5.0 How to implement these transformations

Current approaches to reach the internationally agreed ambitions have not been very successful. It is therefore paramount to reflect critically on the current governance structures in order to pave roads that more effectively lead from Rio towards a sustainable 2050.

The analysis shows that there is sufficient technical potential to achieve the sustainability objectives. However, it has to be concluded that the approaches to unlock this potential for achieving the internationally agreed ambitions, so far, have not been very successful. Moreover, the geo-political and societal context has changed, substantially, since 1992. It is therefore paramount to reflect critically on the current governance structures in order to pave roads that more effectively lead from Rio towards a sustainable 2050.

5.1 A more effective approach to sustainable development is needed

An effective governance approach to sustainable development may be based on a shared vision with long-term goals and consistent short-term targets, combining strengthened government actions with the numerous civic and corporate initiatives, worldwide, and strengthened global governance.

Adaptations to the current approach would consist of an increased focus on creating a reliable long-term vision, combined with stimulating learning and innovation. Incentive structures should match these long-term goals. The best way to go about this could be to start pragmatically by taking many small steps in the right direction, building more strongly on the innovative capacity of citizens and businesses, worldwide. By exploring best practices, diffusing technologies and making incremental improvements, support and understanding may be created for the more radical changes that are required.

  1. Develop a consistent vision with long-term goals and short-term targets

  2. Ensure that rules and regulations create the right incentive structure for transformative changes

  3. Increase policy coherency between relevant decision-making processes

  4. Reform policy-making at an international level

5.2 Shared vision and consistent goal setting

Currently, an overall vision on sustainable development is lacking. Although visions are sometimes regarded as soft policy tools, they may have a serious effect if they mark the clear choice for a sustainable future.

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Mark Swilling

Converging towards consensus at international and national levels on an overall vision may help to provide direction in policy-making. This indeed needs to be formulated in a positive way (‘the future we want’). Such a vision would link sustainable development issues and guide priority setting for different categories of countries. A key step for society would be to create convergence on a shared vision and policy objectives. Sustainable development goal-setting will be important in this regard.

5.3 Create incentive structure for transformative changes

Ensure that the rules and regulations which govern day-to-day decision-making are adapted to create the right incentive structure for transformative changes towards sustainable development.

Society has an enormous capacity for innovation and learning. It is important to ensure that this capacity is channelled towards sustainable development, by ensuring that sustainable development considerations become part of the decision-making process. There is no single and simple solution for the transformative change that would be needed to achieve goals; consequently, changing the incentive structures and allowing for flexibility in societal responses seems a more promising strategy than focusing on specific response options that would steer society along a single, preset path.

The following policy actions and instruments could contribute towards changing the current incentive structure:

  • abolish perverse incentives (e.g. environmentally harmful subsidies)

  • define natural resource access and tenure rights and ensure that green policies and investments also focus on poverty reduction

  • strengthen the capacity for institutional learning

  • introduce dynamic regulation, stimulating continuous improvement, reinforced by extensive public procurement commitments

  • include sustainable development goals in the indicators used to measure progress

  • include environmental factors in current pricing systems (e.g. green taxation and payments for ecosystem services)

  • develop enabling infrastructure, such as smart grids and sustainable city design

  • strengthen monitoring and feedback mechanisms, such as smart metering

5.4 Increase policy coherence in decision-making

The challenges posed by sustainable development are influenced not only by specific environmental and development policies, but also by other policy areas, such as trade, finance and energy. Therefore, it is crucial to increase the coherence between policy domains, long- and short-term goals and levels of decision-making, all focused at sustainability as the overarching target.

There are important synergies and trade-offs along the pathways towards achieving the sustainability goals. Several factors contribute to achieving multiple goals, such as efficiency improvements, consumption changes and reduced fossil-fuel use. Other factors may achieve one goal but have negative consequences for others, such as bio-energy and desalinisation. These connections are due to physical linkages between the different relevant variables, but they are not usually dealt with in an integrated manner in the related policy domains. Focusing on synergies may make it easier for agreements to be reached.

For an increase in policy coherence, it is important to consider synergies and trade-offs. Some examples are:

  • sustainable access to food, safe drinking water, and modern energy sources improves health and saves considerable time and effort in water and fuel collecting

  • sound ecosystem management results in cleaner drinking water, higher carbon uptakes and improved soil quality, sustaining a higher agricultural production

  • an integrated approach towards achieving climate, air pollution and energy security targets may lead to significant cost reductions

  • bio-energy can help to achieve the climate goal, but would complicate achieving those for biodiversity and food. Criteria and monitoring are needed to keep negative impacts within acceptable boundaries

  • certain air pollution measures may improve health, reduce climate change and prevent ecosystem damage

Interaction between interventions and the different sustainable development goals

Eradication of hunger Universal acces to modern energy Ensuring clean air Climate change mitigation Halting biodiversity loss
Improve access to food positive result mixed result mixed result
Improve agricultural productivity positive result positive result positive result
Reduce meat consumption & waste positive result positive result positive result positive result
Multifunctional landscapes mixed result mixed result
Expand protected areas negative result positive result positive result
Reduce expansion of road infrastructure positive result mixed result positive result
Improve energy use efficiency mixed result positive result positive result positive result positive result
Improve access to modern energy positive result positive result positive result mixed result positive result
Increase share of renewable energy positive result positive result positive result
Increase production of bio-energy mixed result mixed result positive result negative result
Use of carbon capture & storage positive result positive result
Reduce air pollution positive result positive result mixed result positive result
Free trade mixed result mixed result

Click to see interaction

Type of interaction: positive negative mix of positive & negative no significant interactions expected (until 2050)


5.5 Reform policy-making at an international level

Multilateral decision-making processes are needed to find effective and fair solutions. However, the current processes seem unable to stimulate the necessary transformative changes in time and international policy-making needs to be strengthened.

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prof Oran Young

Instead of aiming for a global consensus we envisage a positive dynamic, stemming from the combination of (1) a global convergence on strategic visions and goals and (2) progress in a multiplicity of policy-making spheres. Action at international level, ineffective as it may be, does provide important legitimation and institutionalisation for more effective actions on other levels or within civil society and the private sector. As part of a pragmatic response, the focus could be on three complementary strategies.

  • Build on societal initiatives to form new coalitions of the willing

  • Reframe sustainable development to find new mobilising narratives

  • Reform the current multilateral system

5.6 Reflection

Clearly, there is a certain tension between the bold changes required to realise sustainable development and the pragmatic policy approach suggested above, the effectiveness of which is yet unknown.

However, the current approach of international negotiations seems to make relatively little progress. difficulties of agreeing on a policy package, upfront and on the highest level, it seems important to consider alternative options that implement ambitious elements of a sustainable development trajectory, strengthen social and institutional learning and thus avoid the costs of inaction. Not meeting sustainability challenges will involve serious costs, and the most vulnerable within society, worldwide, will be the first to pay that price.

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