The Sustainable Development Goals:
Environmental Policy Patterns for Local Action
 

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-107. March 2020


The document looks at the importance and relevance of the SDGs in maintaining and managing the local environment, and in reducing human impacts on the environment through prudent policies. It looks at a series of "policy patterns" that will help stakeholders to localize the SDGs and help preserve the environment. The three policy patterns – (a) Global-National-Local pattern, (b) Governments-Private sector-Civil Society pattern, and (c) Governance-Education-Technology pattern helps us understand the complexity of environmental problems and solutions, and in determining who has to what at which level of governance. It draws on the cross-cutting interlinkages between these policy patterns by proposing a policy matrix.

Keywords:

Global Environmental Policy, Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations, Policy Patterns

[An expanded version of this document was published as “The Sustainable Development Goals: Envionmental Policy Patterns for Local Action” in the Journal ofEnvironmental Policy and Administration, Vol. 12, 2018]


1. Introduction

In 2015, there was a major shift in global development processes, when the United Nations (UN) initiated a number of programmes and campaigns related to economic, social and environment issues. This shift was initiated as a follow-up to the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.

Collectively, these initiatives were called the “Post-2015 Development Agenda” and culminated in formulation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons, brought together by the UN, called for a development agenda that provided for five shifts – (1) Leave No One Behind, (2) Put Sustainable Development at the Core, (3) Transform Economies for Jobs and Inclusive Growth, (4) Build Peace and Effective, Open and Accountable Institutions for All, and (5) Forge a New Global Partnership.

The objective of this document is to look at the importance and relevance of the SDGs in maintaining and managing the local environment, and in reducing human impacts on the environment through prudent policies. It looks at a series of "policy patterns" that will help stakeholders to localize the SDGs and help preserve the environment. The three policy patterns – (a) Global-National-Local pattern, (b) Governments-Private sector-Civil Society pattern, and (c) Governance-Education-Technology pattern helps us understand the complexity of environmental problems and solutions, and in determining who has to what at which level of governance. It draws on the cross-cutting interlinkages between these policy patterns by proposing a policy matrix.

3. Global-Local Policy Flows

The 1992 Earth Summit’s key output document was the Agenda 21 [UNCED, 1992] that set the ball rolling on the UN’s Member States to develop and implement national sustainable development policies. The Summit also brought the world together with the “Big Three” Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) on climate change, biodiversity and desertification to address pressing global environmental problems.

The outputs emerging from the Earth Summit committed UN Member States to intrapolate the global agreements into national strategic programmes, resulting in broader infrastructure projects, technology development and eco-products to be developed at the local level. This global to local ‘policy flow’ of a global agreement (for example, the Climate Change MEA) being intrapolated to local products and technologies (for example, purchasing an LED bulb that saves energy) became critical for the ultimate success of global agreements, as illustrated in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Global-Local Policy Links – Climate Change
Level Goals/Objectives Outputs
Global Reduce climate change Policy recommendations, including the MEA on climate change
National Reduce CO2 emissions National strategic policies and programmes
City/Urban Reduce disaster risks and improve livability Green and climate resilient infrastructure
Business New markets and technologies for eco products “Green” and environmentally sound technologies and products
Citizens Eco-lifestyles Green and Eco-products

Along with this global to local policy flows came the realization that success of global MEAs would lie only in the involvement of the broader society. This would require a shift from looking at governments as the only stakeholder, to multi-stakeholder partnerships that would bring together governments, business and industry, and the civil society – all focusing eventually to change consumer lifestyles and consumption patterns to be more environmentally friendly.

Policies at the local level that oriented market demand and supply also became critical for the success of global environmental agreements. Governments began to look on the demand side at consumer-focused sustainable consumption, resulting in, for example green products, eco labels etc. and on the supply side at manufacturer-focused sustainable production, resulting in, for example, sustainable supply chains, green technologies, etc. [UNEP nd]

Environmental policies themselves also began to shift from the initial focus towards “pollution prevention” and “cleaner production” that targeted only business and industry, to a broader focus on lifestyle related issues such as waste reduction, 3R lifestyles (reduce, reuse, and recycle), eco-societies and a green economy.

Overall, local environmental policy issues began to revolve around two elements:

  1. Resource Efficiency - using the Earth's limited resources in a sustainable manner while minimizing impacts on the environment.

  2. Energy Efficiency – using less energy to produce goods and services, and using more renewables such as solar, wind, biofuels etc.
Other policy patterns also began to emerge, highlighting the sustainability focus of environmental policy. Some examples of this include:
  • Broader involvement of all stakeholders in environmental policies
  • Environmental problems as business opportunities and shift towards a greener economy
  • Creation of new markets for eco products
  • 3Rs and preventing waste, emissions and pollution.
While the 1992 Earth Summit, the various global MEAs and other UN initiatives provided the essential starting points for environmental policies at the local level, the key challenge remained the intrapolation of global environmental policies (particularly the MEAs) to national strategies and programmes, and eventually to local projects that targeted consumer lifestyles.

The UN and other international organizations, including the World Bank and regional development banks, through MEAs and other global commitments, provided the necessary support and funding for national governments to take action at the local level. National governments were also supported by industry groups, NGOs, Universities, the mass media and other stakeholders in localizing sustainability policies.

A working system of stakeholders and actions for environmental policy implementation emerged out of this situation:

  • National and local governments focusing on policies and laws, regulations and other market-based incentives, including subsidies

  • Private sector focusing on the supply side of the market for goods and services, developing technologies and products, making improvements in resource/energy efficiencies, initiating eco business strategies etc.

  • Citizens/consumers focusing on the demand side of the market for goods and services, providing opinions and initiating eco-lifestyles, making green choices, launching educational/awareness campaigns

4. SDGs: Values for Global Policies

At the end of 2015, when the period of implementation of the MDGs was completed, the world community came together once again under the guidance of the UN, and adopted a Post-2015 Agenda entitled “The World We Want” [UN, 2013]. This agenda was based on the outputs of local and regional conferences, workshops and meetings on what should be included for a future global development agenda. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs had a very strong bottoms-up approach to developing the issues and themes that resulted in the 17 goals.

The discussions focused on 11 issues: inequalities, health, education, growth and employment, environmental sustainability, governance, conflict and fragility, population dynamics, hunger, food and nutrition security, energy, and water [UN, nd]. The result of these discussions were the 17 SDGs illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: The 17 Official Sustainable Development Goals

  • Goal 1: No Poverty
  • Goal 2: Zero Hunger
  • Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being for people
  • Goal 4: Quality Education
  • Goal 5: Gender Equality
  • Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
  • Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities
  • Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Goal 13: Climate Action
  • Goal 14: Life Below Water
  • Goal 15: Life on Land
  • Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  • Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals

There are a total of 169 targets to be achieved within the 17 goals. Each target has between one and three indicators that are to be used to measure progress toward reaching the targets. In total, there are 304 indicators that will measure compliance by each country by 2030.

The SDGs are unique in that, unlike the MDGs, there were comprehensive consultation processes organized at the national, regional and global levels, resulting in local viewpoints being reflected in the structure of the adopted goals, and facilitating empowerment and ownership of the goals by a broad coalition of partners. This also resulted in a much broader adoption of, and commitment to, the goals throughout the development field, both due to the content of the goals reflecting ground realities, and due to the active participation of local stakeholders in its formation.

The SDGs are envisaged to be much more of a transformative agenda that the MDGs, looking at (a) climate change and development together, (b) getting to zero poverty, (c) inclusion of governance,, law, and peace and security, and (d) rights-based perspectives focused on reducing inequality and discrimination.

The resulting 17 SDGs were based on six essential elements for delivering the SDGs:

  1. People: to ensure healthy lives, knowledge, and the inclusion of women and children
  2. Dignity: to end poverty and fight inequality
  3. Prosperity: to grow a strong, inclusive, and transformative economy
  4. Justice: to promote safe and peaceful societies and strong institutions
  5. Partnerships: to catalyze global solidarity for sustainable development
  6. Planet: to protect our ecosystems for all societies and our children

Underlying all the six elements was the need for a strong environmental policy that directly and indirectly supported the delivery of the SDGs. This was because of the shift of environmental policies from “protecting” nature to focusing on changing consumer behavior and lifestyles, making environment a mainstreamed issue and a critical element for overall development.

5. The SDGs Policy Patterns

From the beginning, the UN Member states agreed that the SDGs should not be looked at individually, but in an integrated/indivisible manner, by respecting their interlinkages. Integrated implementation of the goals, and monitoring progress was highlighted as important challenges for the uptake and implementation of the SDGs:

  1. The challenge of implementing the SDGs in an integrated and interlinked manner
  2. The challenge of measuring and monitoring progress
  3. The challenge of communication and outreach to all stakeholders

It is these and other challenges outlined earlier that led to the emergence of a series of “policy patterns”, based on the author’s career and work in the United Nations, and is being proposed here as a means of effective implementation of the SDGs, particularly the underlying environmental dimensions of the goals.

There are essentially three patterns that would define an environmental policy framework for the SDGs:

  1. The Global-National-Local pattern:
  2. The Governments-Private sector-Civil Society pattern
  3. The Governance-Education-Technology pattern
5.1 The Global-National-Local pattern
How would policies change at the global, national and local levels?

Priorities change as we move from the global level to national and local levels. As with the example illustrated in above, policies related to the risk of climate change at the global level, changes to policies focused on reducing CO2 emissions at the national level, and to developing new technologies and products that emit less CO2 at the local level. This example shows that identifying and understanding the way policy priorities change at different levels is critical for meaningful implementation. It is this changing policy pattern from global to national to local levels, taking into account the changing priorities at each level that will help in the uptake of the SDGs locally, ultimately affecting and influencing consumer behavior and lifestyles.

Figure 2: The Individual to Global Impacts on the Environment

This pattern is in fact cyclical – the starting point for global environmental problems is in fact individual lifestyles and consumption patterns at the local level. This influences household impacts on the environment, which in turn affects the environmental quality at the community level. As shown in Figure 2, longer term impacts of consumption on the environment, including wastes, emissions and pollution can be found at the city and national levels, eventually leading to changes in the climate at the global level.

Conversely, in the reverse direction, environmental policies will also have to change depending on which level they are being discussed and implemented. For example, “Climate Change Policies” have little relevance at the individual level, unless and until they target the priority at the individual level – which is lifestyles and consumption patterns.

The key lesson learnt from this policy pattern is the need for developing appropriate policies at the appropriate level. Such policies would respect the stakeholders operating at that level, and their specific priorities, which is key to effective implementation of environmental policies.

5.2 The Governments-Private sector-Civil Society pattern
How would policies change for different stakeholders such as governments, businesses, industry groups, NGOs, universities, community groups etc.?

Right from the beginning of the formulation of the SDGs, the involvement of all stakeholders has been repeatedly emphasized both for the formulation of the SDGs themselves as well as their implementation. These points to the second policy pattern, of understanding environmental policies from the perspective of the different stakeholders involved.

Environmental problems are complex and are caused by different factors and have different short-term and long-term impacts. This requires the involvement of different stakeholders working at different levels of governance, depending on their skills/knowledge and the resources that they can bring to implementing environmental policies.

As illustrated in Figure 3, the three key groups of stakeholders that are frequently mentioned in environmental policy implementation are (a) governments, including national, provincial and local governments, government agencies, public utilities etc., (b) private sector entities, including industry associations, business groups, chambers of commerce etc. and (c) civil society, including NGOs, citizens groups, consumer groups, universities, research institutions etc.

Depending on the level at which the policies are being developed, the stakeholders and the role they play also changes. While global environmental policies are the purview of the work of the UN and the national governments that it represents, there is little the UN can do at the local level, which is in fact the purview of the local citizens/consumer groups and NGOs. The resources that these groups have access to, and the roles that play is also specific and unique to that level and locality. These issues will have to be taken into consideration when developing and implementing environmental policies.

Figure 3: Changing Governance Levels and Stakeholders

The key lesson learnt from this policy pattern is the need to involve the appropriate stakeholders at the appropriate level of governance, and respecting them for the resources that they possess and the role that they will play in implementing environmental policies.

5.3 The Governance-Education-Technology pattern
How would policies change to cover the issues of governance, education and technology systems?

The third policy pattern that complements the previous two patterns focusses on the key content of any effective environmental policy – governance, education and technology. In order to develop effective solutions for any environmental problem, whether local or global, there are three key ingredients that are necessary to be integrated: (a) environmental governance systems, particularly environmental laws, regulations and rules, (b) environmental education systems, and (c) environmental technology systems.

As illustrated in Figure 4, each of the three G.E.T. systems is critical in providing the right context for the successful implementation of a policy.

Figure 4: The G.E.T. Systems
Governance systems Laws, legislation, rules, regulations, including monitoring and evaluation of the environment that supports the laws.
Education systems Awareness raising, information campaigns, workshops seminars, publications, manuals, public dialogue,
Technology systems Technology development, skills management, including skills and capacity building for the use of technologies

  • Governance systems Laws, legislation, rules, regulations, including monitoring and evaluation of the environment that supports the laws.
  • Education systems Awareness raising, information campaigns, workshops seminars, publications, manuals, public dialogue,
  • Technology systems Technology development, skills management, including skills and capacity building for the use of technologies
The key lesson learnt with this policy pattern is the need for a comprehensive package of solutions that constitute environmental policy, which brings together laws and regulations, the education and awareness that enables their uptake, and the technological solutions that will facilitate implementation.

We can bring the three policy patterns outlined above together in the form of a matrix. Creating such a matrix also helps in understanding the different interlinkages between the patterns. The Global-National-Local pattern forms the columns of the matrix, the Governments-Business-Civil Society pattern forms the rows of the matrix and each cell highlights the Governance-Education-Technology pattern. The matrix enables us to understand and coordinate the different kinds of actions needed at each level and by each stakeholder group, whether it is laws, awareness/education or technologies. The matrix is illustrated in

.

Figure 5: The Policy Patterns Matrix

For example, it is obvious from the matrix that MEAs and other global agreements are the purview of the UN and national governments at the global level, while implementing an eco-labelling programme for eco-products is an activity for business groups at the national level, and a purchasing decision of eco-products is a local level activity for individuals and households.

In terms of the interlinkages between the three policy patterns outlined above, the matrix also enables us to understand that the key policy actions to taken by governments are essentially related to the development and implementation of environmental laws and regulations. Similarly, businesses need to focus on developing environmentally friendly technologies and products, and local stakeholders need to focus on education and awareness raising initiatives (including lifestyle changes).

Each cell in the matrix can refer to a policy lack, a policy gap or a policy mismatch:

  • A policy lack happens when no action is being taken – whether it is the lack of laws, lack of education programmes or lack of technology solutions. A policy lack would therefore require the implementation of new policies.

  • A policy gap happens when action is being taken, but is insufficient or inefficient. For example, a law may exist on paper, but is not being implemented properly – stakeholders are not fully aware of the law or monitoring and evaluation is not being done to measure progress. A policy gap would therefore require the expansion of existing policies, including stronger implementation of the policies.

  • A policy mismatch happens when action being taken is not what is actually needed. For example, an information campaign about the environment may be targeted at the wrong stakeholder, or appropriate partners have not been involved for a programme. A policy mismatch would therefore require the suspension of policies, and a review of what was not done.

The policy patterns matrix illustrated above provides an overview of the actions being to solve a problem, and helps in understanding who has to take what action at which level.

6. Conclusions

Environmental problems are complex and have various different causes and have different impacts at different levels and time frames. The disposal of high amounts of garbage at the local level, which is caused by individual/households at the local level, becomes a CO2 and GHGs emissions problem at the national level, which becomes the purview of national governments, eventually leading to the global climate change problem that the UN and other international organizations are currently working on.

The three policy patterns – (a) Global-National-Local pattern, (b) Governments-Private sector-Civil Society pattern, and (c) Governance-Education-Technology pattern helps us understand this complexity of environmental problems and solutions, and in determining who has to what at which level of governance.

Bringing together the three policy patterns and their cross-cutting interlinkages is the policy matrix outlined here, which helps us to put the complexity of environmental management into a coherent framework of action, particularly in looking at the policy lacks, policy gaps, and policy mismatches.

The essential success of environmental policies lies not in tackling them separately, but in mainstreaming them into overall development processes. Thus, environmental “problems” become opportunities for the different stakeholders to take action – an energy crisis can lead governments to focus policies more on renewables, while business can focus on developing technologies and products that use less energy and individual consumers can focus on purchasing decisions and lifestyles that are more environmentally friendly and saves costs.

There is still much to be done to ensure success. A critical element not covered in the above discussion is the issue of finance – allocations and aid for international activities, as well as subsidies for the uptake of environmentally friendly products and services at the local level. Developing countries will particularly find this challenging, with poverty, health, income generation and skill development taking “priority” over environmental issues. Informal economic activities, which do not appear in international developmental discourses, but which make up almost half of all urban economies, can also be a challenge for the prioritization of environmental policies.

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