x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

How to reach the sustainable development goals, two at a time

Development assistance can be geared to multiple aims, writes Mari Luomi

How can the international community achieve all these goals by 2030 if we are struggling with even the more fundamental goals of ending poverty and hunger? AFP
How can the international community achieve all these goals by 2030 if we are struggling with even the more fundamental goals of ending poverty and hunger? AFP

There are 17 global sustainable development goals, or SDGs, in the 2015 UN development agenda adopted by nations to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. How can the international community achieve all this by 2030 if we are struggling with even the more fundamental goals of ending poverty and hunger? One way is to devise policies that target more than one of the goals at once. For globally integrated countries like the UAE, food security and combating climate change are two areas were these kinds of "two-SDGs-with-one-stone" policies could potentially generate multiple benefits, both for the UAE and its trade partners.

Next week marks the second anniversary of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A number of events are taking place in New York to mark the occasion, in parallel with the United Nations General Assembly. At the core of the 2030 agenda are the SDGs which, as the mantra goes, are "universal, indivisible and interlinked". In other words, the SDGs apply to all countries, their achievement depends on each other and there are important interactions between the goals.

The question of how different policies aimed at achieving different SDGs interact with each other is drawing increasing attention from United Nations agencies, researchers and policymakers worldwide. There is a growing realisation that there can be important synergies between the goals, as there can be trade-offs.

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Policies aimed at supporting the second SDG to "end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture", for example, are likely to also make strong contributions to the first SDG on "ending poverty in all its forms everywhere".

Agriculture and climate change, too, are interlinked in important ways, as are the global policy goals of food security and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Increasing resilience to climate change in developing countries can support food security, and reducing emissions from agriculture will contribute to efforts to avoid catastrophic global warming.

While many actions to support the SDGs can benefit the achievement of others, there are also important trade-offs that should be avoided. For example, increasing agricultural productivity to support food security without regard to environmental sustainability could hinder efforts to combat both poverty and climate change through increasing the climate vulnerability of the poor. Another well-known example is the danger of increased biofuel production (aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions) reducing the amount of land available for food crops.

As governments worldwide accelerate their efforts to integrate the SDGs into their national development strategies and policies, it will be crucial to take into account these various interlinkages, which can either reinforce or undermine each other. Understanding these interlinkages will allow governments to pursue more efficient policies, including foreign policies.

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In the UAE, a national committee on SDGs comprising 15 government entities has been tasked with developing a national SDG implementation plan and supporting its delivery at national and global levels. Research that focuses on the sustainable development priorities of the UAE and its partners can play a role in supporting this work.

A recent study published by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy identified a number of measures that resource-rich but food-import-dependent countries, including the UAE, could consider adopting in order to maximise the impact of their foreign policies in the areas of food security and climate action.

The oil-exporting Arab Gulf states are important players in global food security through their roles in food trade, agro-investments, agricultural development assistance and food aid. They also have a high stake in global efforts to tackle climate change given their high reliance on food produced in other countries.

A recent study conducted by the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative found that a number of the UAE’s key staples and most of the countries it imports the majority of its food from are highly vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.

The study, conducted at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, proposed that the Gulf states could achieve important synergies from incorporating knowledge of the interlinkages between food security, low-emission development and climate resilience into their foreign trade, investment and aid policies. It looked at international best practices and identified a number of "two-goals-in-one-stone" measures that the region’s governments could explore.

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In the area of food security policy-planning, these measures could include further investments in climate risk modelling in the food sector and systematic monitoring of global food markets and overseas agricultural investments for short- and long-term risks.

In foreign trade, food-importing countries could proactively support the climate resilience of their trade partner’s agricultural production, for example, through bilateral dialogues or working groups. Importing countries could also actively source food items that are sustainably produced and climate-friendly, and facilitate access to their organic food markets.

Agro-investors could be encouraged to adopt at least the climate-change relevant aspects of voluntary international principles for tenure and agricultural investment. Governments could set up dedicated clearinghouses to support the mainstreaming of climate change considerations into current and planned agro-investments.

Finally, development assistance can be geared to support multiple SDGs. At the project level, development aid could be used to directly fund climate-smart agricultural production and related research and technology development and transfer.

Addressing the 17 SDGs may seem like a daunting task, which it is. As United Nations deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed recently noted, these goals are part of the most ambitious agenda produced by the UN and its member states in the last three to four decades. But as understanding of the SDGs’ interdependence increases and as governments integrate this knowledge into their national and foreign policies, this task may become more manageable.

Dr Mari Luomi is a senior research fellow at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy

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