IGES Commentary

"A Review of Progress and Areas of Improvement at the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development"

21 June 2018

1. Introduction

At the end of March 2018, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) organised the Fifth Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) in Bangkok, Thailand. A key preparatory meeting for the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development meeting planned for this coming July (HLPF 2018), APFSD hosted more than 750 participants, including governmental officials from 46 countries, international organizations, UN agencies, and civil society actors, among others. By bringing together such a large and diverse audience, APFSD helped to raise the profile of the SDGs and demonstrate progress on their implementation. A series of roundtable discussions that focused on several featured SDGs were particularly useful in this regard. However, APFSD also shed light on the need for allocating more time to reporting progress; including concrete figures to assess that progress; and strengthening linkages with other international sub-regional meetings. This commentary reflects on the both the notable strides forward and possible areas for improvement for future regional consultations on the SDGs.


2. Reflections on the featured SDGs

One of the bright spots for APPFSD was a series of roundtable sessions that allowed for active discussion and exchange, and generated some concrete proposals for consideration at HLPF 2018. This section reflects on some of the more useful insights to come out of roundtables on SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 15 (life on land) and 17 (partnership for the Goals) — as well as interlinkages between other goals and targets.


SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation

Many countries in Asia and the Pacific region suffer from severe water stress and dangerously high levels of water pollution. Clean water and sanitation are hence vital to the region’s sustainable development. APFSD brought many of the key issues about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to the fore. For instance, the roundtable on SDG 6 highlighted that continued efforts are needed to enhance water resource management across and within borders. This should include focusing on accountability, monitoring and implementation of existing policies and laws. Similarly, better incentives and regulations for water management were emphasised, including the need for these to be complemented by supporting mechanisms to strengthen policy coherence and inter-sectoral coordination. Although multi-stakeholder participation remains crucial for achieving these objectives, the roundtable made it clear that knowledge transfer on good practices associated with water management will also required, especially in relation to human rights and human health. This includes ensuring just and equitable access to water and sanitation with a particular focus on women, children, and indigenous groups.


SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy

Throughout the Asia and the Pacific region, countries are looking to expand supplies and use of low-cost sustainable energy. This is particularly important in energy poor parts of the region. APFSD underscored that achieving universal access to energy will require continued collaboration of governments, private sector and civil society to bring energy efficient, renewable technologies and innovations to scale. This is imperative because, although the number of people in the Asia and the Pacific with access to electricity increased from 1990 to 2014, the share of renewables in total energy consumption decreased over the same period. Closing this renewables gap will require improved data and information to better monitor progress and support political decision-making to enhance the security, quality and reliability of energy infrastructure. Continued energy sector reform—transitioning from vertically integrated to decentralised energy systems—will also be a growing priority. Establishing an intergovernmental mechanism aimed at enhancing cooperation between regional energy actors will remain key for guiding equitable, cross-border electricity power trade and connectivity.


SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities

Asia’s fast growing urban population is placing heavy strains on the region’s sustainability. One of the main challenges highlighted at APFSD is that the magnitude of this challenge is still unknown; shortages of data and indicators make it difficult to analyze current trends, evaluate policy impacts, and document innovative solutions. Further, a notable lack of human capacity, budgetary resources, and technical expertise continues to pose obstacles to effective delivery of SDG11 and related SDGs. The APFSD roundtables nonetheless underlined that city-to-city partnerships can capitalise on SDGs to fill these capacity gaps and spread innovative solutions. However, beyond technical and engineering considerations, stakeholders need to more effectively address social issues associated with SDG11, including poverty and gender. A related need is to meaningfully engage marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities, and aging populations. Inclusion in the formulation and implementation of strategies related SDG11 will be critical for empowering communities and ensuring “no one is left behind”.


SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production

Yet another emerging priority in Asia and the Pacific are unsustainable consumption and production patterns. SDG 12 underlines that changing these patterns is crucial to making headway on many of the other goals. However, discussions in the roundtables at APFSD revealed that the international community’s current review of SDG 12 is narrowly focusing on resource and waste management issues. There is instead a need to further clarify the importance of upstream policies and initiatives to address unsustainable lifestyles and infrastructures. It was also noted that SDG 12’s inherently crosscutting nature is particularly helpful for breaking down potential silos constraining delivery of the SDGs. As such, mainstreaming SCP into policies and actions remains critical; and this can often begin with education aimed at necessary behavioral change required for SCP at the national and local levels. Accordingly, means of implementation for SDG 12 should focus on bottom-up approaches, community involvement, and multi-stakeholder engagement to enable a transition towards SCP. As with the other featured SDGs, efforts to strengthen data collection, management and indicator development are needed to better track progress made on SDG 12 and related targets.


SDG 17: Partnership for the goals

Similar to SDG 12, SDG 17 on a Partnership for the Goals cuts across nearly all of the other goals. For understandable reasons, many of the most active exchanges on this theme came during the APFSD civil society pre-forum (“Peoples’ Forum”) directly preceding the event. More concretely, participants at the People’s Forum highlighted two main issues associated with the current review process for the SDGs. First, although the 2030 Agenda aspires towards "no one left behind", human rights violations and negative environmental impacts still sometimes occur in SDG-related projects and activities. Such findings need to be more carefully considered in government progress reports and assessments of interventions. Likewise, civil society organisations require special attention in all areas of SDG planning, implementation and monitoring. This remains fundamental for building inclusive, sustainable and resilient development pathways under the SDG agenda.


3. The way forward: strengthening the APFSD

While the APFSD (and the preceding People’s Forum) shed light on critical issues pertaining to the featured SDGs, it also left some room for strengthening future versions of the meeting. Several suggestions can be made in this connection. First, progress reporting should be allocated sufficient time during plenary sessions for adequate review of the regional roadmap on sustainable development, with due consideration of the view of civil society. Similarly, technical discussions should be supported with concrete figures and statistics to provide a firmer evidence-base for assessing progress on the specific gaps and challenges for the SDGs. One proposal for improving future reviews would be to examine progress made on select priority areas of the regional roadmap by utilising SDG targets and indicators: doing so would help encourage countries to provide their views on effective countermeasures to address identified problems. Lastly, linkages with other international meetings organised in the in the lead up to APFSD currently remain weak. At the global level, this includes the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), whilst across the Asia-Pacific region, consultations on the SDGs range from various ASEAN dialogues with partner countries, to Central Asia’s Interstate Commission for Sustainable Development (ICSD), the South Asia Cooperation Environment Program (SACEP), the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), the Northeast Asian Sub-Regional Program for Environmental Cooperation (NEASPEC), together with the annually-held Tripartite Environmental Ministers’ Meeting (TEMM) between Japan, China, and South Korea, among notable others.. In this context, a careful bottom-up review of results from the global, country, sub-regional, to regional level, with measures taken to reflect and consider the results of consultations, will be mutually beneficial for APFSD and associated meetings.



Eric Zusman Matthew Hengesbaugh Simon Hoiberg Olsen

Eric Zusman, IGES

Matthew Hengesbaugh, IGES

Simon Hoiberg Olsen, IGES