Towards Environmental Sustainability in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Three Transformative Levers

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Towards Environmental Sustainability in the Post-2015 Development Agenda:  Three Transformative Levers

Written by Alvin Leong (LLM, JD), Fellow at the Pace Center for Environmental Legal Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected]

First posted by, a site facilitated by the Overseas Development Institute.

The co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have recently released a “zero draft” of the SDGs.[1] Looking at the proposed targets through an environmental lens, we can see potential “levers” for transformative change, i.e., there are specific instruments that can leverage systemic transformations in order to achieve environmental sustainability.

These “transformative levers” (that are not intended to be exhaustive) can be framed as:

– Change the metrics

– Change the model

– Change the mandate

Change the metrics: The post-2015 development agenda should recognize that current metrics centered on GDP are flawed, particularly in not accounting for environmental assets (natural capital) and costs (externalities).

The zero draft includes the following targets:

Section 8.16: explore the possibility of a broader system of capital accounting looking beyond GDP and incorporating social, human and environmental capital

Section 17.30: by 2030, countries progressively introduce broader measures of progress beyond GDP into national accounting, with supportive statistical capacity building in developing countries

These two targets are duplicative and should be merged into one. The first target is vague – “explore the possibility” – and is not time-bound. The second target is better crafted but the combination of “2030” and “progressively” suggests that limited action could take place during the 15 years after the agenda is adopted. Member states should consider changing “2030” to “2020” so that methodologies can be progressively introduced earlier, and inserting the words “incorporating social, human and environmental capital” from Section 8.16 into Section 17.30 after the words “beyond GDP”. Broader measures should also consider the concept of human wellbeing and happiness.[2]

Change the model: The post-2015 development agenda should recognize that current models of economic growth based on highly inefficient resource use and excessive consumption are defective, and that the world urgently needs to decouple economic growth from resource consumption and environmental degradation.

The zero draft includes this target:

Section 12.3: significantly improve the resource efficiency of economic activities and decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, with all countries taking action, developed countries taking the lead, and developing countries following a similar pattern taking into account their development needs and capabilities

Member states should consider how to make this target more specific, measurable and time-bound, i.e., by 20xx, achieve a certain percentage increase in resource productivity (reducing the rate of use of resources per unit of economic activity).[3]Decoupling also means being able to increase economic output while reducing negative environmental impacts.[3] An ambitious target could lead the way towards radical changes in technology, products and services, and consumer lifestyles.[4] In implementation, platforms should be put in place for knowledge and experience (best practice) sharing and mutual learning, in addition to finance, technology transfer and capacity building.

Change the mandate: The post-2015 development agenda should recognize that the mandate of business has to go beyond mere profit maximization, and that the value system of business needs to include social and environmental values. This is not a utopian vision — leading business thinkers have, among other ideas, proposed the principle of “shared value”: “The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se. This will drive the next wave of innovation and productivity growth in the global economy.”[5]

The zero draft includes this target:

Section 17.39: establish and effectively implement a multilateral code of conduct for multinational corporations to secure social and environmental responsibility and accountability

This target should not be limited to “multinational” corporations and should be made time-bound (“by 2020”). Member states should consider inserting the words “incorporate social and environmental values and” before the word “secure” and also consider how to build effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure that “shared value” is indeed created. Civil society has called for strong accountability frameworks,[6] including proposing that the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) play a key role.[6]

If these three levers – to change the capital accounting metrics, the economic model and the business mandate – can be reified by these specific targets and, with further sharpening and refinement, implemented within the framework of the post-2015 development agenda, they could help effect true transformative change because they go to the heart of certain deeply flawed human systems that operate today – systems that by their mere amoral operation, and not necessarily through depraved human motives, result in extraordinary environmental degradation.  Multi-stakeholder support and cooperation, from member states, the private sector and civil society, will be critical to unlocking the systemic transformations that will be progressively required in order to achieve environmental sustainability and ultimately human wellbeing and happiness in the future we want.


[1] See Introduction and Proposed Goals and Targets on Sustainable Development for the Post 2015 Development Agenda,

[2] See, for e.g., Defining a New Economic Paradigm: The Report of the High-Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness (Bhutan 2012),

[3] For background, see Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth, UNEP (2011); also Decoupling 2 Technologies, Opportunities and Policy Options, UNEP (2014).

[4] See, for e.g., the work of the Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption, Brazil.

[5] Professor Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business School. “The next transformation of business thinking lies in the principle of shared value.” Harvard Business School, Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness.  Creating shared value goes beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Ibid.

[6] See, for e.g., Presentation by Roberto Bissio at the United Nations General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on “Elements for a Monitoring and Accountability Framework for the Post-2015 Development Agenda” (May 1, 2014).