[EVENT] Panel discussion “Sustainable Development Goals – The transformative power of sustainability?”

(Photo: Schader Stiftung)

Does the Agenda 2030 adopted in 2015 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a transformative force for current sustainability policy and politics? This question was discussed by three invited guests: Frank Biermann from the University of Utrecht, Christian Hey from the Hessian Ministry for the Environment, Climate Protection and Agriculture and Kerstin Krellenberg from the Leibniz Institute for Ecological Spatial Development. The event was chaired by Sabine Weiland from the Université Catholique de Lille and Sandra Schwindenhammer from the Justus Liebig University Giessen. The panel discussion was held on 5 March 2020 at the Schader Forum in Darmstadt, Germany, as part of the conference “The United Nations Sustainability Agenda: Concept, origin and impact of Sustainable Development Goals”.

All panelists agreed that there cannot be a single transformation, but multiple transformations at all political levels and in all areas of society are necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The various transformation processes in the political-administrative system, in technology, in business and not least in science require further development by a large number of actors. Global challenges such as climate change show the urgency for political action. Because ultimately, much has to be changed quickly in order to preserve what we currently have: the earth as a protected living space.

It was further emphasized that a central problem was that the UN and the international system of nation states has always been changing. At the same time, the basic structure of the international system has remained almost unchanged since the post-war period of the Second World War. Powerful national governments continue to dominate the discussion. Decisions are now made by consensus with over 190 countries. This system does not appear to be suitable for solving the current challenges and complying with the different planetary load limits.

Nevertheless, the panelists also provided some positive examples of promising transformation processes, such as the Fridays for Future movement, the German energy transition, or pioneering cities like Copenhagen aiming to become climate neutral in the near future, with the SDGs as a guiding principle. Old steering models seem to have become obsolete. The SDGs can be seen as a governance innovation, in that they do not set specific targets through (legally binding) international agreements, but rather provide impulses for transformations through a relatively broad set of targets.

At the same time, the panel guests also emphasized many existing obstacles to progressive transformations towards sustainability. In their view, this includes in particular the polarization of society and the gap between rich and poor. There is a lack of cohesion in society, but this is necessary to achieve the SDGs. This problem is explicitly addressed in SDG-10 (reduce inequalities). The aim is to reduce the wealth gap between the so-called global north and south and at the same time work towards creating equivalent living conditions within countries. SDG-10 is therefore a very big task and at the same time an important key to realizing the 2030 Agenda.

If we take the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs seriously, this means fundamental change in politics, economy and society, which can only be achieved through a combination of political control effects, changes in our way of doing business, technological innovation, further development of value models and awareness for global cohesion and civil society pressure.