Sustainability in modern political economy agenda

Due to several historic reasons, sustainability has not been in the national priorities for socio-economic development. But that doesn’t mean it has to be sidelined in decision-making: still the states have to reach the SDG-targets by 2030. Although half the way to “final destination”, the outcomes in most countries are pessimistic… 

In order to grasp the “problem”, we have –first – to look at the beginning of sustainability concept; the UN Agenda 2030 coincided with two other vital global initiatives during 2015-16: i.e. the Paris Climate agreement and the World Economic Forum’s Report on the 4th Industrial Revolution, which started the process of digitalization. These two events were generally, so-to-say competing in importance with the Agenda; anyway, it was not politically good for sustainable development goals (SDGs) and for the last seven years this fact tarnished heavily the SDG implementation.
More on SDGs in the Institute’s “sustainability category” and e.g. in: https://www.integrin.dk/2022/06/09/global-progress-in-sustainability-sdsn-assessment-report/

The SDG founding fathers were desperate in finding “their own way”: thus, first came the SDG-triangle with the SDG’s economic, social and environmental aspects; apparently, it was not enough and then came five clusters (people, planet, prosperity, pace and partnership).
No doubt, the people’s cluster was dominating –it included 5 SDGs; the rest 12 were divided among 4 other clusters. The clusters are becoming even more vital than the SDGs –the states are accountable first by clusters and then by SDGs. However, the SDG-triangle from the start was seen as confusing and controversial: it is clear that generally social economic measures are economic in essence and often having ecological and environmental implication. That was underlined 50 years ago in the “Limits to growth” by MIT researches and Club of Rome.
See: https://www.integrin.dk/2022/04/13/limits-to-growth-or-limiting-life-styles-lessons-for-the-eus-integration/

Bad beginning and bad ends…
Presently, at this middle-point in the SDGs implementation, it is well worth to look back and see the “process”. As the classic development theory says, in order to understand where we are now, we have to go back to the roots, then evaluate the process and, finally, try to comprehend the present situation. The fact that in the beginning of the sustainability process the SDGs idea in the UN Agenda 2030 appeared with two other strategic global initiatives: the climate agreement and digitalisation challenge around 2015-16 might look like a coincidence… But it was not: the UN’s 2030 agenda supposed to takes the lead!

These circumstances heavily tarnished the SDG-implementing process! Here we have to look at the used Agenda’s method which included: an SDG- triangle (economic, social and environmental), which was apparently not enough; supplemented by five clusters: people, planet, prosperity, peace, partnership.
And, of course, the first cluster –people- was dominating: it included 5 SDGs (by the way, with a rather positive account of 20 to 50% implementation during last seven years); the rest 12 SDGs were divided by 4 clusters. Actually, the three components: social, economic and environmental have been seen from the beginning as quite controversial: socio-economic policies have already acquired priority I national governance and environmental measures have been already for long within the integral part of political economy in numerous states, particularly in Europe.

“The ends” seen half-way to 2030 are discouraging: in the OECD’s “short and winding road to 2030” (published at the end of April this year) the mid-term results described as “pessimistic”: e.g. by 50 percent were realised only three goals: SDG-1 no poverty, SDGs -5 gender equality, and SDG-6 clean water and sanitation – all from the “peoples’ cluster…
Isn’t a disastrous account for the half-way to 2030? That’s only about 2,5 percent of all SDGs: it supposed to be at least 50 percent! Besides, on “climate action”, another global priority –insufficient progress (!) and so is “insufficient” for most important for national growth goals 9 and 11, as well as goal-10 on “reducing inequality” with no progress at all. The OECD report is a wake-up call for global governance…
Reference to: https://www.oecd.org/wise/the-short-and-winding-road-to-2030-af4b630d-en.htm

National picture
But let’s get back to the national situation, where decision-makers are stuck with all three challenges –and they have to deliver! The task seems almost impossible, it really is…!
Well, let’s see how priorities in national growth are changing, they actually do; in the great extent influenced by the already mentioned challenges.
= As to the European Union, it adopted already at the end of 2016 a continental SDG strategy, followed by the adequate actions in the then 28, presently 27 member states, except the UK due to BREXIT.
The EU institutions are helping the states by: a) imposing an obligation for the 27 member states an obligation to devote about 65% of national budget to climate change and digitalisation. With this political guidance comes financial support in line with the general goal – sustainable growth, presumed to be included into all national sectoral policies.
The effect has been very positive, compared to the global scene: after 7 years in action the EU states achieved “significant progress” in 5 goals: 1, 7, 8, 9 and 16; “moderate progress” in 9 goals – 2,3,4,5; 10,11,12,13 and 14; with “neutral” in other 3 goals. Quite a difference with the OECD’s global outlook, isn’t it… These achievements are exceptional due to an EU-wide integration model adopted some 70 years ago…
For example, Denmark, which is one of the global SDG-leaders, has now achieved only 25 of the 129 SDG targets; and is expected to meet 7 additional targets by 2030. Denmark has made significant progress towards 1.3.4, 9.11 and 17 goals, as well as in energy-efficient and low-carbon economy. Nearly 80% of Denmark’s electricity generation depends on renewables and energy efficiency is high and improving (both in target 7). GHG emissions have declined significantly over the past two decades (Target 13) and industrial emissions (Target 9) are among the lowest in the OECD. Beyond GHG emissions, Denmark also demonstrated strong will to preserve terrestrial and marine biodiversity – targets 14 and 15.
Source: https://www.oecd.org/wise/measuring-distance-to-the-SDG-targets-country-profile-Denmark.pdf

The implementation process
A vital point in the SDGs implementation is inclusion in the national political economy’s requirements. So far, this theme has not acquired the needed attention neither in the social science sector nor in practical governance; there are still politicians and economists but no “political-economists”. Why not? Because there are two competing elites which are difficult to merge! It is more prestigious and profitable to be a “politician” than an “economist”.
As to the SDG’s perspectives: what the international community can do: i.e. the states usually follow good “foreign examples”? At least three things shall be mentioned: – First, as soon as SDGs are entering all spheres of our life, there is a need to introduce in the national governance a specific planning concept – national political economy – which would “unite” so far almost opposite and competing parts of national governance. Most promising move on a national level is to find out how each part of governance benefiting the SDGs? Present national governance in most states is really divided into economic and political elites: they are fiercely combating each other to grasp the power, influence and profit… That’s not really promising for a needed “united approach”!
Second, what are the positive steps towards delivering on the SDG-triangle? First, making the SDG-process profitable for business and entrepreneurship: these actions would fit into the economy’s part of the triangle; secondly, making the concept nationally “culturally-united” – that’s the social part of the triangle – to make SDGs as a new cultural denominator. And as to the third SDG-triangle – environment, already presently dominating “ecological movement” in advanced states’ governance just needs additional political support for business: besides, the eco-trend has some reasonable economic ground.
Then, finally, present national governance needs to incorporate a combination of all modern global challenges in decision-making, i.e. digital, climate, energy, environment, etc. which are already entering national political economy’s agenda.
A bad sign for SDGs is that these challenges are definitely reducing the SDGs importance and priority; but they just have to be balanced. Besides, national polit-economy’s priorities are subject to constant changes over time; presently they are facing a triple challenge: digitalisation, climate change and the SDGs.
For dealing with all this a perspective governance needs complex and interdependent efforts which include numerous cross-sectoral policies: energy and food security, transport and infrastructure, quality of the environment and digital agenda, just name a few. Most of them are actually embodied in the SDGs and the targets.

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