EU tables proposals to tackle ‘intertwined’ challenges in Europe, developing world

An ecologic building in London, UK. [Giancarlo Liguori/Shutterstock].

Since the 1980s, the value of London properties has skyrocketed. [Giancarlo Liguori/Shutterstock]

The European Commission tabled proposals on Monday (2 June) for tackling the “intertwined challenges of eliminating poverty” and “ensuring progress is sustainable”, in the EU’s contribution to the post-2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Governments and the UN are already in negotiation over the SDGs, a set of targets to take over from the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. The SDGs are to apply to the entire world, pushing governments to balance economic and social progress with the environment’s capacity to regenerate.

Negotiations are said to be entering a “crucial phase” at the UN over the set of goals, despite the difficulty of finding international agreements at previous summits, such as at the Rio +20 conference in Brazil.

“A new framework is needed to rally the international community to tackle the intertwined challenges of eliminating poverty, improving well-being while ensuring that progress is sustainable within planetary boundaries,” Janez Poto?nik, the European commissioner for the environment, said in a statement with Andris Piebalgs, the commissioner for development.

“The UN post-2015 agenda should be universal, and provide a comprehensive response for all,” he said in presenting the Commission’s contribution to the SDGs debate.

Negotiators from a number of countries, in particular China, India and Brazil, have been wary of agreeing to a set of goals that may put the brakes on their rapid economic development.

“What we say is that you cannot eradicate poverty without sustainable development,” said Joe Hennon, spokesperson for Poto?nik. “Some are against the green economy idea. It’s seen as the developing world saying we’ve used up the resources and now the developing world cannot follow. Our argument is it’s a green economy or nothing.”

Hennon added: “Their livelihoods depend on their ecosystems… To eradicate poverty, you can’t do that if there’s no fish or polluted or over-used land.”

The communication, published yesterday (2 June), comes just before this year’s ‘Green Week’, a set of debates focusing on the links between environmental policy and the EU economy.

‘Rights-based approach

The EU executive’s communication, agreed to by the entire college of commissioners from the 28 EU member states, loosely defines its position on the main areas where societal progress is needed. These include poverty, inequality, health, food security, education, gender equality, water and sanitation, sustainable energy, decent work, inclusive and sustainable growth, sustainable consumption and production, biodiversity, land degradation and seas and oceans.

The Commission refers to the need to take a “rights-based” approach to achieving progress in the SDGs, through justice, equality and equity, good governance, democracy and the rule of law, peace and freedom from violence.

These were problems “no single ministry can solve”, said Monika Linn, of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, adding: “Cross-sectoral cooperation is necessary”.

Linn, the UNECE’s principal adviser and director for development policies and cross-sectoral coordination, continued: “We found that we need nothing less than a great transformation to ensure the future of the planet and its people,” adding that a reduction of “all forms of inequalities” was necessary.

“In most EU member states, people enjoy good living standards but there are still big inequality gaps and they are increasing”, she said at a conference last week on the SDGs in the European Economic and Social Committee, an EU consultative body.

The gaps in equality also exist between the genders, argued Sacha Gabizon, a member of the Women’s Major Group in the SDGs discussions. “In many countries in the world, women do not have the same rights,” she said, citing the distribution of land rights and lack of suitable hygiene facilities, which were preventing some women from attending school regularly.

Women’s groups also had strong positions on societal problems such as hormone-disrupting chemicals, the arms trade and environmental justice, she added.

There are expected to be some 17 SDGs, compared to the 15 MDGs, with talk of grouping them into thematic ‘clusters’.

Poorer countries may then take a similar approach to the MDGs, focusing on the eradication of extreme hunger and poverty and the improvement of infant mortality and maternal health, for example.

“For high income countries, transformation to a green economy is important,” Linn said.

EU ministers and the European Parliament are to discuss the communication, which, if accepted, will form the basis of EU negotiations in the UN.


Senior UN officials have called for more redistribution of wealth in order to ensure societal progress is sustainable and a move away from policies aimed solely at boosting economic growth.

“Putting growth at the centre of our policies is not right for today’s challenges. That is a bold statement and it will be difficult to have a consensus, if at all,” Linn said. The UN presented a report at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, urging governments to break the link between greater resource consumption and human well-being, a position which is also supported by some civil society organisations.

European Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, said in a statement: “It is now recognised that, for the first time, the world has the technology and resources to eradicate extreme poverty in our lifetime. There is no excuse for us failing to do so and avoiding it must be our stated commitment. This can only be done through growth and development which is sustainable. We need to find solutions which truly balance economic, social and environmental objectives. And we need to bring together governments, but also civil society, private sector and citizens to set up a global framework that will ensure a decent life for all." 

“NGOs want to move away from the old paradigm of development, GDP [Gross Domestic Product],” said Leida Rijnhout, organising partner for the NGO Major Group in the SDG discussions. “All kinds of inequalities we see as very dangerous for achieving sustainable development … a lot of things we need to do to achieve sustainable development don’t cost money, just changing the policy direction.”

Nouail Marlière, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, highlighted the difficulty in having an ‘inclusive’ debate on the SDGs, and communicating these to the general public, if the discussions were not carried out in people’s own language. “How do you intend to share these objectives - universal access to water, protection of workers … people want to speak their own language.”

“Nature is not a limiting factor to our economic and social development; nature is the supplier of our well-being,” said Constanza Martinez, the deputy head of the global policy unit at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Brenden Burns, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, said: “If sustainable development is going to work it has to work on the ground. 99.8% of businesses are small, employ less than 20 people. Every time we talk about this [the SDGs], it’s big companies [in the room].”

After the Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, the United Nations and national governments agreed to begin developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs, a set of goals derived from a ‘holistic’, long-termist and equitable approach to policy, are intended to apply globally and to take over from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

The SDGs differ from the MDGs in that they go beyond ‘basic’ indicators of human progress, such as poverty reduction and infant mortality, which apply mostly to the developing world, emphasising environmental sustainability and societal equality as global targets that also apply to developed economies.

  • June-July 2014: European Commission expected to present package on the circular economy and resource efficiency.
  • July 2014: Expected conclusions from the Open Working Group on the SDGs
  • Second half 2014: UN Secretary General report expected on the post-2015 framework, the SDGs

United Nations

European Commission



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