SDG challenges - What does universality really mean?

Jason Blackeye 138263
Image: Jason Blackeye / Unsplash

It is common in presentations of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to stress that, unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are “universal.”  The primary meaning is that the goals are intended to apply equally to all countries, not simply the developing and emerging economies. Thus countries like Switzerland or Canada have, in adopting the 2030 Agenda, have solemnly undertaken to attain the SDG goals and targets by the 2030 deadline. In some cases, the undertakings are pro forma. The need for Switzerland—a landlocked country—to address Goal 14 on oceans, for example, is limited. But to the extent that they apply, countries have made a commitment to implement all of the goals and targets fully, in practice and in spirit.

What, then, does the term “universal” or “universally applicable” mean in the context of reporting on SDG progress and implementation? The terms—and  especially the former—are  salted throughout the 2030 Agenda and are clearly intended to be taken seriously. Nowhere, however, are they elaborated or explained. I would suggest that the notion of universality has profound implications and that countries should report both on how they are advancing the SDGs at home and in other countries and on the planet more generally. Three examples will suffice.

First, the targets under Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) specify not only that countries must take action domestically and build climate considerations into their own plans and strategies, but also that they must contribute to mobilizing the funding needed by developing countries to meet their climate-related challenges and, more generally, build capacity and awareness around the climate challenge. Thus, it is clearly not sufficient for Switzerland to lower its own climate footprint—it must also act or contribute to action beyond its borders. Reporting on this is clearly part of its obligations. However, the principle of universality would suggest that Switzerland should also be monitoring the impact that its domestic energy consumption has on the “climate space” of other countries that consume less and reporting on steps it is taking to ensure that its actions are not making the path to full implementation of the 2030 Agenda rockier for other countries.

“The universal nature of the SDGs implies that countries should clean up their own act and contribute to helping others to do so; but it also implies that their action must be commensurate with the extent to which they are part of the problem.”

The difference is subtle but important. The universal nature of the SDGs implies that countries should clean up their own act and contribute to helping others to do so; but it also implies that their action must be commensurate with the extent to which they are part of the problem. Having this as the basis for reporting would respect the notion of universality; ignoring it would serve that notion poorly.

A second example comes from Goal 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns). This complex goal, with its 11 targets, lays out a range of actions governments are expected to take, many of them calling for efficiency gains in production and consumption as well as a reduction of waste. All 11 targets can fully be reached, however, without the goal being achieved. Countries like Switzerland should have no difficulty reporting against these targets. If the goal is a universally-held commitment, however, the reporting should include progress towards the goal itself, including an assessment of how Switzerland’s patterns of consumption and production affect the ability of other countries to achieve the SDGs and for the goal itself to be reached. 

The extent to which production in Switzerland is depleting stocks of natural resources in other countries, or the extent to which the terms of trade undermine other countries’ ability to develop sustainably, are material to understanding its overall impact. Including this in national reporting is a far more complex task, but if the accumulation of national actions towards a goal do not amount to achieving that goal, it will be important to understand why and take appropriate action.

Finally, countries like Switzerland should identify and develop a means to assess how its overall impact on the planet might be made more amenable to success in reaching the SDGs through and beyond the fulfillment of the targets. The need for each country to bring its development fully within the boundaries dictated by sustainable development is strongly implied in the principle of universality, and it is fully articulated in the Declaration that forms the lead-in to the articulation of the SDGs themselves. 

The aim is, after all, “transforming our world.” A positive transformation will require ensuring a robust “social floor” and living within known “planetary boundaries.”  So the principal of universality strongly suggests that reporting should not simply allow the mechanical tracking of the goals and targets against indicators, but provide the basis for an assessment—perhaps by the High-level Political Forum charged with monitoring and reviewing the 2030 Agenda—of the extent to which our world is being transformed and a sustainable future secured.

Mark Halle, Vice-President, Strategy & Executive Director, IISD-Europe.


This blog has been reposted from the IISD website and is the second in the IISD series 'Reporting the Sustainable Development Goals'. 

Photo credit: Jason Blackeye on Unsplash