John Romano, Global Fellow, International Program, New York City

Despite the return of the chilling polar vortex this week, things have begun to heat up at United Nations Headquarters in New York as a critical UN process on global Sustainable Development Goals continues to unfold.

The UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) – the intergovernmental body tasked with putting forward recommendations for a universal set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015 – has just concluded the first stocktaking phase of its work, with the group convening eight consultative sessions in the past year. Last week, the group’s co-chairs – Ambassador Csaba Kőrösi of Hungary and Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya – released two documents to the group: One stocktaking report that summarizes the various discussions from the OWG to date, and another with so-called “focus areas” tagged by the co-chairs as having particular significance in the discussions from the OWG thus far.

Over the past year, discussions in the Open Working Group have focused largely on specific issues, such as energy, poverty eradication, water, health, oceans, forests and many others.  There has been relatively less attention paid to the implementation architecture for these goals.

Open Working Group Co-ChairsThe “focus areas” document provides a foundation for building consensus on the contents of a report the OWG is tasked with submitting to the UN General Assembly in September. This final report from the OWG will include recommendations for a full suite of goals that can then be worked into the final set of SDGs that will be adopted in 2015. Member States resume their deliberations in the second phase of the OWG next week, with discussions centering around the two stocktaking documents circulated by the co-chairs. While it is clear from these documents that UN has a long way to go to find consensus on a comprehensive yet concise set of SDGs, we were encouraged by language on multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships, climate change, and cities.

Highlighting the critical role that a “New Global Partnership” will play in the SDGs, the focus areas document asserts that a “global partnership for development has been emphasized as key to unlocking the full potential of sustainable development initiatives.” Unfortunately, both documents reflect the lack of consensus in offering a clear outline or definition for this concept of a “New Global Partnership.” We support the view of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel which called for a “New Global Partnership” which harnesses the full potential of partnerships between governments at all levels, businesses, civil society, and a wide range of other stakeholders and moving beyond but complementing the traditional approaches to action, such as Official Development Assistance (ODA) and foreign aid.

What was also encouraging was the emphasis on the need for a system of regular monitoring and reporting for these initiatives and partnerships, which is now insufficient as it stands.  Finally, the focus areas document highlights the need for improved coordination around these multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships, particularly between governments and the work of the UN.

The focus areas document also affirms that “climate change poses a grave threat to sustainable development and poverty eradication.” While there is little consensus amongst countries on how to integrate the issue of climate change into the SDGs, the focus areas document highlights the interlinkages between climate change and nearly every other issue, only highlighting the criticality of addressing the cross-cutting issue of climate change in this agenda. As the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel report reminds us, “Above all, there is one trend – climate change – which will determine whether or not we can deliver on our ambitions.”

Reflecting the extensive and stimulating discussions in the OWG on the topic of sustainable cities, the focus areas document underscores the importance of incorporating an urban element into the SDGs, saying that “sustainable cities and settlements, including settlements of indigenous communities, will be central in addressing socio-economic and environmental challenges and in building resilient societies.” We will very likely fall short of achieving our overall aspirations for these SDGs if special attention is not given to cities, where over sixty percent of the world’s population will live by 2030 – and particularly in the developing world, which is expected to represent over 80 percent of the world’s urban population by 2030.

Over the upcoming critical months ahead, NRDC will continue to advocate for a New Global Partnership that includes all stakeholders to drive the transformative change that is so desperately needed. What has been made clear is that these SDGs – and their supporting architecture – must reinvigorate commitments and political will from world leaders to fight climate change and promote sustainable development, and it must mobilize billions of people worldwide to contribute to a sustainable future.


Click here for NRDC’s proposal for a “New Architecture for a New Global Partnership” that will be critical to delivering the transformative actions, accountability and change that the SDGs hope to catalyze for a sustainable future.