Strengthening Multilateral Diplomacy and Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is by definition extremely wide in scope. It could embrace any number of multilateral agreements above and beyond the process currently under way for defining post-2015 sustainable development goals. Issues that are being addressed in diverse forums on climate change, international trade, ozone protection, conflict prevention, and population, among others, all contribute in some way to sustainable development. Similarly, multilateral diplomacy has been taking place at several levels—based on geographies, natural resource boundaries, common economic interests, development status, and specific sectors—with varying degrees of success.

The United Nations has been spearheading two major ongoing diplomatic efforts: to define a sustainable development agenda for the world, and to protect the planet from the deleterious effects of climate change. Both issues build on decades of concern and concerted efforts to address them; in addition, they are interlinked intrinsically. Both also are of universal interest and implication; yet, the paths that they have followed have been different, and have been based on different structures and the nature of participation of all the stakeholders, leaving room for various interpretations on gaps and success factors.

The ongoing negotiations on sustainable development goals (SDGs) are building on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the articulation and acceptance of which have been the subject of significant controversy and debate. The MDGs, though non-binding in nature and criticized for having a poor analytical base, over a period of time have found great legitimacy and ownership. The progress towards achieving these goals, which can be considered as aspirational ones, has been impressive, while also decidedly uneven, in both form and substance. Having said that, the increasing pressures of climate change as well as the interconnected nature of the solutions and adaptations, other environmental stresses and the financial situation in the world have resulted in a call for expanding the scope of the MDGs in the post-2015 era to cover these issues and aim for goals that would address sustainable development in the context of all its three pillars (social, economic and environmental). As such, the new framework being developed under the SDG process would be universally applicable and not limited to focusing solely on the challenges of developing countries.

The process of defining the scope and goals for the post-2015 era, with an issue coverage wider than that in climate change negotiations and with many more stakeholders, started as late as 2010, and the SDG process began only in 2012 after Rio+20. Yet, good progress has been made in converging these two tracks of sustainable development and narrowing the goal definitions to the current count of 17. This was made possible through the establishment of a 30-member open working group, with each seat shared by 1 to 4 member States, and by a process that was inclusive and open to all stakeholders, including to civil society and scientific organizations. Still, the most sensitive discussions on how to achieve the SDGs have yet to take place, and the results of these will be critical in determining the level and universality of success in achieving them.

The negotiations on climate change, although much more controversial and much further away from a consensus on a target, are in a similarly crucial position with the key milestone of 2015 fast approaching. At the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar (COP18/ CMP8), Governments agreed to:1

  • speedily work toward a universal climate change agreement covering all countries from 2020, to be adopted by 2015
  • find ways to scale up efforts before 2020 beyond the existing pledges to curb emissions

The twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), to be held in December 2015, will also be the first following the full release of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has warned the world that the “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, human influence on the climate system is clear, and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”.2 At the Climate Summit in New York on 23 September 2014, IPCC Chairman, Dr. R.K. Pachauri, said “Three key messages have emerged from the report:

“One: Human influence on the climate system is clear—and clearly growing.

“Two: We must act quickly and decisively if we want to avoid increasingly destructive outcomes.

“Three: We have the means to limit climate change and build a better future.”3

Thus, the need for sustainable development and the goals we need to work towards are clear. So is the need to work towards limiting the global rise in temperatures to less than 2°C while at the same time strengthening adaptation measures essential to confront climate change already under way. The challenge we face is: How can we make this happen? The question is not trivial given the huge disparities in the world in various developmental parameters, including income levels, and in the capacities of both individuals and institutions. The ability to arrive at a consensus is made more daunting due to the contentious issue of known historical responsibilities versus likely future contributions to further climate change with respect to the base year of 1990. Given the universal nature of these subjects, the role of multilateral diplomacy would be crucial in breaking the dead- locks that already exist or are likely to arise.

Of course, there are key differences between these two topics of international negotiation:

  1. SDGs and the Post-2015 Development Agenda would be adopted in the form of a “soft law” instrument (a resolution of the General Assembly) which States would not be required to sign and ratify. There would not be any legal obligation placed on the States, whereas for climate change what is needed, though seemingly impossible to achieve, is a “hard law” instrument with binding legal obligations. States may be more willing to accommodate other views in the former rather than in the latter case.
  2. SDGs would be in the form of goals, whereas any post-Kyoto climate agreement would be in the form of actions and commitments.  The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has already set the goal; now, the time is for actions to achieve that goal.

With this in mind, what could have been some of the strengths and weaknesses of the multilateral processes around these two topics that can guide recommendations for the remaining few months before the critical meetings on SDGs and climate change?4


  • Huge stakeholder participation

There has been a growing and more inclusive participation by all stakeholder groups in the effort to arrive at a consensus on global goals and efforts.

  • Recognition of “our common future”

On both issues there has been an increasing recognition of the need to act in order to have a more sustainable society and planet, as well as of the fact that in this globalized world everybody has a stake in mitigating and adapting to climate change and in ensuring that “no one is left behind”.

Unfortunately, one can identify many more weaknesses:


  • The formation of plurilateral groups in the multilateral process led to a hardening of stances and the creation of quasi-bilateral negotiation conditions that turned adversarial rather than collaborative.
  • Positions of countries within these plurilateral groups were not so much driven by protecting overall national interests as they were influenced by powerful vested interest groups.
  • Principles accepted and applied at the national level, such as the precautionary principle, and historical responsibilities or even common but differentiated responsibilities were suddenly found wanting at an international or global level in terms of operationalization.
  • Despite huge investments in the science of climate change and the challenges of unsustainable development, negotiations proceeded for decades in utter disdain of the same.
  • Insufficient efforts were made by States to properly educate and sensitize civil society on responsible behaviour and the consequences of continuing on a business-as-usual basis.
  • Very little attention has been given to developing research and institutional capacities in developing countries to better contribute to evidence-based policymaking, or to the design, delivery and implementation of sustainability solutions. For Governments, the prospect of dealing with the consequences of climate change on top of pervasive developmental challenges already existing in such countries, thereby transforming quality-of-life issues into existential challenges for the very near future, are daunting to say the least.
  • There exists a suspicion of irrational brinkmanship on the part of developed countries attempting to force emerging economies into commensurate action on the basis of greater vulnerabilities, to protect narrow competitive interests. This irrationality arises from knowing that their adaptive capacity is higher and from underestimating the higher magnitudes of the economic costs of climate change impacts and the lower resilience at a human as opposed to economic or infrastructural levels.

A Way Forward

Many more such arguments can be put forward to highlight the challenges that international negotiations have faced in recent times. For the purposes of this short article, however, it is useful to try to identify a diplomatic way forward in what seems to be an impasse on climate negotiations and the potential obstacles to achieving the SDGs. Without underestimating the complexity of such negotiations or trivializing the challenges, negotiators may wish to experiment with some innovative methods to see if some breakthrough pathways can be created.

  • Mock negotiation sessions may be organized between international groups representing various segments of society to see if they could arrive at a consensus on the way forward to meet a given climate or sustainable development challenge. Structured sessions between representatives of financial groups, industrial groups, technology suppliers, Model United Nations forums, research and academic groups could be quickly organized, giving them the explicit task of defining a proposal to meet global goals through their own lens. Each proposal would need to define both the pathways and the mechanisms that each group believes would lead them to a desired outcome. Each sectoral group could be supported by a relevant group of experts sharing both scientific knowledge and negotiating positions.
  • A much higher engagement by the financial sector in the process is required to arrive at an exposition of potential instruments that would help address the challenge of financing the climate actions of developing countries while having the least financial burden for the developed countries.
  • A major initiative on strengthening in-country capacities—institutional and human—to deal with transformation pathways is urgently needed to help build confidence in finding and implementing solutions for both climate change and sustainable development. Not doing so, and instead forcing solutions through economic might in plurilateral settings, could exacerbate the challenge of sustainable development.
  • The issue of “stranded costs” must be addressed head-on and solutions found.
  • Governments must undertake in an open and transparent manner an assessment of the impact of climate action (or inaction) not just on current but also on future generations and economies.

To sum up, we need to move away from the defensive approach adopted in the last few years, which has focused on blocking any affirmative actions, to an approach determined to find a way forward for the common good of Planet Earth.


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4    Please note that these may not apply uniformly to both SDGs and climate change.