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The discursive deadlock of sustainability policy

Sustainable Development Goals heading towards ‘business as usual’ approach

Frank van Kesteren | October 20, 2015

The launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) marks the introduction of sustainability as an overarching concept for international development by integrating economic, social and environmental concerns at the international policy level. Yet the extent to which the environment will profit from the SDGs is questionable given the structure of the document and its framing of the sustainability concept. In the end, the 2030 agenda for development might very well result in cherry picking and ‘business as usual’.

The long wait is over. As expected, the document containing the 2015-2030 successors of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – named Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – has been accepted by world leaders at the UN Summit in New York on 25-27 September 2015. The document is a result of four years of extensive negotiation with a record number of diverse stakeholders. The resulting 17 SDGs with 169 targets cover a broader area of development issues as compared to the MDGs. They are eagerly referred to as ‘promising’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘revolutionary’ 1, particularly because of its incorporation of environmental issues into the development agenda.

The SDGs follow up on the ambitions raised in The Future We Want, the outcome document of the UN Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in 2012. Exactly 20 years after the introduction of sustainability in the UN development agenda at the Rio Summit of 1992, it has now been formally agreed upon that sustainability should be the key concept for the post-2015 development agenda. World leaders have kept their word – sustainability is now the umbrella concept for the MDGs successors, being mentioned 170 times in the final document.

However, very little progress in negotiations has been made in identifying what sustainability actually is. Member states seem to have very different priorities regarding the environmental dimension of sustainability. Therefore, it is time to realign the balance and see if sustainability is indeed the promising concept that will tackle environmental issues at the international political stage. By moving away from the MDGs on sustainability via the ambitions outlined in The Future We Want towards the SDGs, this article outlines how sustainability may be tempting as a mobilising concept, but also an empty bullet.

The development of sustainability: from MDGs to SDGs

Many scholars agree that the popularity of the term ‘sustainability’ is equally its downfall. As a broad concept, it is able to interest many players but the framing of the term is dependent on the stakes these players defend. 2 As a result, it has been used rather loosely to address issues ranging from climate change to conservation of natural heritage. 3 Compared to the first definition of sustainability seen in Our Common Future in 1987, 4 the concept has endured a discursive shift from an environmentalist concept to an umbrella concept which now includes economic and social aspects of development.

In the MDGs, sustainability was a separate goal with absolute targets for environmental issues such as deforestation, loss of natural resources and biodiversity. The results show that little progress has been made regarding these targets. This comes as no surprise to many given the small amount of concrete action proposed, the narrow range of indicators for this goal and the dependence on the outcomes (e.g. UN climate change conferences). Therefore, two recommendations dominated the evaluations of the MDGs: 1) to integrate environmental issues with other development issues and recognize the impact of economic growth and; 2) to take the role of developed countries into account, both in terms of financing development and their contribution to environmental issues as climate change. 5

The Future We Want appears as an attempt to tackle these recommendations. Two important principles stand out in this 2012 proposal for the SDGs. The first is that SDGs should ‘integrate economic, social and environmental aspects and recognize their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions.” 6 The second is that the SDGs should be based on the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). CBDR assumes that even though member states have a shared responsibility in assuring a sustainable future of our planet, they have different shared parts in this responsibility based on their ‘respective capacities’. 7

In contrast to the MDGs, The Future We Want states that sustainability is an integrated concept that not only involves economic, social and environmental aspects, but also acknowledges interlinkages between the three aspects. The incorporation of CBDR also acknowledges that developed countries will have to do more – or pay more – to achieve sustainability. This can be seen as a discursive shift, which can best be explained by using John Dryzek’s framework of environmental discourses. 8

According to Dryzek, environmental discourses differ in their extent to which they:

  • Prescribe a degree of societal change. Environmentalists may see environmental issues as opportunities to question the political-economic relations within which, according to them, these issues are rooted. They challenge expert systems (administrators, scientists and other responsible elites) and question the governance of environmental matters. However, others may tackle environmental issues using, or reinforcing, the existing political-economic structures. These environmentalists may for instance propose greater capacity for international financial institutions or existing development programs.
  • Prescribe a departure from industrialism. This questions if limits to industrial society, mostly in terms of economic and population growth, are recognized. Radicals challenge modernization and market solutions and demand drastic actions (i.e. moving away from the industrialist paradigm), while more conservative actors view economic, social and environmental development in terms of ‘win-win’ situations.

In this regard, The Future We Want marked a broad change compared to the MDGs, which did not prescribe societal change or a departure from industrialism (see figure 1). The 2012 document asked for developed countries to not only ‘pay for development’ but also to reduce existing power imbalances, review their consumption and production patterns and reduce inequalities between developed and developing countries in general. The proposal to recognize interlinkages between economic, social and environmental development could be a small sidestep away from the industrialist paradigm, while the implementation of the CBDR principle could be a challenge to existing political-economic relations.

Figure 1: The development of sustainability as an environmental discourse 

Source: Ros-Tonen, 2013, based on Dryzek, 2005

Source: Ros-Tonen, 2013, based on Dryzek, 2005

The SDGs’ sustainability discourse

The Future We Want, the framework for the SDGs, marked a different approach towards sustainable development. So did the SDGs mark a discursive shift? The introduction of the 35-page ‘Transforming our world’ document reads how sustainable development is framed: ‘We are committed to achieving sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental – in a balanced and integrated manner’. The SDGs are ambitious in the coverage of environmental issues. A broad range of environmental issues such as nature conservation, sustainable energy and consumption and production patterns have been embodied into individual goals. Moreover, through a specific means of implementation goal, developed countries have been urged to contribute substantially in terms of finance, technology, capacity building and trade. 9

These elements of the SDG seem as a different approach towards sustainable development. However, the two principles of The Future We Want outlined above can hardly be recognised in the SDGs. The SDGs are isolated goals with targets of equal value and interlinkages are not recognised in the structure of the document. The lack of this recognition in combination with vague and unachievable targets 10 results in a document that pleads for ‘inclusive economic growth’ 11 and ‘sustainable industrialization’ 12 without unpacking these concepts and displaying their internal controversies.

Similarly, even though the CBDR principle is adopted in the outcome document, the development goals do not reflect differentiated responsibilities in both the contributions and solutions to environmental issues. The environmental goals and targets mainly involve technology and knowledge transfers, promotion of efficient practices in developing countries and targets as 'to achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources’ 13 which demand precision. Moreover, there is no prioritisation in the targets. Therefore, preventing substance abuse (target 3.5) is of equal importance as sustainable management of resources (target 12.2).

As it turns out, the question of responsibility remains unanswered, particularly since proposals such as the ‘reform [of] the governance of International Financial Institutions’ 14 have not made the final cut. Likewise, proposed targets to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns in developed countries have been swept aside in the final rounds of negotiations. Therefore, despite additional finance, transfers and several minor institutional re-arrangements, business as usual is likely to continue in developed countries.

Implications: transformative shift or cherry picking?

The SDGs mark a small shift in the sustainability approach by covering a wide range of environmental issues and demanding additional support from developed countries. However, the progress in the development of the sustainable development discourse has come to a halt because of a deadlock. UN member states are unwilling or unable to challenge political and economic imbalances that prevent future progress. Countries defending their stakes are now pointing to the Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP-21) in December. According to them climate change policies will have to be formulated in Paris instead of within the SDGs. They have thereby successfully avoided the environmental debate of SDG negotiations and placed a heavy burden on COP-21, which is even more likely to result in ‘business as usual’ because of time limits within the conference and bargaining power imbalances in general. 

Considering there are 169 targets and no prioritization among them, it is very likely that quick and easy wins will be preferred over tackling structural environmental issues, similarly to the MDGs. Without recognizing interlinkages between development issues, the large amount of targets will likely result in a cherry picking selection. In order to overcome this, and to adapt a real sustainable development discourse, the SDGs would have had to contain concrete enactment upon the two promising principles of Rio+20.

Earlier, The Broker’s coverage suggested that the main challenge of the formulation of SDGs would be dividing up pieces of the responsibility cake, mainly in determining to which extent countries should contribute to development issues, particularly because the polarisation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries is out dated. This opportunity has not been seized in the formulation of the SDGs. Instead of cutting the cake, it has been iced with empty bullets. Therefore, the SDGs are not ambitious, promising nor revolutionary. They are foremost a missed opportunity.

Photo credit main picture: United Nations Photo (via Flickr)


  • 1.

    In the words of UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft (amongst others): 

  • 2.

    c.f. Carter, N. (2001). The politics of the environment: Ideas, activism, policy. Cambridge University Press; Hansen, J.W. (1996). ‘Is agricultural sustainability a useful concept?’. Agricultural systems, 50(2): 117-143; Dixon, J.A., & Fallon, L.A. (1989). ‘The concept of sustainability: origins, extensions, and usefulness for policy’. Society & Natural Resources, 2(1): 73-84.

  • 3.

    Spindler, E.A. (2013). ‘The History of Sustainability: The Origins and Effects of a Popular Concept’. In: Jenkins, I. & Schröder, R. (Eds.) Sustainability in Tourism. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmediën. (Pg. 9-31). See also: Redclift, M. (2005). ‘Sustainability 1987-2005: an oxymoron comes of age’. Sustainable Development, 13: 212-227.

  • 4.

    Sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

  • 5.


  • 6.

    Paragraph 3 in: United Nations General Assembly (2012). The Future We Want. New York: United Nations.

  • 7.

    Ibid.: paragraph 15.

  • 8.

    Dryzek, J.S. (2005). The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • 9.

    Goal 17 in Transforming our World.

  • 10.

    According to the International Social Science Council (ISSC) only 29% of the 169 targets are well defined and based on the latest scientific evidence, while 54% need more work and 17% are weak or non-essential. See:

  • 11.

    Goal 8 in Transforming our World.

  • 12.

    Ibid.: goal 9.

  • 13.

    Ibid.: target 12.2.

  • 14.

    Focus area 9, target 5 in the common statement of the G77 and China on means of implementation.

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Expert opinion


The launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) marks the introduction of sustainability as an overarching concept for international development by integrating economic, social and environmental concerns at the international policy level. Yet the extent to which the environment will profit from the SDGs is questionable given the structure of the document and its framing of the sustainability concept. In the end, the 2030 agenda for development might very well result in cherry picking and ‘business as usual’.

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