Initial Observations on National Positions on Sustainable Consumption and Production and Means of Implementation under the SDGs Open Working Group (OWG)

April 2014

One year has passed since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Open Working Group (OWG) began in March 2013, with the first phase of “stock-taking” ending in February 2014. The second phase of negotiations started in March 2014 and will run until August, after which the OWG will submit its report to the 69th UN General Assembly in September 2014. While the OWG is meant to provide technical guidance on possible SDGs, the second phase has begun to reveal contrasting geopolitical views on the selection and design of SDGs. This commentary highlights a potentially challenging illustration of North-South tensions surrounding Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) and governance goals. It also suggests that one of the inherent advantages of the SDG negotiations is that there may be greater room to reconcile these tensions than, for instance, climate negotiations due to greater room for give and take across a wider range of issues.

Over the past year, the OWG has helped form a general consensus on a variety of issues. These include that the SDGs make up a priority area for the Post-2015 Development Agenda; that poverty eradication is an overarching goal; and that it is imperative to discuss interlinkages between SDGs. Progress can also be seen in the gradual winnowing of possible thematic areas. Discussions in the first phase covered a diverse range of topics, but the second phase has seen that menu narrowed down to the co-chairs’ 16 Focus Areas for SDGs (announced as of April 2014). Yet just as the negotiations have begun to make progress, they have also encountered a number of challenges. For instance, it still remains very unclear how the SDGs will be tied to other important international negotiations, most notably climate change negotiations. Yet another set of difficulties—familiar to climate negotiations—is that countries have begun to bring their national interests into the discussions. Two areas where these rifts have become apparent are Sustainable Consumption and Production, and governance.

Over the past decade, a growing global interest has helped spotlight the causes and consequences of overconsumption, especially but not exclusively in developed countries. But many developed countries including the United States are not in favour of making SCP a stand-alone SDG. Conversely, developing countries such as India have a different view, contending that developed countries need to take responsibility to reduce the negative impacts of their consumption. India’s view is often backed up with references to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) (see Table 1).

Table 1. US and India’s statements on SCP at OWG7

US India
  • Support SCP initiatives that culminated in the 10YFP on SCP in 2012, which “thankfully is already operational.” In a broader sense, SCP describes the OWG’s overall purpose, but the present discussion should focus on specific opportunities that could be the focus of SDGs and targets, such as energy, water and sanitation, and food security.

  • There is some doubt about the need for a stand-alone goal on SCP.
  • SCP is of universal relevance to all countries; this is an issue on which developed countries have to take the lead, in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

  • A targeted approach for reducing the per capita consumption of energy in developed countries could produce positive results and feedback loops across various streams, and is also consistent with the high priority being placed by this Group to energy and climate change issues.

  • We could craft a purposeful global response to tackling the unacceptably high levels of food wastage at the consumer level in developed countries.

Similar tensions between developed and developing countries can be seen on the issue of governance. The US has been cautious on this topic based on the assumption that governance is connected with the means of implementation (MOI) and financial commitments. On the other hand, developing countries, including China, assert the importance of South-South cooperation while emphasising the necessity of support from developed countries on financing, technology transfer and capacity-building making up the MOI. Since SDGs will not offer any obligations in the sense that they are not legally binding, there is a widely-held view that integrating MOI in other thematic goals and targets is necessary to ensure implementation.

Table 2. US and China’s statements on governance at OWG6

US China
  • The Group stated that proposals to include specific MOI for every goal should be considered carefully.

  • There was a call for an agenda to maintain flexible MOI that can adapt over time and avoid strict prescriptions.

  • It was suggested that OWG discussions focus on specific solutions, and that global governance should not be a major focus at this stage.
  • A new global development partnership should be established for common prosperity and development. North-South cooperation remains the core of this partnership, and South-South cooperation is a useful supplement to North-South cooperation. Development financing should be enhanced with North-South cooperation serving as the main channel. Developed countries should honour their ODA commitments, provide development assistance, and scale up their support for developing countries, especially African nations and LDCs. Developing countries should further mobilise domestic resources, enhance South-South cooperation, help each other in the spirit of solidarity, and pursue common development.

  • Technology transfer, knowledge sharing and capacity building play a key role in addressing development challenges across the cross-cutting sustainability dimensions, such as food and agriculture, water, energy, industry development, chemicals and waste management.

The issues based on these North-South tensions will be critical discussion points for upcoming OWG negotiations, given the persistent difficulties witnessed at Rio+20. However, SDGs were agreed upon based on the notion that sustainable development will not be achieved without setting universal goals and engaging all countries. Many existing proposals touch upon the differences between regions, countries, areas, and levels of development, but attention should also be given to what sort of concrete proposal on the design of SDGs can emerge from the second phase of OWG discussions by the time of the 69th UNGA in September 2014. As countries look to broker compromises on these concrete details, one important distinction should be highlighted between negotiations on SDGs and those on climate. The OWG has greater opportunities to overcome this confrontation as it has more thematic areas to discuss, and this offers more room for trading between developed and developing countries. It will be interesting to see how countries order their preferences and play their hands in this comparatively wider issue space. It will also be increasingly important to understand not only the substance of national views, but the strength of preferences in seeking compromises. We look forward to making these more nuanced analyses as we move through the increasingly political second phase of OWG negotiations.

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