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How is progress being made with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) around the world – who monitors them in the individual countries, and who advises political leaders on their implementation? It is virtually impossible to give a universal answer to this question, says Dr Hannah Janetschek, Project Manager for International Partnerships at the office of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE). However, sustainable development advisory councils and similar organisations which are working to implement the 2030 Agenda at national level play an important role.

For this reason, from 17 to 20 February, the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies will meet in the Colombian capital of Bogotá for the first time. The network was established last September at the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit in New York. “The actors involved are incredibly diverse,” says Janetschek. There are approximately 70 participants in all. Only about a quarter come from Europe or North America, with the remainder hailing from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

The network is particularly important for developing and emerging countries. While Europe has had a network of sustainability bodies – the EEAC (European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils) – for quite some time, similar organisations have only been set up in many other countries since the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. Implementation of the Agenda is currently proving difficult, as the UN pointed out last year. This is primarily due to the global crisis of multilateralism. The network sets out to counter this by advocating partnerships for progress. “We cannot overload advisory councils and other sustainability actors in autocratic countries with a democratisation mandate, but they can of course still make valuable contributions towards fostering sustainable development within these societies,” says Janetschek.

With this in mind, the aim is to take concrete steps to strengthen organisations and enable projects to be implemented. “As of result of the Voluntary National Reviews introduced by the United Nations, numerous ‘SDG Units’ have been created in recent years which are either very close to or part of their respective governments. This begs the question of how these can be incorporated into the institutional sustainability architecture of the respective countries as constructive advisory bodies to support implementation of the SDGs long-term,” Janetschek explains. In other countries, she adds, the opposite applies, with political leaders barely aware of the multi-stakeholder platforms for sustainable development which have emerged from civil society. There, the question is how to establish them permanently as sustainability advisory councils.

Diversity is fruitful

The Forum describes its members as generating a wide range of knowledge stemming from their extensive experience of promoting sustainable development, which is shared and built upon between the individual countries and institutions. The actors’ diversity is precisely what makes the dialogue so fruitful. For example, Vietnam’s business council has been holding a National Conference on Sustainable Development since 2018, which is also attended by high-ranking politicians such as the deputy prime minister. Meanwhile, in South Africa, an alliance has formed between civil society and trade unions which were involved in producing the country’s first Voluntary National Review (VNR) on implementation of the SDGs. The review was differentiated. Although it cited progress in gender equality, for instance, with 41 per cent of members of parliament being female in 2016, the country remains blighted by substantial social inequality and violence against women.

One of the objectives of the inauguration meeting in Bogotá is to now reinforce a multi-stakeholder approach in other countries of the kind which is currently being established in South Africa. This means that sustainability advisory councils should comprise as many actors as possible as this is the only way to promote dialogue within the societies. The advisory councils or similar bodies should neither nod through the government’s agenda nor limit themselves to strong criticism from civil society. Instead, the objective is to foster constructive participation and measures to bring about sustainable development.

In concrete terms, the meeting in Bogotá could give rise to the first partnerships between countries, for example on projects to establish renewable energies or to examine how cities and local governments can produce sustainability plans. Another point is set to address the question of how individual countries can have their sustainability policy scrutinised independently, for instance via peer review processes. By the end of the meeting, a work programme covering the period to the end of 2021 should have been agreed.

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The United Nations (UN) are warning increasingly urgently that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in particular the climate goals of the Paris Agreement are in danger of not being achieved if more is not undertaken soon. “We are losing the race,” commented UN Secretary-General António Guterres in mid-September in an interview with the media association Covering Climate Now. And that is just one component of the 2030 Agenda. With respect to hunger and malnutrition, biodiversity, protecting the oceans and expanding renewable energy generation things hardly look better. In the recently published Global Sustainable Development Report, a group of scientists commissioned by the UN write that the lack of progress made is cause for great concern: “Much more needs to happen – and quickly,” the report says.

It is because of this that Guterres wants to use the annual General Assembly of the UN in the last week of September to broadcast a wake-up call. The one-day Climate Action Summit will be followed by the first global health summit and the two-day meeting of heads of state and government on the 2030 Agenda for the first time since it was agreed in 2015. On top of this, there will also be summits on the topics of development finance and the Samoa Pathway, a process which aims to help small island states adjust to climate change. The UN’s summit will be accompanied by climate strikes and protests all over the world.

In parallel, institutions advising national governments in many countries will be taking the initiative to help promote implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Worldwide there are as yet but a few sustainability councils or similar bodies that are tasked with advising governments from a stakeholder perspective. Now these are coming together in a network to be able to learn more quickly and in a more targeted manner from each other - and thus be able to see their instruments deployed in other countries as well. The store of practical knowledge on effective policy approaches for adjusting sustainability strategies to local needs and reaching key societal actors has become quite large over the years and provides a key resource for many who wish to make progress in their countries.

The Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies

Exchange of information is envisioned on, for instance, the issue of how sustainable development can be embedded in state institutions such that continuity in sustainability policy is maintained throughout the national political cycle even if the government changes. In addition, this new body – entitled the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies – will aim to improve the dovetailing of policies between countries: what effects does a measure to achieve a goal have on other countries and their own sustainable development goals? To provide an example, rising consumption of renewable raw materials for sustainable products requires the use of land areas in other regions that are needed for the preservation of biodiversity or food production.

Though each country faces its own very specific tasks, through making these interrelations clear the forum hopes to enhance the efficacy of every individual action. “When we understand in what areas we are pulling together and where we differ from one another, that helps to formulate the right policy for each country – and it increases motivation to advocate the SDGs,” explains Günther Bachmann, Secretary-General of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE), which is a co-founder of the Forum.

The potential offered by such exchange of information is illustrated by the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) in Canada on its website. This organisation evaluated the Voluntary National Reviews, i.e. the voluntary status reports submitted by countries around the world to the United Nations to document their progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda. Though criticism has been voiced regarding the informative value of these reports, the BCCIC has gleaned from them positive examples from all over the world. One key component in implementing the SDGs is, for instance, that the whole of society has to be involved: policymakers, civil society, industry, the scientific community, educational institutions. And this requires a lot of dialogue: from the BCCIC it can be read that Jamaica, for example, has developed a vision for 2030 through public dialogue forums with its citizens. In Greece, a similar initiative with over 10,000 participants was undertaken.

Imme Scholz: “Keep the pressure on”

What good are such successes in view of the fact that more and more CO2 is being emitted, biodiversity is declining and both the inequalities between people and the mountains of rubbish are growing and growing? In its Global Sustainable Development Report, the United Nations pinpoints these four issues as being decisive. “In this crisis of multilateralism, we must now defend and uphold the 2030 Agenda. We need it to be a positive goal we strive to attain,” says Imme Scholz, Acting Director of the German Development Institute (DIE) and member of the German Council for Sustainable Development. In view of current developments, she finds it difficult to stay optimistic, and adds: “We are on a collision course. The United Nations have made a clear statement to national governments that merely continuing to pay lip service simply isn’t enough.”

In the closing statement of the SDG summit from the heads of state and government, which has already been prepared and made available online, countries at least admit that they have made very little progress and that achievement of the goals of eliminating hunger and poverty is endangered. However, they did not see themselves in a position to agree any concrete measures, in part because the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), which has been convening annually since 2015, has not been granted any resolution-making authority. According to Bachmann, this is further evidence of the lack of commitment and “governance”, and Imme Scholz adds critically: “I am not confident that actions will truly follow from this insight. There hasn’t even been a timeline agreed for the interim goals on the way to 2030.” It is thus even more crucial, she continues, for sustainability councils and similar bodies the world over to come together in a forum. “Particularly in light of the ongoing climate crisis we need to keep the pressure on and work even more decisively towards achieving the 2030 Agenda,” demands Scholz.

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Chinese and German sustainability stakeholders came together this summer to engage in dialogue – the Sino-German Sustainability Summit, which was held in Beijing at the end of June and was organised by TÜV Rheinland, and a business round table on the following day served as a forum for discussing urgent sustainability issues and possible joint contributions to the 2030 Agenda. The German corporate network Econsense and the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) were event partners.

For some years now, TÜV Rheinland has been organising regular summits in China on a variety of topics such as standardisation and quality management. This year’s focus was sustainability. TÜV Rheinland therefore brought the corporate network Econsense, the Sino-German Center for Sustainable Development (organised within the GIZ office in Beijing) and the agency Schlange & Co. on board as supporting organisers, alongside the RNE.

The meeting of approximately 260 Chinese and German sustainability stakeholders was also attended by two members of the RNE Office, namely Yvonne Zwick, RNE’s Deputy Secretary-General and Head of the Sustainability Code Office, and Project Manager Florian Harrlandt.

Fruitful dialogue

On the first day of the summit, Yvonne Zwick moderated a panel discussion on the topic of sustainable finance and, in the afternoon, a workshop on transparency and sustainable development. Florian Harrlandt gave a speech introducing the Sustainability Code. “The personal discussions we had were also interesting as they gave us insight into the challenges faced locally in China,” said Harrlandt. For example, there was very little recognition of the correlation between individual, healthy lifestyles and sustainability at the corporate level.

On the second day, a smaller circle of attendees convened for a round-table discussion, including representatives of businesses and civil society such as TÜV Rheinland, EY Germany, the Global Compact Network China, the Emerging Market Multinationals Network for Sustainability and Econsense.

Proportion of SMEs high in both countries

A surprising lesson learned over the two days was the fact that Germany and China face very similar challenges: “We were surprised by how many parallels could be drawn between the German and Chinese economic structures,” noted Harrlandt. Yvonne Zwick thus firmly believes these talks will serve to trigger ongoing dialogue.

In both countries, most of the major enterprises have already developed approaches with which to contribute to sustainable change. Equally, however, both countries have a high proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within their economies and these still often see the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an abstract political concept with which they have few touchpoints. In the course of the Sino-German dialogue, both Ya Yuan, who works as a consultant to the China Business Council for Sustainable Development (CBCSD), and David Wang, General Manager of RKS Ratings, stated that a sound basis for sustainable development achievements by companies in China was still lacking.

Possible follow-up event in Germany

“It was a similar problem which prompted the RNE to facilitate a structured approach to sustainability reporting years ago in the form of the Sustainability Code,” explained Florian Harrlandt, who went on to say that it was therefore hardly surprising that the Chinese dialogue partners were interested in this instrument.

An array of other services and instruments which the RNE has already put to the test, such as the Sustainable Shopping Basket, the dialogue of mayors and the Regional Hubs for Sustainability Strategies (RENN), likewise caught the Chinese dialogue partners’ interest; they believe these could be applied in a modified form in China, too. There is also interest on both sides in consolidating this Sino-German dialogue and in holding a follow-up Sino-German Sustainability Summit in Germany.

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How is progress being made with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) around the world – who monitors them in the individual countries, and who advises political leaders on their implementation? It is virtually impossible to give a universal answer to this question, says Dr Hannah Janetschek, Project Manager for International Partnerships at the office of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE). However, sustainable development advisory councils and similar organisations which are working to implement the 2030 Agenda at national level play an important role.

For this reason, from 17 to 20 February, the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies will meet in the Colombian capital of Bogotá for the first time. The network was established last September at the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit in New York. “The actors involved are incredibly diverse,” says Janetschek. There are approximately 70 participants in all. Only about a quarter come from Europe or North America, with the remainder hailing from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

The network is particularly important for developing and emerging countries. While Europe has had a network of sustainability bodies – the EEAC (European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils) – for quite some time, similar organisations have only been set up in many other countries since the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. Implementation of the Agenda is currently proving difficult, as the UN pointed out last year. This is primarily due to the global crisis of multilateralism. The network sets out to counter this by advocating partnerships for progress. “We cannot overload advisory councils and other sustainability actors in autocratic countries with a democratisation mandate, but they can of course still make valuable contributions towards fostering sustainable development within these societies,” says Janetschek.

With this in mind, the aim is to take concrete steps to strengthen organisations and enable projects to be implemented. “As of result of the Voluntary National Reviews introduced by the United Nations, numerous ‘SDG Units’ have been created in recent years which are either very close to or part of their respective governments. This begs the question of how these can be incorporated into the institutional sustainability architecture of the respective countries as constructive advisory bodies to support implementation of the SDGs long-term,” Janetschek explains. In other countries, she adds, the opposite applies, with political leaders barely aware of the multi-stakeholder platforms for sustainable development which have emerged from civil society. There, the question is how to establish them permanently as sustainability advisory councils.

Diversity is fruitful

The Forum describes its members as generating a wide range of knowledge stemming from their extensive experience of promoting sustainable development, which is shared and built upon between the individual countries and institutions. The actors’ diversity is precisely what makes the dialogue so fruitful. For example, Vietnam’s business council has been holding a National Conference on Sustainable Development since 2018, which is also attended by high-ranking politicians such as the deputy prime minister. Meanwhile, in South Africa, an alliance has formed between civil society and trade unions which were involved in producing the country’s first Voluntary National Review (VNR) on implementation of the SDGs. The review was differentiated. Although it cited progress in gender equality, for instance, with 41 per cent of members of parliament being female in 2016, the country remains blighted by substantial social inequality and violence against women.

One of the objectives of the inauguration meeting in Bogotá is to now reinforce a multi-stakeholder approach in other countries of the kind which is currently being established in South Africa. This means that sustainability advisory councils should comprise as many actors as possible as this is the only way to promote dialogue within the societies. The advisory councils or similar bodies should neither nod through the government’s agenda nor limit themselves to strong criticism from civil society. Instead, the objective is to foster constructive participation and measures to bring about sustainable development.

In concrete terms, the meeting in Bogotá could give rise to the first partnerships between countries, for example on projects to establish renewable energies or to examine how cities and local governments can produce sustainability plans. Another point is set to address the question of how individual countries can have their sustainability policy scrutinised independently, for instance via peer review processes. By the end of the meeting, a work programme covering the period to the end of 2021 should have been agreed.

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