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[Research Reports] Goal-Based Global Governance Challenges: The Real Significance of the SDGs

Norichika Kanie (Professor, Keio University Graduate School)
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Research Group on Global Issues #8

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

Chain of challenges

In modern society, every issue is connected to another. As suggested in the proverb "When the wind blows, the bucket maker gains", various self-differentiated issues actually interrelate and influence each other in today's world, where globalization has made considerable progress and the Internet infrastructure has become widespred and continues to evolve.

These issues can be broadly divided into three types: economic, social and environmental. At first glance, economic, social and environmental issues appear to be independent issues, but in fact they are deeply and strongly related. If you buy and drink bottled water from a vending machine to cope with "life-threatening" heat, for instance, you can rehydrate yourself as an immediate necessary measure against climate change. But, if the water bottle is a petroleum product, incinerating it as garbage also promotes climate change. If we turn on air conditioning, we may be able to escape the mortal danger posed by climate change. However, as long as the electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, using it will also contribute to climate change.

The interconnectedness of issues also means that solving them is not straightforward. When we try to resolve an issue, we cannot do so fully unless we think and act comprehensively.

The "Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs) have emerged to grasp these issues as systemic issues and to seek their resoution.

Shape of the world

At the UN General Assembly in September 2015, 193 UN member states endorsed the SDGs as global goals.

Instead of focusing solely on current growth and leaving economic, social and environmental debts to the future, we should grow sustainably. This refers not only to economic growth but also growth in a social sense (e.g., growth that can raise everyone's happiness level) or from an environmental point of view (e.g., growth in which a rich natural environment can support human life forever). The SDGs are such integrated growth targets.

The SDGs comprise 17 goals and 169 targets. The goals are relatively abstract representations of a global objective that might even be termed a vision. The targets include more specific milestones, including the years they are to be achieved and the numbers to be reached. The SDGs form the core of the UN document "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development", which states that goals and targets are interrelated and "integrated and indivisible" (Paragraph 18). In addition, the report recommends that each country independently set specific targets, with governments to set them by taking into account the circumstances of their respective countries while being guided by global targets.

It is often forgotten that national targets are set by national governments. In other words, Japan is expected to "customize" the SDGs to a Japanese context. If you think of target-setting at the national level, you might regard it as a government responsibility. However, all countries feature a diversity of stakeholders. It is important that individual stakeholders "customize" their targets in order to achieve the SDGs. Taking action to achieve the SDGs starts with setting goals.

The SDGs present goals and targets but nothing more. International agreements reached at the United Nations usually include mechanisms and rules for implementation; a look at the text of any treaty will make this clear. However, there are no such rules in the SDGs. The SDGs comprise a very simple set of goals and targets.

Features of the SDGs

The SDGs have three broad features. The first is a mechanism, and the second is "measurement" within that mechanism, extremely important in view of the current situation in which Big Data and other advances make possible a variety of measurements. The third is comprehensiveness.

International agreements, especially treaties and protocols under the United Nations, usually consist of rules or collections of rules. Each country has its own legal system and rules. Governments come up with new international rules by bringing their rules together and making adjustments. This is the essence of multilateral negotiations, and this is why it is often said that multilateral arrangements, such as those made at the United Nations, aim at the harmonization of legal systems rather than the allocation of benefits and burdens.[*]2

There are "international regimes" that focus on specific international issues and serve as mechanisms for resolving those issues, such as climate change regimes or international trade regimes. The free trade system centered on the WTO is a typical example. An international regime is sometimes referred to as a set of international rules for solving a problem. Under the "principle" of promoting free, non-discriminatory and multilateral trade, an explicit "legal framework" such as an agreement is stipulated, but that is not all. Decision-making "procedures" and dispute resolution "procedures" are involved, and with these an institutional framework is established. Such mechanisms are created by overlapping various rules, with the whole system called an international regime. The United Nations has been good at creating such international regimes. For example, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP: Conference Of the Parties) is held at the end of each year to work on resolving climate change issues, and this constitutes a decision-making procedure.

However, the SDGs take a very different approach from these legal mechanisms. This approach sets out short-term future goals for 2030, but does not create rules for achieving those goals. This author refers to global governance that does not stipulate detailed implementation rules but focuses only on goals as "goal-based governance". Goal-derived mechanisms are bringing about a new form of global governance.

By setting ambitious goals, "resources" intent on achieving those goals will come together. "Resources" can refer to a number of things. Human resources and intellectual resources (ideas) for achieving goals will be brought together. Another important resource is "funding" for pursuing goals. These resources can sometimes lead to a leap forward that would not seem possible based on the bottom-up approach.

The second major feature is "measurement". The SDGs do not stipulate detailed approaches to implementation. Instead, steps must be taken to measure the progress made towards achieving them. Measuring itself does not change anything but it does make known the situation at the time of measurement and provides an incentive to improve it.

Indicators are essential aids for measurements. Supplementing these is a qualitative framework for measuring the SDGs: the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) published once every four years. The GSDR is compiled by 15 independent scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General who assess evaluation reports and identify the keys to successfully moving toward the SDGs. The first GSDR was released in 2019, and the next one will be published in 2023. This author has just been named one of these 15 scientists for the 2023 GSDR.

The third characteristic is comprehensiveness. Regardless of which of the 17 goals is chosen as a starting point, the efforts taken toward that goal will be tied in some way to the other goals. Consequently, efforts need to be undertaken from a comprehensive perspective. The SDGs will thus also serve as a checklist for this comprehensive approach.

However, not all of the SDGs are harmonized, as they have been put together by political consensus. Attempts to reach one target may threaten the attainment of another. These trade-offs and synergies are still being studied, and they are also of interest to academia. In 2016, Nature published a methodology for describing synergies and trade-offs on a 7-point scale with scores ranging from + 3 to -3 (neutral is 0). The International Council for Science led this research and has already published a report.[*]3[*]4 These studies will likely continue to accelerate towards setting "Post-SDGs" goals.

In this way, SDGs mark the start of the path towards "transformation". Immediately after the UN General Assembly stressed the importance of the "Decade of Action" to follow in 2019, the pandemic halted progress toward many goals and targets or prompted a switch in priorities. Nevertheless, this crisis also presents an opportunity for change. The first few years of this Decade of Action will hold the key to developments over the next ten years.

This is English translation of Japanese paper originally published on March 3, 2021.

1 This article has been partially rewritten based on the description in my book "SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)" (2020: Chuko Shinsho).
2 From "Theory and application of multilateral negotiations".
3 Nilson, Griggs and Visbeck (2016), Map the interaction between Sustainable Development Goals, Nature, Vol 534, 16 June 2016, pp. 320-322.
4 ICSU (2017) A Guide to SDG Interactions from Science to Implementation, International Council for Science, Paris