Beyond cockpit-ism: new agents of change for the SDG agenda

Development Policy11 Mar 2015Paul Lucas, Kathrin Ludwig, Marcel Kok

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have the potential to become a powerful political vision that can support the urgently needed global transition to sustainable development. Official international negotiations on the SDGs started in January 2015. However, the final goals and targets that will be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 risk falling short of expectations because of what we call ‘Cockpit-ism’: the illusion that governments and intergovernmental organisations alone can address global problems.

The SDGs constitute an important opportunity to resolve the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and move towards a universally relevant agenda that integrates social, economic and environmental goals, addressing both developed and developing countries. Global environmental diplomacy has led to the creation of hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements, including the well-known conventions on climate change, desertification and biodiversity. However, these agreements have been criticised for their limited effectiveness in solving the very problems they were designed to address.

The SDGs need to speak to new agents of change

In view of the limited success of environmental governance so far, the SDGs need to go beyond the cockpit and target not only governments, but other agents of change, such as businesses, cities, citizens and civil society. The Open Working Group (OWG) proposal on Sustainable Development Goals and the Secretary-General’s Synthesis Report on the post-2015 agenda do refer to the importance of ‘the active involvement of all relevant stakeholders’. However, they only address business, cities and civil society to a limited extent. With respect to environmental concerns in particular, the SDGs could speak to other agents of change much more directly.

Four action frames to enhance the SDGs’ transformative potential

For the post-2015 agenda to open up a new chapter in global governance, sustainable development needs to be reframed. SDGs that reflect diverse perspectives on sustainable development can help mobilise a broader coalition of actors and galvanise the actions around SDGs. For this purpose, we suggest four action frames that address both governments and other agents of change: ‘planetary boundaries’ to stress the urgency of addressing environmental concerns and to underline the role of governments in implementing the SDGs; ‘the safe and just operating space’ to highlight the universal relevance of social and environmental concerns; ‘the energetic society’ to build on the broader societal willingness to take action; and ‘green competition’ to stimulate innovation and new business practices. For a discussion of these action frames, see our recent article in Sustainability.

Towards universal relevance: implementing the SDGs in different development contexts

For successful implementation, the SDGs need to be relevant to the different development contexts of countries. National governments ultimately are responsible for achieving the SDG targets. The SDGs are international soft law and aspirational in character. They will gain moral authority if they become leading in national policies. High-income countries ultimately need to completely decouple economic growth from environmental impacts by focusing on sustainable consumption and production. Emerging economies need to start decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts, while keeping up the pace of poverty reduction. Low-income countries need to complement their efforts for social and economic development and avoiding lock-ins in unsustainable development pathways. Finally, growing resource consumption by the emerging global middle class is an issue of concern across nations.

For many SDGs that are currently discussed in international negotiations, there are regional, national and global targets to which countries have committed themselves and that have been translated into national policies. Yet, much work remains to be done. An important first step, especially for high-income countries such as the Netherlands, is to compare the ambition level of the SDGs with existing national targets and policies and assess the most pressing trade-offs and synergies, including with those abroad. This will show the areas where countries are already on track in achieving (parts of) the SDGs and where additional national targets and/or more stringent policies are required. Combined with a clear monitoring and accountability framework that links monitoring at national, regional and global levels, such actions can better engage cities and businesses, as well as citizens, consumers and civil society. National and regional approaches to planetary boundaries showcase how a global analysis can be scaled down for more local relevance.

Sustainable development as the norm for the 21st century

The SDGs have the potential to become the guiding vision for sustainable development if they move beyond ‘cockpit-ism’ and beyond a MDG+ agenda (see Paul Lucas’ earlier blog post on The Broker). If the SDGs take into account the changes in international set up and if they engage new agents of change, sustainable development will have more potential than ever before to become an influential and transformative norm in the 21st century.

This blog post is a spin-off from the recent publication: ‘Beyond Cockpit-ism: Four Insights to Enhance the Transformative Potential of the Sustainable Development Goals’, by Hajer, Maarten; Nilsson, Måns; Raworth, Kate; Bakker, Peter; Berkhout, Frans; de Boer, Yvo; Rockström, Johan; Ludwig, Kathrin; Kok, Marcel (2015), in Sustainability 7, no. 2: 1651-1660. doi:10.3390/su7021651.

At the end of 2015, PBL will publish an assessment of the environment-related SDGs for Dutch policy.