Creating the climate for action: Lessons from the UN global goals process

By Sonila Cook, Varad Pande 01 October 2015

Explorer Inge Solheim raises a flag that represents Goal 13: Climate Action in the community closest to the North Pole to support the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Addressing climate change will be even more difficult than agreeing on the 17 global goals, as climate change raises complicated questions. Photo by: United Nations

It took more than four years and skillful backroom negotiation to get to this week’s victory — the ratification of the next global development agenda, the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, that will guide the world for the next 15 years. This achievement is worthy of celebration and offers hope for the next set of international negotiations that have been nearly 20 years in the making — the upcoming climate talks in Paris.

If the path to the global goals was pocked with small potholes, however, the road to a climate agreement is lined with deep craters. Addressing climate change will be even more difficult than agreeing on the 17 global goals, as climate change raises complicated questions: Who is responsible for action? Who pays? Underpinning these questions are charged debates around the right to develop versus the right to pollute.

Yet the global goals and climate change negotiations are inextricably linked — the lives and livelihoods of those living in poverty are at the core of both. Failing in Paris would undermine the nascent global goals and development writ large. Thankfully, we’ve learned important lessons in gaining consensus around the global goals.

Here are four learnings from the global goals that the climate change process should incorporate in the run up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties in Paris and beyond:

1. Combine top-down with bottom-up. 

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were constructed in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” by experts and then put to United Nations member states to adopt, the global goals process was more bottom-up, driven by member states.

Representatives from 70 countries made up the open working group leading to the post-2015 draft agenda and each brought their on-the-ground realities to the conversation and recognized that their countries would be responsible for taking forward their recommendations. In little more than a year they published the final draft with 17 suggested global goals. The final goals and targets emerged from this bottom-up process.

On the other hand, climate change negotiations have been impeded by a mostly top-down approach. Fortunately this is changing as climate change negotiations move to a more hybrid framing with top-down global goals and measurement framework coupled with bottom-up contributions from countries. This is a welcome shift — the global goals experience has demonstrated that bringing in a bottom-up approach is tenable and pragmatic. But bottom-up should not become a race to the bottom. These bottom-up contributions need to be measurably standardized (different countries are currently putting forward different types of contributions) and gradually pressure must be applied on countries to ratchet up commitments needed to achieve the goal of limiting climate change to a 2 degree Celsius rise. How to do this? Perhaps institute a formal “reflect and review” mechanism every few years to encourage countries to increase the ambition of their contributions.

2. Balance inclusivity with deal-making. 

The global goals built on contributions from a broad array of stakeholders, with a strong emphasis on inclusivity throughout the negotiation process. Ultimately, it was the member states that inked the final details, but leadership by civil society stakeholders such as ONE, which crowd-sourced the public voice on the global goals, and the U.N. Foundation, which consulted civil society representatives in different regions, was a critical component. This level of inclusivity in the process seems to be missing from the climate change negotiations, and could bring great value.

Inclusivity does, however, make it harder to make trade-offs, as the global goals’ many goals and targets (17 and 169, respectively) demonstrate. While the climate change negotiations must bring in this inclusivity to generate buy-in, the more complex give-and-take nature of climate negotiations requires balancing that inclusivity with opportunistic deal-making to arrive at an agreement. This has yielded impact in the past — for example, the now famous US-BASIC country meeting at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, where the informal negotiation between President Barack Obama and the heads of states of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China set the stage for the Copenhagen Accord.

3. Have strong political champions.

The global goals proved that public champions are crucial, especially early in the process. The U.N. secretary-general bolstered the profile of the Global Goals process through the inspired use of highly visible panels, such as the Global Sustainability Panel, and the High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda co-chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. The participation of influential political figures, academics, and private-sector leaders on the post-2015 panel infused fresh ideas, captivated public attention and concentrated political will around the need for ambitious global goals. While the panel was initially regarded with some suspicion by member states, it proved an invaluable pre-cursor to the open working group’s draft — both as a source of expertise, and to anchor the discussion at a high level of ambition.

Recognizing that the Paris COP21 will serve as a — hopefully fruitful — starting point rather than a final resolution, there is still room to launch a substantive discussion on the intractable topics that will continue to remain beyond Paris, such as practical means of raising ambition, ensuring implementation, technology cooperation, channeling finance, harnessing markets, etc. How about a panel of experts appointed by the secretary-general to take the COP21 agreement forward by drafting a road map for 2016-2020, within six months, for member states consideration? Member states would clearly have the final say, but the panel could put on the table a range of pragmatic yet ambitious proposals.

4. Make steady progress.

The road to agreement on the global goals was difficult, but there was steady progress with minivictories along the way. Climate negotiations need several such minivictories. The reality is that our choice in Paris is not between a great agreement and a weak agreement, but between a weak agreement and none at all. In our opinion, a weak agreement would be an important victory. A weak agreement — with all key stakeholders involved providing firm (even if relatively unambitious) commitments and agreeing on a road map, will at least provide a framework and a starting point from which to build upon. The review mechanism mentioned earlier can then allow the factoring in, on a regular basis, of our continually evolving reality, the latest advances in science and technologies, etc.

While we celebrate the formalization of the next generation of development goals, we need to recognize the tenuous nature of this success. Important negotiations lie just ahead and the climate talks in Paris are too important to fail. By centering on sustainability, the global goals mark a giant leap forward. Paris will demonstrate whether political leaders are truly committed to that sustainability and able to turn the global goals’ momentum into actual progress.

The world community has shown tremendous resolve in formalizing the next generation of development goals. Paris will the next litmus test.

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About the authors

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Sonila Cook

Sonila Cook is a partner at Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm dedicated to global development. Prior to joining Dalberg, Sonila worked for McKinsey & Company, where she served organizations in the financial and media industries and the non-profit sector. She holds an MBA from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard University.


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Varad Pande

Varad Pande is an associate partner in the Mumbai office of Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm dedicated to global development. Before coming to Dalberg, he was special adviser to India’s Minister for Rural Development and Environment and Forests, where he drove the agenda on sustainable livelihoods, water and sanitation, financial inclusion, environment, and climate change.


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