go way beyond these goals. Those were the sorts of things, the specific measures to do much more than this, which were indeed in the Conservative manifesto, and are in our plan of action and which we are carrying out.”

Devolved Administrations

Sustainable Development is a devolved issue and policies, legislation and approaches have diverged greatly in the last decade. The Devolved Administrations can also participate in the UK SDG programme through the Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development.

In Wales, a key recent development is the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which requires a range of public bodies to take a sustainable development approach.

The last Scottish Sustainable Development Strategy is from 2005, Choosing our future: Scotland’s sustainable development strategy. However, the 2015 Fairer Scotland Conversation consultation about inequality is linked to the SDGs and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that Scotland’s National Performance Framework will provide a means of reporting on progress against the SDGs.[7]

Northern Ireland’s Sustainable Development Strategy was published in 2010 and the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 placed a sustainable development duty on all public authorities.

1.3   Stakeholder ideas on implementation approaches

A range of stakeholders have stressed the need for an emerging, domestic mechanism to implement the SDGs in the UK.

The Institute for Sustainable Development has highlighted that first, countries need to develop strategies to implement the SDGs in such a way as to encourage different sectors to work together because the SDGs are highly linked and cannot be implemented in isolation.

BOND ( a membership organisation for NGOs in international development) has stressed that the UK’s contribution is not confined to the work of DFID (although vital to achieve the goals at global level).

Stakeholder Forum is an international organisation which seeks to advance sustainable development. It also acts as the National Committee for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in the UK enhancing the participation of stakeholders in the official UN inter-governmental processes.

Stakeholder Forum has taken some initiative on implementation and set up UKSSD (UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development). This is an organisation aiming to drive ambition for sustainable development in UK Government, businesses and civil society and support organisations to deliver on and progress the implementation of the SDGs in the UK.

PWC has provided help for businesses to understand how they can contribute to the SDGs in Make it your business: Engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals (September 2015).

[1] HL Deb 17 September 2015 c1994-1998

[2] HC Written Question 30790 17 March 2016

[3] HC Written Question 30790 17 March 2016

[4] HL Deb 17 September 2015, c.1998

[5] See for example HC Written Question 26219 (Waste) 15 February 2016 and HC Written Question 31973

  (Water and Sanitation) 30 March 2016

[6] Environmental Audit Committee, Oral evidence: The Government’s approach to sustainable

 Development inquiry, HC 388, 9 December 2015, Q29

[7] Scottish Government, Leading the way in tackling inequality, 19 July 2015

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