Seven points for taking the Global Goals from words to action

The UN Agenda 2030 is very ambitious and comprehensive. But the goals require clear national and political positions. Therefore, the government must lead the work of translating the global goals into a concrete action plan that suits Sweden, write researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The UN's Agenda 2030 will guide global work for sustainable development, in both rich and poor countries. Few governments, however, seem to have given much thought to what it will mean in practice.

Our research team at the Stockholm Environment Institute has analyzed challenges and opportunities for translating the sustainable development goals into a national action plan for Sweden.

We realized early on the difficulty in assessing the significance of the goals for Sweden, above all for the following reasons: completely regardless of our competence in sustainable development, an objective assessment can not be made because the 169 sub-goals (targets) falling within the 17 overall objectives (goals) are formulated in a way that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

If the Global Sustainability Goals are to make a difference, we first need to find out what Sweden must achieve - what development and sustainability challenges remain and through which measures can Sweden best contribute to these being addressed at national level, in other countries and globally?

If you scratch the surface of the goal formulations, you discover that they are deeply political. How a national action plan is formulated and subsequently implemented should therefore be led by the government in inclusive forms with relevant actors.

Here are seven insights from our work aimed at decision-makers who will formulate Sweden's national measures for Agenda 2030.

  1. Find out what the goals mean in your country

On the surface, the sub-goals are about clear and specific areas. But when it comes to what they mean in practice, for example at national or regional level, it is not really that simple. Most can be interpreted in different ways.

Many of the sub-goals are international in scope or express only a global level of ambition. Others specify a document but no clear result to which the document should contribute. Therefore, it is not just a matter of selecting which goals and sub-goals are to be prioritized in your country, but also of formulating concrete issues around the challenges they raise and setting an appropriate level of ambition for improvement.

  1. Break down the sub-goals

There are few goals that pertain to a single policy challenge. The goals contain several sub-goals and the sub-goals in turn often include several dimensions for which the trends differ. For example, sub-goal 8.5 contains questions about both employment in different groups of the population, working conditions and equal pay for equal work; and sub-goal 3.4 contains a wide range of diseases, mental health and well-being, and both prevention and treatment.

For other sub-goals, such as 8.4 which, among other things, concern the issue of decoupling between economic growth and environmental impact, the trends look different if we focus on developments within Sweden or include how Sweden affects other countries' environment or the global climate. Making an overall assessment of an intermediate goal is therefore problematic and the intermediate goals also need to be broken down for a more detailed analysis.

Some dimensions of an intermediate goal, for which trends and actions look completely different, will be more relevant in some countries, other dimensions in other countries.

Some dimensions require more work to be achieved, others less, and different guidelines and measures may be required to deal with different dimensions of one and the same sub-goal. The national interpretation of development goals should therefore focus on the policy area and the issues raised in the given context should not be limited to the target areas decided at the global level. At the national level, objectives can span several of the global sustainability goals.

  1. Specify the level of ambition and enable follow-up

Measuring progress towards 169 global development goals, many of which cover policy areas where data availability is deficient, is already a difficulty. But, even with the best possible information, we can only go a long way in assessing how close a country is to achieving the global goals. In the global framework, the level of ambition is often expressed in words such as 'promoting X' or 'significantly improving Y', which simply cannot be measured but are often subjective political interpretations.

A great deal of work therefore remains to specify at the national level the level of ambition and to design relevant indicators to follow up progress. The global indicators that are formulated will probably be too general to effectively follow up the specific Swedish initiatives.

  1. Secure the political decisions

Once the areas that require political interpretation have been identified, the question remains of how decisions about priorities, levels of ambition and measures are made.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility lies with the government, but according to Agenda 2030, the decision-making process must be "democratic, advisory and transparent". The actors that will play a key role in implementation should therefore be involved - including actors at the municipal level, in the private sector, and civil society. Relevant research institutions should also be involved through an advisory role.

  1. Define a national vision and story

Agenda 2030 is about a global vision, but all countries start from different starting points and will undoubtedly be in different situations with separate conditions also in 2030. To define a national vision and story for Agenda 2030 that can motivate the Swedish priorities and level of ambition should therefore be an integral part of the process of interpreting global goals.

  1. Do not work with development goals in isolation

The global goals are about areas that are central to the political and public discourse. Development goals should therefore not be treated as a separate and parallel agenda to other policies. Policy development and implementation responsibilities should be integrated as much as possible into existing policy processes and plans that may consequently need to be revised. Of course, it is required that someone is also responsible for a review of the agenda in its entirety, preferably the Prime Minister's Office or a similar function.

  1. Do not forget compliance with the guidelines

Another reason for integrating Agenda 2030 into existing policy processes and structures is to minimize the risk that policies and measures in one area will undermine progress in another area.

Integrating Agenda 2030 into existing policy processes is an excellent opportunity to review coherence and cooperation between different policy areas, as well as between national, bilateral and international policy levels.

The process leading up to Agenda 2030 proved to be surprisingly effective in uniting the countries of the world around sustainable development. The challenge now is to translate that consensus into strong national action plans with concrete measures. All to integrate social, economic and environmental challenges, further raise the level of ambition and achieve the goals by 2030.

Caspar Trimmer, Nina Weitz, Åsa Persson and Måns Nilsson

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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