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Report: UN global development goals have not changed policies   

A new report that looked at 3,000 studies related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals concluded they are not having as meaningful an impact as expected.

(CN) — The United Nations' 2030 Sustainable Development Goals have influenced how governments talk about sustainability but are not meaningfully transforming policies, fighting poverty and protecting the environment as intended, according to an analysis of more than 3,000 studies.

The goals in some instances are being used merely in name and as leverage by institutions and political parties hoping to advance their own agendas, says the report published Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The report comes after bleak news that the war in Ukraine has set off an "unprecedented wave" of hunger and destitution and as record-breaking heat scorches Europe and the United States amid historic flooding in Yellowstone Park and wildfires across 18 U.S. states and in Europe due to drought and extreme temperature fueled at least in part by human-driven climate change.

The U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, for 2030 have 169 targets and seek to address all areas of human activity. They were laid out by the U.N. in 2015 as a framework for worldwide development and with the lofty end in mind of battling the scourges of poverty and climate change.

But a study of scholarly research related to the goals led by Frank Biermann, a professor with the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, found the goals are primarily being applied at the surface level.

“More profound normative and institutional impact, from legislative action to changing resource allocation, remains rare,” the study says. “We conclude that the scientific evidence suggests only limited transformative political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals thus far."

The paper concludes that the world is "far from the ambition expressed by the United Nations General Assembly of ‘free[ing] the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and heal[ing] and secur[ing] our planet." (Brackets in original.)

Biermann and his colleagues perused thousands of scholarly studies investigating the political impact of the SGDs between 2016 and 2021, looking to identify three types of political change in response to the goals: those defined as “discursive,” such as changes in political debates, laws, regulation, policies, and budgets; “normative” changes, for instance the creation of new departments, committees and programs; and “transformative” changes which would be a combination of the first two with the effect of realigning existing institutions.

“We find that the SDGs thus far have had mainly discursive effects but also have led to some isolated normative and institutional reforms. However, effects are often diffuse, and there is little evidence that goal-setting at the global level leads directly to political impacts in national or local politics,” the report states. “Overall, our assessment indicates that although there are some limited effects of the SDGs, they are not yet a transformative force in and of themselves.”

Biermann and his team found that some corporate entities, such as banks and investors, have increasingly changed the depictions of their investments and infrastructure, for instance in promoting sustainable practices and green finance and large-scale sustainable infrastructure projects or loan portfolios which include environmental and social loans.

The researchers noted, however, that some institutions typically only make such changes on a very superficial basis – referred to as “SDG washing” in the study.

The team points to one study that found that while “70% of CEOs see the SDGs as a powerful framing to accelerate sustainability-related efforts of their companies, the SDGs could also be used to camouflage business-as-usual by disguising it using SDG-related sustainability rhetoric.”

Meanwhile, the analysis found a lack of meaningful incentives that would lead the public and private funders to more sustainable paths.

“The SDGs pronounce their ambition to resolve the fundamental concerns of both people and the planet and to ensure life-sustaining conditions on Earth. However, there is widespread doubt that the SDGs can steer societies towards more ecological integrity at the planetary scale,” the paper says. “There is also little evidence that any normative and institutional change in this direction has materialized because of the SDGs.”

As an example of the U.N. goals having little impact on national environmental policies, the authors point to the South African Resource Plan, developed ostensibly in response to SDGs and under which coal power is projected to still make up 59% of South Africa’s electricity supply in 2030, a trajectory that could potentially have dire consequences for public health and the environment.

Another example given by Biermann and his team is how governments use goal No. 10 – equality within and between nations – and goal No. 5 – the promotion of equality for women and girls – mainly for lip service.

In both instances, the report states, “evidence suggests a mismatch between rhetoric and action. On the one hand, vulnerable people and countries are often discursively prioritized in the implementation of the SDGs, as evidenced by the broad uptake of the principle of leaving no one behind in pronouncements by policymakers and civil society activists. On the other hand, the normative or institutional effects of such discursive prioritization remain limited.”

There are also conflicts between goals. For instance, SDG No. 8's plan for global economic growth is potentially incompatible with the environmental protection goals envisioned under SDGs 6, 13, 14 and 15, Biermann and his team say.

Still, even while overall implementation of the SDGs has been nowhere as impactful as intended, they have had an impact.

“While this impact has so far been largely discursive, the SDGs have had some normative and institutional effects as well," the report states. "The SDGs have fostered mutual learning among governments about sustainable development policies and strategies. In certain contexts, they have offered new instruments for local political and societal actors to organize around, to gain more support from governments or to mobilize international funding. The SDGs have also enabled non-governmental organizations to hold governments accountable and in some cases to counter the interests of powerful actors."

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