Sustainable development must be overarching EU objective

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Over a year on from the adoption of the SDGs and there has been definite progress. But more indicators and data are needed to measure this more effectively. [UN Photo/ JC McIlwaine]

The EU should throw its full weight behind the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and take a global lead in its implementation. Former President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and Mark Dubrulle explain why sustainable development should be the bloc’s top priority.

Herman Van Rompuy was the prime minister of Belgium and the first president of the European Council. He contributed this opinion piece in his capacity as honorary president of EU-Chapter of The Club of Rome. Mark Dubrulle is an ex officio member of The Club of Rome and the President of The Club of Rome EU-Chapter.

The conclusions of the General Affairs Council on 20 June could not be clearer. The first paragraph reads: “The Council underlines that sustainable development lies at the core of the European values and constitutes an overarching objective of the EU as set out in the Treaties”.  How many citizens know that this is enshrined in our Treaties?

The conclusions also “recall the leading role of the EU and its member states in the process that led to the adoption of 2030 Agenda for sustainable development”.

The Council “recognises that social and economic development depends on the sustainable management of our planet’s natural resources and that biodiversity is a critical foundation of earth’s life support system.”

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by heads of state at the UN in September 2015 is at least as important as the Paris climate deal. It is a unique global agreement.

It offers the long overdue integration and combination development cooperation policies with sustainability policies. These grew separately over the past decades. Of course, there are not two kinds of development: one sustainable, the other neglecting sustainability. There can only be one.

Everything the Agenda 2030 contains is relevant for all citizens expecting the political world to listen to their calls. As summarised by Ban Ki Moon, it is dealing with people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership”.

It is no longer just an agenda from the north for the south. It is a universal agenda, comprising targets and actions to be taken both in the developed countries and in the developing world. Agenda 2030 was not only a consensual text agreed by all the UN member states, it was also the subject of national and regional consultations involving civil societies.

It was critically analysed and advised by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, thrown into the global social media.

The EU is showing remarkable leadership on the climate dossier. Not only has it over-performed on its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets, it is clearly taking over, together with China, the lead in the implementation of the global Paris climate agreement. The same leadership must now be exerted by the EU on the implementation of Agenda 2030.

This agenda is all-encompassing. It is not overly ambitious. Nothing in this text constrains the UN member states to do it all at once. The implementation will be done gradually.

The strong call means that we should abandon conducting policies in silos, such as regarding environment issues unconnected from the growing insecurity in the world, or seeing economic progress as a parallel issue to better social systems. Positive arguments for a strong EU-lead in implementing Agenda 2030 is of course much more convincing. The citizens want an EU with tangible results improving their life quality, welfare and well-being.

Agenda 2030 examples

Who would not agree with the target Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable”?

Or not stand behind the target to ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university?

Which national or European politician would not feel compelled to try to “…achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value?

Of course, obstacles will be enormous. But on so many other issues, the EU is already strongly leading and has actively influenced the Agenda 2030 in its drafting.

Agenda 2030 not only offers a “wonderful way forward”, but is the only possible one. The Club of Rome EU-Chapter is very sensitive to the target Improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-Year Framework of Programs on Sustainable Consumption and Production”.

The only economy that has a future is the circular economy. By 2030, many mineral resources will be scarce. The extractable amount per year will have started declining in absolute numbers. Currently, the EU is overconsuming natural resources for maintaining unsustainable lifestyles: there is a need for absolute decoupling, capping the use of resources.

We salute the fact that the Council unanimously urged, in its session of 20 June, the Commission “to elaborate, by mid-2018, an implementation strategy in all relevant EU internal and external policies”.

We agree with the call by the Council to identify existing gaps in all relevant policy areas to assess what more needs to be done until 2030 in terms of EU policy, legislation, governance structure for horizontal coherence and means of implementation”.

And we stand fully behind the Council’s call to the Commission to already “define a clear process for consideration of the SDGs and their integration in post-2020 policies, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders along the process “.

For sure, we should recognise the difficult challenges that must be overcome to implement the Agenda 2030. But from a strategic point of view, the Commission should take the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs as guiding principle in all their upcoming reviews of the major horizontal policy instruments and reflections on the future of Europe.

Otherwise, the EU stops being the frontrunner in terms of sustainability, with losses that exceed the perceived gains of waiting ‘a little longer’.

The EU must be bold. Staying behind the Council’s conclusions is losing.