How Sustainable Development Goals can be integrated into policy

The Sustainable Development Goals outline an ambitious vision for 2030, clearly articulating that sustainable economic development is not possible without protecting the environment and ensuring basic human rights.

While national development priorities often align with this vision, they are frequently insufficient for making sustainable development a reality.

If we are serious about achieving the Goals and associated targets by 2030, we need to effectively integrate them into national and subnational development strategies and plans.

This may prove complicated because every Goal has economic, social and environmental dimensions closely intertwined, whereas national governments often develop sector-driven policies. The Federal Sustainable Development Strategy of Canada is a case in point, as it only covers environmental concerns.

What can be done to transform such sector-driven approaches into more holistic thinking and action?

The good news is that some countries and policy-makers have best practice experience of policy integration efforts. Recent examples include efforts to integrate Multilateral Environmental Agreements into national policy-making, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Mainstreaming is a way to integrate multilateral environmental agreements into national strategies, sectoral plans and policies. It enables the integration of obligations defined in these agreements, such as goals and targets, into national policy-making, to ensure that sectoral strategies and policies, such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism and poverty reduction, align with and contribute to the advancement of agreed multilateral commitments.

A critical part of mainstreaming is policy coherence. While mainstreaming focuses on connecting high-level policy objectives, policy coherence looks into the details to ensure that specific policy and programs work cohesively toward agreed higher-level goals and targets, such as those outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals.

In our recent paper Environmental Mainstreaming and Policy Coherence: Essential Policy Tools to Link International Agreements With National Development—A Case Study of the Caribbean Region we conducted a detailed review of current experiences of mainstreaming Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

Our results indicate that mainstreaming requires a bottom-up approach so that key stakeholders can contribute to implementing goals and priorities listed in the Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

This approach also ensures policy coherence by building up stakeholder groups that will implement the actual policies.

Given the short timeline for achieving Sustainable Development Goals, it is critical to create regular reviews of policy development and consultation processes to allow for a two-way exchange with key stakeholders outside policy arenas.

This would increase buy-in from non-governmental sectors, such as NGOs and businesses, for the Goals, and the adaptive implementation of actions and policies to ensure they advance the set targets of these Goals.

Governments can tie these processes into the preparation of their progress reporting on the Goals to the UN High-Level Political Forum.

Because Multilateral Environmental Agreements are supranational, there is strong potential for international and regional agencies to help countries integrate them into national-level strategies and plans, through for example:

  • Developing guidelines for preparation of coherent national and sectoral strategies that integrate multiple Multilateral Environmental Agreements into priorities of sustainable development, tourism, agriculture and citizen well-being.
  • Providing examples of specific benefits—including quantified benefits—of Multilateral Environmental Agreements implementation to support policy-makers in negotiations with their counterparts from economic development, agriculture, tourism and other departments and ministries on key priorities of national strategies and plans.
  • Developing guidelines for mainstreaming using participatory approaches, including co-learning, training and capacity-building events at national and regional levels with a focus on multiple Multilateral Environmental Agreements to decrease the burden on policy-makers.
  • Creating opportunities to share best practice on strategies, policies and targets relevant for multiple Multilateral Environmental Agreements that can be integrated into diverse strategies while maintaining coherence.

Our findings highlight the importance of sharing views and experiences across different sectors, within specific countries and/or across regions. Translating practical experience in whole-of-government approaches to actions and policy improves the usefulness and usability of strategies, uncovering positive and negative impacts of sectoral policies on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals.

Graciela Metternicht is a Professor in the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Dr Livia Bizikova is Director, Knowledge for Integrated Decisions, at IISD.

This opinion piece was first published on the website of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.